10 Lost in Bradford
It pains me to bare my naivety but here’s the truth. It was partly the chance to turn my back on Bradford that lured me into marriage. It wasn’t so much that I was in love with someone; just that I’d fallen out of love with Bradford. I was on the rebound I suppose, and the prospect of a fresh start in Islamabad was tempting at the time, even though the opportunity commanded substantial obligations.
I’m British born, although the early years I spent in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, surrounded by sunshine and several generations of mum’s extended family, were the happiest days of my life. I was four when we left Keighley on dad’s insistence. His conservative outlook made him uneasy about raising daughters in British society. Besides, we’d have a good lifestyle in Pakistan with dad’s British wage to support us. Alas, the remittances from his nightshift as a wool comber became more and more irregular, and then they stopped altogether. Mum had always been adamant that we might have to return to Bradford one day, and she was unwilling to compromise our integration into the British education system. That’s why, even though mum hated being dependent on her family, she sent us to the best schools. She sold what she could from her dowry to pay the fees at the prestigious Presentation Convent where I was taught by English and American nuns. And in 1977, just as mum anticipated, my teachers in Bradford did indeed marvel with incredulity at the standard of my schoolwork and fluent spoken English.
If times were tough in Islamabad, those early years back in Bradford were nothing short of a slog. It might have been rough, but there was something rather poetic about Ringwood Road which encircled the council estate, with five streets flowing through, each one named after a river. At least we lived on one of the most desirable streets. You could practically see Canterbury Avenue, the main thoroughfare, from my bedroom window. So technically, we were right on the edge of the estate rather than in the thick of it. We took great pride in being the only household in Tees Street with a telephone. And whether or not they offered a ten pence piece, we admitted our English neighbours when their emergency calls could not wait for them to walk to the phone box.
My family’s other badge of honour was that we owned our house. Mum astutely took advantage of the council tenancy entitlement. Her Pakistani mentality wouldn’t permit her to throw rent down the drain, when she could pay a mortgage on an investment instead. No wonder mum stayed up night after night to complete her piecework quota, while we got used to being lulled to sleep by the whirring sound of the battered industrial sewing machine, rising up through the floorboards. The day we got double glazing installed was a proud one, not least because the replacement windows also helped to broadcast our home ownership. It didn’t matter that the furniture was donated by Christian Housing Aid. They’d also supplied our kitchenware – but rest assured, mum diligently recited Quranic verses to ritually cleanse the pots and pans, just in case they’d been tainted in a previous life by unIslamic substances.
I suppose we hadn’t grasped quite how much we stood out, until our neighbour’s son came to visit his dad after being released from prison. When father and son didn’t see eye to eye, the young lad decided to serenade his father’s neighbours. We huddled up behind the sofa as he hurtled bricks at our lounge window whilst singing rowdily, “Jesus Christ was born in a stable because all the Pakis have got the houses”. I can’t remember if we bothered to ring the police. The last time we phoned, it was after mum caught someone climbing up the drainpipe in broad daylight, tempted by the open bathroom window. All the police offered was a scolding: “You’re living on Canterbury Avenue love. It’s not Buckingham Palace, you know!”
Of course, you were in a different league altogether if you lived on Canterbury Avenue itself, particularly at the top end, near the dingy little launderette that we used until we could finally afford the luxury of our own washing machine. They were private semis, with bay windows, without the characteristic shared tunnels leading to unkempt back yards, with washing waiting to be nicked. Instead, these semis had gardens with flowering shrubs and neat lawns. My mate Jan lived in one of those houses. She was an English lass with a mum as well as a dad, and a dog who bit me once. Mum lost a few quid in piecework that day, so she could walk me down the hill to the hospital for a tetanus jab. I’d call for Jan most mornings on my way to school. She would often be finishing her breakfast when I called round so she’d invite me in. During those five minute visits, I’d become acutely aware of their distinguished foreignness. Their lifestyle seemed so English; the way Jan walked around the lounge getting her things together with a slice of toast in her hand. That was the thing – she called it “slice of toast” while it was just a “piece of bread” in our house. While Jan drank coffee, I couldn’t think of any Pakistanis that did. We all drank tea, and we liked it stewed. We’d never even bought a jar of Nescafe for our kitchen cupboard because what coffee drinker was ever going to visit our home!
It’s difficult enough trying to settle in a new country at the best of times, but leaving open the option of a return to the motherland only prolongs the pain. You daren’t make yourself at home because you’re still holding on to something else. You can’t set down roots because you’re in a halfway house. That’s precisely the position we were in. The focus during our schooling in Islamabad had been on English. Now that we were settled in Bradford though, it was Urdu that took on added importance. Mum was keen to instil in us a strong sense of being Pakistani. She insisted we speak Urdu at home because we didn’t get to practice it anywhere else. If we were to return to Pakistan, how would we integrate without our mother tongue? I think she feared we’d be cultureless so she felt the need to bolster our Pakistani-ness relentlessly. Mum seemed resolute that life in Britain must not dilute the morally superior culture we had hauled in our baggage from Pakistan.
Mum’s farsightedness certainly gave us an advantage with schoolwork, but trying to assimilate outside the classroom was grim. At a time when all I wanted was to blend in with my classmates, our Pakistani ways made me even more conspicuous. You see, we Pakistani girls have a tendency to develop faster in the physical sense, so I was in the unfortunate position of reaching the throws of puberty ahead of everyone else. My face became riddled with such awful acne that my classmates whispered ‘spotted dick’ as I walked into the classroom. I think mum’s way of preserving my sexual innocence was to shelter me from my own maturing form for as long as possible. So, after PE and swimming, while the other girls arrogantly flaunted their training bras in the changing room, I hoped my ill-equipped vest would go unnoticed.
