By Iffat Mirza
Artwork by Iffat Mirza
Edited by Katya Zabelski
There are some decisions that are made for us which completely change the trajectory of our lives. This experience is not anything particularly shocking or controversial, especially when those decisions were made for you as a child. As a nine-month-old, my family relocated from Lahore, Pakistan, to London, England. As I’m sure most children of immigrants feel, growing up with two cultures gave me a unique lens from which to interpret my experiences. Alternatively, is the realization that you are essentially an orphan of both cultures. Now I find myself quietly asking my mother what certain words mean during conversations at family gatherings, or I avoid wedding functions because I don’t know the words to any of the songs sung. It is the quotidian bumps in the road which remind you that you’re not quite home.
Urdu, I was always told, is a beautiful and incredibly literary language – and whilst I speak it fluently, I am also painfully aware of the fact that the Urdu used in literature and art is of a completely different standard, with a completely different register and vocabulary to our quotidian language. Now, as somebody who has devoted her life to studying literature and art, I cannot help but feel locked out of my own home. How can I claim to be a brown voice, when I can barely hear the other brown voices surrounding me, no matter how hard I try to lend my ears? How can I claim that, despite the Eurocentric efforts to erase Pakistani culture, the culture of my homeland continues to flourish and defies centuries of colonisation and imperialism?
These questions did not even register in my mind until I came to write my undergraduate thesis. My undergraduate degree was in Comparative Literature, and I utilised the free reign to write on anything we wanted as a perfect opportunity to engage with literature from my homeland. I was fascinated by the development of the nation-state, its legitimacy, and the violence associated with it. Beginning my research, I encountered two moments of embarrassment and serious self-reflection on my ‘Pakistani-ness.’ First, I found myself having to Google some of the foundational novels associated with the birth of Pakistan, not only as a nation-state but also as an institution which produced high-brow culture. Here I was, trying to critically engage with Pakistani culture, and having to confront the fact that I had never even absent-mindedly engaged with it in the past. The second moment came when I had to admit to myself that I needed to read a translation of the text I eventually selected. It seemed strange to me because the text I compared the Pakistani classic to was One Hundred Years of Solitude by the renowned Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, which I was able to read in its original Spanish with only my two years of Spanish A-Levels to back me up.
Nonetheless, The Weary Generations by Abdullah Hussain almost predicted this. Hussain’s 1963 novel tells the story of Naim, a village boy by origin, a city lad by circumstance, searching for home. Neither accepted in the city nor welcomed in the village, he finds himself floating between worlds and eventually realises his frustration and figurative homelessness are a symptom of being under foreign rule. He is one of millions. The main events of the novel stretch from the First World War to the moment of the Partition of the sub-continent in 1947. Battered and bruised by his own individual decisions, as well as the hegemonic structures of British rule in India which never seem to give him a chance to know home, he joins the anti-colonial resistance. Even as he crosses the newly created Indo-Pak border, he remains hopeful of a future where Pakistan is indeed his home. The novel is riddled with images of graveyards and tombs – evidencing ideas of the futility of placing faith in the modern nation-state. But the persistence of the image of a living person in these graveyards and tombs also signals the persistence of humanity and culture despite the oppressive forces of the nation-state. Though hope is perhaps futile, it exists. Its existence is rebellion, even against death.
A parallel story runs throughout, though readers are painfully aware that in another world, this secondary plot would fend well for itself as a primary plot. Naim’s half brother Ali is not so optimistic about anything. He has grown up in poverty, lived through illness, homelessness and eventually saw his wife die of such hardship. He does not consider himself – or rather, people like him – to be of any worth to the social and political elite, including Naim. His circumstances have left no room for optimism because all he sees is another failed nation-state being created which will, once again, only serve the elite.
One moment of the novel which spoke to me was when the brothers coincidentally reunite at the moment of Partition, and Ali angrily confronts Naim:
‘Where are they now, I ask you, your rich relatives? All gone. […] You have lost everything. […] I know everything. You became ill. I stayed away, but I got all the news about you. […] you became ill and went to live in their house in Dilli and were treated by a big doctor. Who was there to treat Aisha [his wife] and me? Homelessness, huh?’ (Hussain, 1963)
The question of homelessness is both literal and metaphorical. The thread of a frantic search for home, perfectly set up by Ali’s angry outburst, is perfectly tied at the end as Ali finds himself squatting with a stranger in a house in Lahore.
Is this all there is to finding a home? Finding four walls and convincing yourself this is where you fit? Not because you have anything to say about these walls, or because these walls speak to you, but because you have to convince yourself this is all you have.
I was not sure how this novel can say anything about me as a figure of Pakistani diaspora – but in reality, how different is my restlessness from that of Naim or Ali’s? The only difference is that I search for glimpses of home in a stranger’s language, and when it comes to my mother tongue, I’m a stranger looking in through the window. I frantically search in the school curriculum, and where it cannot be found, I try to make space for it. Perhaps I too am squatting in an idea of home by doing so. This, in my experience, is one of those rare works which so forcibly displaced me from my comfort. It made me realise that though I call for the decolonisation of the curriculum, I will have to accept that the current state of the curriculum will only ever allow me, and others like me, to squat, until we rebuild one of our own.
Ḥusain, ʿAbdullāh. The Weary Generations. London: Peter Owen Publishers, 1999.
As a British Pakistani woman, Iffat Mirza looks to literature to find glimpses of herself and her place in the world around her. Having graduated from King’s College London with a BA in Comparative Literature, she undertook an MPhil at the University of Cambridge. She has a keen interest in studying South Asian literature in comparison to Latin American Literature, and is excited to see the discussions that come from it!