Bollywood in Britain

Tales of being British, Pakistani & female in Bradford, set against classic Bollywood

Posts Tagged ‘Canterbury Avenue

12 Another One Bites the Dust

It’s refreshing that Pakistanis should have a hackneyed view of British life. This explains why my relatives were oblivious to our poverty stricken reality of the Canterbury estate, and imagined I had abandoned a luxurious first world existence in Bradford in 1990, for married life in Islamabad. “All the men carry walking sticks and wear bowler hats to work,” my father-in-law would assert habitually. “I saw it on TV!” Alas, this idyllic 1960s scene from Mary Poppins didn’t quite resemble our ramshackle lives in Bradford. Little did our relatives realise that mum left the house at six in the morning, and walked the four miles home from the sewing factory every evening to save on the bus fare. But then, living on home soil with no experience of being a minority, what would they know about being spat at by little old ladies with blue rinses, or being told to “fuck off back to where you come from.” Nor would they have understood the sardonic wit of our blessed neighbour, Mr Graham, who enjoyed tormenting mum with his plans to dig her grave.

Under the circumstances, it didn’t seem palatable to focus on the differences between us lowly immigrant folk and proper English people. How could we bring ourselves to admit to our relatives, that life in Britain had required us to broker our emotional wellbeing, for the sake of family economics? This is why we peddled a more alluring lifestyle, one that was almost aspirational. Besides, it felt good for once to be ranked among the British. So, if my relatives wished to set me apart as a ‘Britisher’ on the basis of something as superficial as my distinct accent, then so be it. The very notion of mum addressing our milkman with a friendly ‘love’ was already a standing joke among the extended family. Now, it was my Yorkshire lilt that commanded their attention. Why on earth did I wreak havoc on the diction epitomised by our Queen Elizabeth and indeed Julie Andrews? Why did I choose to flatten my vowels? Why did I willingly overlook all the ‘t’s in any word and leave out the ‘h’ from the beginning of ‘holiday’? They loved hearing about my school, located at the top of Little Horton Lane which, much to everyone’s amusement, sounded more like ‘Li-ulor-un-learn’ in my Yorkshire dialect. “That sounds more like French,” they would joke, since the language I spoke wasn’t the version of English they’d been taught at school.

There was an irony in this humour. I’d assumed that I would feel a sense of belonging in the embrace of my extended family, into which I had now married. I had high hopes for a new life in Islamabad, somewhere I would feel secure and self-assured as part of the mainstream, instead of meekly trying to modify my ways as a minority. Having married my uncle’s son, I was naturally very much part of the family, but I was also very much the ‘Britisher’. I was regarded as different, somehow foreign, and something of a novelty. My matter-of-fact British manner was at odds with how things were done in Pakistan. I was considered ‘bholi’, a bit simple, open to manipulation, and therefore something of a liability. I was clueless about observing the confusing rules of formality or ‘takalluf’, where one thing is said but something else is meant. So, I would embarrass everyone by checking with guests if they fancied tea BEFORE putting the kettle on, which would lead to an immediate refusal from the guests even if they were gagging for a cuppa. No! The thing to do was to make the tea WITHOUT checking, and then wait for the guests to protest that they didn’t want any, before insisting that they drink up lest they offend their hosts!

It was my mastery of the local protocol and household chores which filled the letters I sent home to Bradford. Meanwhile, letters from my sister and my mate Josie would be crammed with breathless gossip about mutual friends, as well as updates from Eastenders, Sons and Daughters and the all-important Top 40 countdown. As our correspondence continued, new characters were introduced and it became impossible to keep up with the soap storylines. My excitement about learning who was riding at the top of the charts also diminished when the letters mentioned music acts that I’d never even heard of. As our terms of reference began to change, I started to feel more and more disconnected from my old life in Bradford.

