Monday, 19 October 2009

Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan

Moniza Alvi was born of mixed parentage, her father being Pakistani and her mother English. She was born in Pakistan but moved to England at a young age. The poem 'Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan' expresses her confusion in her search for her identity. The traditional clothes that her aunts sent her from Pakistan are a symbol of a part of her, but only a part of her, and one that she does not feel entirely comfortable with.

The first stanza describes the clothes that were sent: two 'salwar kameez' outfits, which consist of a tunic dress and trousers. The beautiful vivid colours are described, the second one with the simile 'glistening like an orange split open'. Alvi tells us that the style of the salwar trousers changed, just as fashions in England change: they were 'broad and stiff, / then narrow.' The aunts also sent oriental pointed slippers, described as 'embossed', 'gold and black', as though they were very decorative. There were also bangles that were 'Candy-striped', but Alvi relates how these broke and 'drew blood'; this seems to be symbolic perhaps of the fact that her life in Pakistan was cut short. The first stanza ends with a description of a green, silver-bordered sari that the writer received as a teenager.

The second stanza relates how Alvi tried on these clothes – 'each silken-satin top' - but felt 'alien' in her sitting-room. There is a definite sense here that the two cultures conflicted. Alvi seems to have felt a degree of inferiority when she says 'I could never be as lovely / as those clothes'. She wanted the 'denim and corduroy' that were typical of England. She describes how the Pakistani clothes 'clung' to her and uses the metaphor 'I was aflame', but, unlike the phoenix, she could not rise from the fire, and thus could not take on the Pakistani identity. She contrasts herself with one of her aunts, emphasising that she herself was 'half English, / unlike Aunt Jamila'.

The shorter third stanza focuses on a camel-skin lamp owned by her parents. Here again, there is a conflict of ideas: Alvi wanted the lamp, but looking at it in her room she simultaneously thought of the cruelty involved in making the lamp and admired its colours which she describes with the simile 'like stained glass'.

Stanza four switches to a comment on Alvi's English mother who 'cherished her jewellery'. The jewellery was Indian, and it was stolen from the family car; this perhaps symbolises the fact that the mother did not belong to the Asian culture. Alvi then alludes once more to the Pakistani clothes that were 'radiant' in her wardrobe. This stanza ends with the irony that the aunts who sent the traditional clothes themselves wanted 'cardigans / from Marks and Spencers'.

Alvi then relates how a visiting schoolfriend of hers did not appreciate the salwar kameez or sari when shown them. This leads into Alvi's expression of her admiration of the mirror-work in the Pakistani clothes. She tells us 'I / ... tried to glimpse myself / in the miniature / glass circles', but the fact that they were so small leads to our realization that Alvi would not have been able to see her whole reflection, just a fragment of herself, which underlines the idea of a split identity. She then tries to remember the journey she made from Pakistan to England at a very young age. 'Prickly heat had me screaming on the way' emphasises the idea of pain and the difficulty of being torn between two cultures. She recalls being in a cot in her English grandmother's home, and stresses being alone with a tin boat to play with after the long voyage.

Stanza six focuses on memories of Pakistan. Alvi looks at photographs taken in the 1950s to help her remember the country of her birth. Later, she read about the 'conflict' in Pakistan in newspapers, seeing it as 'a fractured land', which again reflects her own feeling of having a fractured identity. She can still picture her aunts in Lahore as they wrapped presents. They would have been hidden from 'male visitors' by a carved wooden screen – this idea again adds to the sense of not being able to see clearly, of fragmentation.

The final stanza opens with memories linked with poverty: 'beggars, sweeper-girls'. As though it were a dream, Alvi pictures herself as part of the scene, saying 'I was there - / of no fixed nationality'. This phrase tells us exactly how feels, in that she does not belong wholly to any one country. Like her aunts, she is behind a screen, or 'fretwork', looking out at the Shalimar Gardens. This echoes the image of her trying to see herself in the mirror-work of the Pakistani clothes, as in both instances a complete picture would have been hard to see.

The language of the poem is quite informal, appearing to flow from the writer's mind as many of the lines are indented in an irregular pattern. The visual aspect of the poem adds to the sense of uncertainty. The lines seem to move backwards and forwards on the page, echoing the idea of going to and fro between two cultures. This is a creative way of underlining the theme of the poem, the feeling of not really belonging to any one particular place, of being unsure of one's identity.

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