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They sent me a salwar-kameez
glistening like an orange split open,
embossed slippers, gold and black
‘Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan’
Sat saturated in an English classroom in the north of England was where I first read the opening stanzas of Moniza Alvi’s Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan’: gunmetal clouds rolling in off the rugby pitches, the whole prefab sweating sleet through the wall, the jewel-coloured fabrics of Alvi’s brand new salwar-kameez seemed a world away from the wet woollen blazer that coloured my early understanding of it. The juxtaposition seemed alien to me, the sullen and scarred face of an English November versus the stained-glass shine of Alvi’s gifts from Lahore, and the disjunct left me feeling very distant from the narrative- part of a diametrical opposition, sat at one pole and looking in vain toward the other.
When the exam rolled around, I wrote on Carol Ann Duffy instead.
Although it would take me a shameful ten years to realise it, in evoking that disjunct, Alvi’s Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan is a piece of masterful storytelling. Cautiously, carefully, born of half-histories and an almost frustrated duality, Alvi chronicles the ways in which she moves through her adolescence in gifted Pakistani clothes:
didn’t impress the schoolfriend
who sat on my bed, asked to see
my weekend clothes.
But often I admired the mirror-work,
tried to glimpse myself
in the miniature
glass circles, recall the story
how the three of us
sailed to England.
‘Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan’
It’s a poetry born of polarities; the quiet, grey of Alvi’s Hertfordshire home and the alien shock of colour that the ‘candy-striped glass bangles’, the ‘apple-green sari’ and the glittering gold of her mother’s filigree bring with them across the sea. It’s cloying, almost, unwelcome- ‘I longed for denim and corduroy / my costume clung to me and I was aflame / I couldn’t rise up out of it’s fire, half-English’. The stark contrast of these two oppositions- the gardens and wastelands, the denim and corduroy that bleed in from the narrator’s half-Englishnessand the seemingly inescapable, vivid colours of Pakistan- are at the heart and centre of Moniza Alvi’s The Country at My Shoulder, the collection from which the poem came.
Moniza Alvi left Lahore at the age of three months old in 1954, arriving in England with her Pakistani father and English mother and no memories of the country that she was born in. The dreamlike nature of Alvi’s Pakistan in these poems is, therefore, unsurprising: surreal, vibrant wordscapes of a land remembered through histories that aren’t her own, like the clothing, the camel-skin lamp and the photographs of Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan create a strange, almost childlike vision of a place that exists only in the space between one identity and the next.
This Pakistan is a shifting conglomerate force of colour and sound within the landscape of her poetry. Like the swallowing, flaming ‘costume’ of Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan, the country seems to represent a cacophony for the senses, a world away from the ‘grimly ornamental’ English gardens she describes in Hydrangeas; the landscape of the Indian subcontinent a feast that transcends the senses. She wonders at how ‘melted ghee made lakes, golden rivers,’ and how she ‘Tasted the landscape, customs of my father’s country – it’s fever biting on a chilli’, the landscape a bold, bright, irreverent presence, almost more sensation than substance. In one poem it appears benevolent, the next, a crushing weight that threatens to overcome the narrator, their sense of identity and sense of where they belong. ‘There’s a country at my shoulder / growing larger – soon it will burst / rivers will spill out, run down my chest’, the poem for which the collection is named intones, the poet struggling to bear the weight of her hybrid identity. No matter how she tries to evade it- ‘I try to shake the dust from the country / The country has become my body, I can’t break bits off-’ the threat of her otherness appears to complicate it, alter it with her very presence as she transitions from one piece of verse to the next. The poem ends as she pictures the dam breaking, Pakistan’s rivers of the first stanza becoming something at once alien and home-grown as she foresees a shuddering end: ‘I water the country with English rain / cover it with English words. Soon it will burst, or fall like a meteor.’
The allusion of national landscape to body comes powerfully and often in the latter half of The Country at My Shoulder. In the poem The Sari, again, Alvi sees Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent through the lens of its clothing, observing from above how the journey she took as a child pans out on a world map:
All the people unravelled a sari.
It stretched from Lahore to Hyderabad,
wavered across the Arabian Sea
shot through with stars
fluttering with sparrows and quails.
They threaded it with roads,
Undulations of land.
They wrapped and wrapped me in it
whispering Your body is your country.
The statement is half-comforting, half terrifying- although she is swathed in the sari of her journey, carrying the landscape she was born in with her in her own flesh and blood, it is possible to read the poem’s final line as a grim caveat: your body is your country, the unknown people whisper as they swaddle the infant narrator in the fabric of the land. Your body is your country, not the clothing, not the fabric; and alienated from what came before and what came after. Whilst the body is fundamental, fabric might be shed.
These kinds of anxieties characterise Alvi’s poetry from the early 1990s as her narrators navigate the sea and the river of an unusual British Asian experience; neither being a first- nor a second-generation immigrant but something in-between. Pakistan, in these poems, is Prospero’s island- fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile- at once inhospitable and welcoming, something familiar and alien, a living presence within her and somehow cut off, unable to truly communicate except in the pictograms and glyphs she finds in photographs, histories, and a peacock-blue salwar-kameez.