It was probably in the autumn of 1991 that my severance from British culture was most marked. My father-in-law held up the latest edition of the Gulf News supplement to check if I was interested in the cover story. I nodded eagerly as a picture of Freddie Mercury caught my eye. He was wearing a pink suit, holding a vintage microphone with a long stand, ready to rock, with the headline “Farewell Freddie”. Queen must have split up, I thought, and they’re announcing dates for a farewell tour. As I located the article, wondering wistfully if they’d include Roundhay Park among their dates, I realised the singer was dead. As I took in the shocking news, I wondered if I was the last person on earth to be hearing it.

I needed to reflect on the magnitude of the cover story, but my anguish merely bemused those around me. There was no use trying to explain what Freddie Mercury meant to my generation. It’s not that they don’t have pop stars in Pakistan, but how do you explain the Freddie Mercury phenomenon to someone that hasn’t even heard of Bohemian Rhapsody? My father-in-law mockingly offered to organise a ‘Khatam-e-Quran’, a recital of the Quran to bestow blessings upon the deceased. As my thoughts turned to Bradford, I knew mum would have understood. Life in Britain had forced her to cultivate a rudimentary knowledge of popular culture. To her credit, she was so familiar with the regular cast of Top of the Pops that suffice it to say, she’d have invited Boy George in for a curry, had he miraculously turned up at our door! It was mum that educated us about The Beatles the day John Lennon died. I’d largely ignored the talk in the school playground that day. Then, mum walked in from work and promptly announced: “We have to watch The News today because John Lennon’s died and I knew him!”

I’d left Queen singing ‘I Want it All’ a couple of years earlier on Top of the Pops in our lounge in Bradford. Now Freddie Mercury was no more and I didn’t know what had happened in between. How was it possible for someone so invincible to disappear like that? I wasn’t even a Queen fan but I still needed to understand how the drama had unfolded. I imagined Queen’s hits being played back-to-back on the radio, special news bulletins on TV, live pictures showing crowds gathered outside the singer’s home, with tributes pouring in from the world of music and beyond. Alas, it was all out of my reach. Phone calls to Bradford were exorbitant, and strictly reserved for matters of life and death, although this obviously didn’t extend to the passing of rock gods. I felt unsettled by the idea that I couldn’t discuss with any member of my household, the story that was likely to be on everyone’s lips back in Britain. With friends out of reach, there wasn’t even a stranger at the bus stop, with whom I could have a cursory chat about a favourite Queen song, to help process the shocking news.

The last time I’d felt so powerless about events in Britain was during a holiday in Islamabad as a teenager in 1985. Someone dragged me out of the kitchen to watch ‘Khabarnama’, the Pakistani equivalent of the 9 o’clock news because they were reporting a serious fire at Valley Parade football stadium. Bradford was burning and I had a two minute news bulletin to make sense of the story. There was barely time to point out the familiarity of Manningham Lane to my family. On that occasion, just as now, I could do nothing but wait for word from Bradford. Sure enough, my sister’s letter arrived a few days later. It had already been written and sealed before she learnt the news, but given the magnitude of the story, she had written in a corner on the back of the envelope: “Freddie Mercury just died. Will write more soon.”

No Bollywood song captures the sense of dislocation and ache for home that I bore during the autumn of 1991 like this one – ‘Yeh Kya Jagan Hai Doston’ (What is This Place, My Friends?) from the sublime Umrao Jaan (1981, Muzaffar Ali). Rekha plays a highly cultured courtesan who is kidnapped as a young girl from a respectable family. She tries repeatedly to escape her tainted profession, but is unable to. When she is forced to flee the brothel where she has earned many admirers, she joins a party of refugees, performing poetry en route to earn her keep. At one such performance, she finds herself back in the neighbourhood from which she was kidnapped. The courtesan senses the presence of her birth family as well as their looming rejection, thanks to her sullied reputation. Yet, Umrao Jaan’s yearning to reach ‘home’ is palpable in every faltering step.

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THE NEXT INSTALMENT: THE DUTIFUL DAUGHTER-IN-LAW

PREVIOUS: A SUITABLE HUSBAND

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

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