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.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: THE DUTIFUL DAUGHTER-IN-LAW
PREVIOUS: A SUITABLE HUSBAND
Written by Irna Qureshi
10/01/2012 at 4:19 am
Tagged with Another One Bites the Dust, Bohemian Rhapsody, Boy George, Bradford, Bradford Fire, Britisher, brothel, Canterbury Avenue, Canterbury Council Estate, Canterbury Estate, Courtesan, Freddie Mercury, Islamabad, John Lennon, Khabarnama, Khatam-e-Quran, Little Horton Lane, Manningham Lane, Muzaffar Ali, Pakistani etiquette, Pakistani formality, Queen, recital of the Quran, Rekha, takalluf, The Beatles, Top of the Pops, Umrao Jaan, Valley Parade Football Stadium, Yeh Kya Jagah Hai Doston, Yorkshire accent, Yorkshire dialect
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