I found solace in the end in popular music, and I immersed myself in the world of Duran Duran and Smash Hits magazine. When I persuaded the editor of the free local weekly to let me write a music column, little did I know that things would take a turn for the worst. My mate and I had swung the deal by telling him that free records and concert tickets for reviews would be ample payment. My classmates didn’t react well though, when the reviews began to appear in the Bradford Star. I quietly locked myself in the bathroom to wash my pencil case in private after someone scrawled ‘Irna knows fuck all about pop music’ all over it. I’d thought, rather naively, that landing a newspaper column would validate my interest in pop music. Mum would be able to see that I genuinely was going to concerts because she’d be able to read my reviews. The truth is that mum didn’t take kindly to her teenage daughter rolling home on the last train from the Leeds University Student’s Union, nor did she care that the Boomtown Rats were brilliant, or that I’d bagged an interview with Kajagoogoo.
Mum must have felt so lost in Bradford. Even though she migrated to Britain in the 1960s, she didn’t belong here. It was initially her husband’s work that brought her here, and then circumstance. She was barely forty when she found herself alone in a strange country, trying to raise three children. Without the strong extended family unit that protected her in Pakistan, she now felt vulnerable. “What will people say?” became the dominant theme. Mum said she understood my interests and intentions, and she could vouch for my good character. The problem was that my late nights were open to misinterpretation by others, and even though these people had no empathy for us, we still had to live by their expectations. My behaviour needed to pre-empt the reaction it might garner from other members of the Pakistani community, and I wasn’t playing my part in guarding the family’s collective reputation. That’s why mum tried to pull me out of a school play because my Muslim character had a boyfriend. It might make people think I also had one in real life, she argued.
Part of mum’s survival strategy was to romanticise about Pakistan, her motherland. That’s where her inspiration came from. That’s where her nearest and dearest were. She still remembered the scent of the soil. Our finances made it impossible, yet mum planned an interim trip back home with a suitcase filled with nothing but anticipation, gathering dust under her bed. If mum could just get through the next thirty years of employment in Bradford and raise her children, then she could look forward to retiring to Pakistan with a handsome pension, awarded in pounds sterling, to be spent in rupees at a substantially profitable exchange rate.
Mum wasn’t the only one that felt lost in Bradford. Everything I wanted from British life seemed to be in opposition to the values that mum was trying to instil in me. If my life was an Indian film, I’d be tempted to borrow traditional stock characters from the golden oldies, to represent the conflicting cultures which I was awkwardly wedged between. The evergreen classic Shree 420 (Raj Kapoor, 1955) deploys this technique to present the hero’s dilemma; he must choose between two women with opposing values. In my story then, Britishness would inevitably be characterised by the vamp; an amoral, heartless, rich urbanite, dancing freely in a western frock with a cigarette in hand. To emphasise the point, even the women’s names in Shree 420 are allegorical. Here’s the money grabbing vamp called Maya (delusion) performing her song ‘Murh Murh Kay Na Dekh’ (Don’t Look Back at Your Past) for the hero in a casino.
Since the heroine’s song in Shree 420 highlights her chastity, she’d represent Pakistani values in my story. Vidya (knowledge) is not only pure and demure, but also a school teacher. As the drunk hero walks away from her, Vidya’s soul (dressed in white) expresses her love in the emotional ‘O Janewale’ (I Implore You, If You Must Go, Look Back Once).
Times have changed now of course, in terms of Indian films and British Asian culture. Just as some of the vamp’s characteristics have been incorporated into the modern day heroine, permitting her to be simultaneously sensual and virtuous, so we’re learning to merge aspects of our contrasting cultures to create a hybrid. But back then, in the Bradford of the late 1980s, you had to choose which side you were on. I was weary of being dutiful and living by other people’s expectations. So I daydreamed about being a proper English girl. I wanted to whitewash my brown complexion, dye my dark tresses blonde, have a stylish haircut and change my foreign name to something more straightforward, like Heather or Diane. Surely, then I would be just like everyone else; I would look like everyone else, I would smell like everyone else, I would fit in, I would be accepted. Sensing my anxiety, my straight talking older brother would remind me of the classic scene from our favourite English film, Some Like It Hot, in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon masquerade as women. My well intentioned brother would recount the amusing scene where Jack Lemmon tries to compose himself, after inadvertently finding himself in Marilyn Monroe’s intimate company. “I’m a girl. I’m a girl. I’m a girl,” he reiterates frantically. Detecting that I was losing sight of my roots, my brother would counsel me to stand in front of the mirror for a few minutes every morning and repeat: “I’m a Paki. I’m a Paki. I’m a Paki”.
I was desperate to belong to something that was permissible, anxious to be accepted. If I lived in Pakistan, I pondered, surely I’d be in the majority for a change. There would be no outside influence threatening to tarnish the (morally superior) culture imposed upon me. Our way of life wouldn’t need to be defended. I’d be an insider at last. I’d have access to the same opportunities as everyone else. It would all be my own. Perhaps that’s where I belonged. Perhaps that could be my normality. And so, I too began to believe that my dream destination could only ever be Pakistan. My mother’s homeland began to represent harmony and freedom, where my culture could be celebrated at large, where I wouldn’t have to hide and where apologies would not be needed. I believed I had found a place where I would no longer have to conform.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: A SUITABLE HUSBAND
PREVIOUS: OBLIGATION AND INTIMACY
Written by Irna Qureshi
03/11/2011 at 5:00 am
Tagged with between two cultures, Bradford, Britishness, Canterbury Avenue, cultural conflict, Islamabad, Jack Lemmon, marriage, Murh Murh Kay Na Dekh, Nargis, O Janewale, Pakistani values, Shree 420, Some Like it Hot, Tony Curtis
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