And at the centre of these poems lies something else, something even more vital to Alvi’s experience, as intrinsic to The Country at my Shoulder as the elm tree to Constable or Wessex to Hardy: there is a powerful, almost blinding pull back to Pakistan that emerges in these poems. It feels inevitable, omniscient within the living histories and snapshots that she spins, despite her half-Englishness. ‘In my dreams I trawl towards a brilliant sun,’ she writes in The Draught. ‘A trap of bones is set about my neck. And the draught? The great draught is blowing me to my birthplace.’ The scorching pull of a country barely remembered, seen only in the photographs of Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan becomes a driving force within Alvi’s collection, a landscape created from personal mythology and her own ancestry- a trap of bones- made sentient, and moving to beckon across the air and sea. The oscillation from alien to familiar, mine to not mine of Pakistan within these poems displays a potent, unsubtle compulsion to find out for herself, to explore this connection in a way that cannot be complicated by issues of identity, or visions of the self: she is drawn to the Pakistani landscape physically, to experience it first-hand regardless of any preconceived belonging or not-belonging.
It’s The Country at My Shoulder as opposed to The Country at My Side; something past-tense perhaps, an amalgamation of myth and history augmented through the archaeology of gifts she receives, the letters she sends and photographs she isn’t a part of.
Alvi’s England is different. It is easy to read the collection as an enduring love-song to her own Pakistani heritage, bound about in living aunts and buried bones and dusty sepia visions of a continent half-remembered, but there is a secondary landscape within the collection that further illustrates the ways in which it explores the hybridity of the self through her narrator. If Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan, The Sari and The Country at My Shoulder are about a crisis of belonging, poems like Spring on the Hillside and The Garden are about the items and places that evoke a that duality from the other side, the perennial Englishness of the Hertfordshire town where she grew up.
These landscapes are populated by all the flora and fauna of an almost Edwardian vision of a country garden: verdant, sleepy and so different from the pull, the power and fascination of Pakistan as it exists in the narrator’s mind, they’re a strange oppositional force within these identity stories that seem at odds with the other landscape. Here we find ‘bushes alive with cabbage whites’, ‘hydrangeas massing heavy as cannonballs’, ‘mushrooms sturdy as tables’ and wastelands carpeted in willow-herb where she hides and plays as a child. There’s also more than a little dash of Ken Loach in there too, augmenting these quiet turn-of-the-century gardens and their little homeland idyll- in the poem Neighborhood we see a vision of England that moves away from the Enid Blyton landscape of plum trees and hollyhocks, focusing in on the minutiae of life in an individual neighbourhood.
Next door they were always fighting
calling each other Mr and Mrs
the names barking away
at the back of our chimney.
There were families with bitten
trickles of children
who pushed prams full of babies
junk and little dogs, smothered
and dressed in baby clothes.
These vistas might be dramatically different from the visions of Lahore, the ‘brilliant sun’ and the breaking dam of The Draught and The Country at My Shoulder, but they’re no less her own. These are the lieux de memoire of an English childhood, hollyhocks and dogs in prams, wastelands and tawny skies, something just as vital to Alvi’s narrator as the metaphorical sari that stretches all the way from Lahore to Hyderabad as she travels away from Pakistan as a child.
Alvi’s collection is a sea of conflicting landscape identities: the narrator in the salwar-kameez, the narrator swaddled in the sari, the narrator buckling under the weight of the country at her shoulder that threatens to burst- all of them wonder about the politics of belonging to something so unknown and yet so familiar and vital that it exists within her own body, potent and all-consuming, almost threatening to swallow her whole despite (or because of) her half-Englishness. She is constantly English and not; of Lahore and of Hatfield, an uneasy double identity that gives these works their unique character and blistering sense of hybridity.
And still, she never once threatens to dilute one with the other. There is no poem where Alvi makes peace with the experience of being both at once- or perhaps sometimes neither one nor the other. Her schoolfriend in Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan still can’t relate to her colourful salwar-kameez, each element of Pakistan is a shock of colour against England’s Edwardian gardens- and these landscapes never bleed into each other; even in The Sari they’re still at either end of the garment as she’s swaddled in it, bodily connected but always at a polarity as she moves through these landscapes simultaneously. It’s less England and Pakistan than it is an England and Pakistan of the mind, each a paracosm of the ephemera that Alvi connects with it- plum trees, voices behind the chimney breast, wastelands covered in willow-herb, and a bursting dam, the sear of a chilli and the oranges, blues and greens of her gifted clothes from her aunts in Lahore.
These two created worlds exist on the same plane, but are diametrically opposed for Alvi, two landscapes present about her body that appear never destined to meet across a distance that spans more than sea and air. The allure of the image of the Indian subcontinent is raw, seen plainly in these poems as these landscapes create an allegory for those conflicting identities, as she voices the frustration and confusion of an immigrant experience from an era where the global interconnectedness of the modern day had yet to emerge and the other side of the world was, truly, the other side of the world.
Not long after the publication of The Country at My Shoulder, Moniza Alvi visited Pakistan for the first time since she was a child. Her next collection of poems, A Bowl of Warm Air, builds on the precipices found in The Sari, Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan and The Draught, and explores what she finds in the country she was born in. It’s another candid, searing take on belonging and the complexity of a British immigrant experience, and her narrator begins to connect with a landscape exterior to her created Pakistani landscape, she begins to reach out toward what she thought previously cloying or alien, forging different connections, no less real but more earthly and tangible than her young narrator’s map of colour and silk.
An unknown country crept between
my toes, threw an ocean behind each eye…
I’d held out my arms to kingfishers and tigers
I’d sipped each moment like a language.
The Laughing Moon.