Growing up ‘Southasian’

If I am Southasian, why did the government of India deny me a student visa to my father’s country of birth? If I am Pakistani, why do bureaucrats at the passport office harass me and ply me with needless questions about my parents’ immigration when I try to get my passport renewed? If I am Sindhi, why am I treated with suspicion in my own land?

Susan Goldmark’s mother, Helma Blühweis, a Holocaust survivor, routinely threw away old toys and stuff to ‘cut down on material possessions’. She also kept a packed suitcase in an empty closet in their New York apartment, just-in-case; and regularly reminded her daughter how privileged she was to ‘not have gone through the horrors’ that Blühweis had endured. While the Holocaust was never discussed in detail in the house, Helma unwittingly inculcated in her daughter the fear of a repeat of ‘the horrors’.

Susan Goldmark is the wife of Kai Bird, whose book, ‘Crossing Mandelbaum Gate – Coming of Age Between the Arabs and the Israelis (1956-1978)‘, was launched recently in Kathmandu, where I’m currently based. Among many other things in the book, Bird details Helma and Susan’s experiences. But for their radically different backgrounds, my own mother displays many of the same characteristics as Helma – eschewing material possessions, keeping packed suitcases around the house, reminding me (her elder daughter) how privileged I was to not have had the same horrific experiences that she had had as a young girl; eventually inculcating in me the fear that it was ‘all going to be repeated’, and an abhorrence for wanton violence and bloodshed. After reading Bird’s book, I wondered if children of first-generation immigrants – especially those of people who had been forced to flee war and violence – all went through similar experiences.

I was born in Karachi – the capital of Pakistan’s Southeastern province, Sindh – in October 1983, 12 years after my mother’s family fled their home in Dhaka, and around four or five years after part of what remained of my father’s family left their home in Calcutta*. My great-grandparents had chosen to remain on their ancestral lands in Behar (to this day, I don’t know where in Behar), and had been buried there, while my paternal grandparents had moved to Calcutta, and my maternal grandfather, along with my grandmother and their two children, had chosen to take up a government position in Dhaka – then part of East Pakistan. My father was born and brought up in Calcutta, and my mother (and her older brother) were born and brought up in Dhaka.

We speak Urdu at home, but both my parents are fluent in Bangla, albeit ‘different forms of it’. I realised this when I was younger and saw that my father found it difficult to communicate fluently with our Bangladeshi neighbours in Abu-Dhabi, while my mother chatted away happily. I was later told by some Bengali schoolmates that my mother spoke a sanitised, bourgeois ‘Dhaka Bangla’, while my father’s version was indigenous to Calcutta.

My mother never discussed 1971 with me in much detail, but during her conversations with the wife of our Bangladeshi neighbours, I heard snippets about these events. Neither my mother nor our neighbour realised that I could understand Bangla, and therefore let me hang around during their conversations. I heard about the neighbours’ wife’s experiences as a young Bengali girl in a state terrorised by the Pakistan Army, and my mother’s experiences as the daughter of ‘Beharis’ during the Mukti Bahini reprisal. I think I was around eight years old at the time, and my worldview comprised simplistic binaries of good versus bad; but for the life of me, I couldn’t differentiate the good guys from the bad in these narratives. When our neighbour’s wife spoke to my sympathetic mother about atrocities meted out to them by the Pakistan Army, it was easy to figure out who the oppressor was. But when my mother told her about the Mukti Bahini, the distinction wasn’t so well-defined. I would wonder why my mother never condemned the Mukti Bahini, and always spoke of them as a ‘legitimate, albeit violent, reaction’ to ‘wanton injustice’. They had terrorised my mother’s family, for crissakes, I would think. They had left permanent scars in her mind; her once influential and well-off family had been forced to flee their homes and live like refugees in a new country; it was because of 1971 that my mother never got to finish even high school. Why does she not condemn them openly?

It was only later, when I started taking an active interest in understanding the nuances of politics in Southasia, that I understood my mother’s sympathy for the Bangladeshi nationalist movement. With this understanding, however, also came a deepening of my own fears. For all practical purposes, my mother, while she was growing up, was Bengali – albeit one born to ‘Urdu-speaking’ parents. All her friends were Bengali. The Bengalis she knew did not think of ‘Beharis’ as the other, and vice versa. Dhaka was her home. A point had come, however, when her home had turned against her and violently forced her family out. Sindh is my home, but despite my ‘local’ birth, I am not considered Sindhi by default. I am ‘the other’ – the daughter of first-generation immigrants of Behari and Bengali origin. My sympathies lie with the people of Sindh, and while the leadership of some factions of the nationalist movement considers me Sindhi, many of the ‘grassroots’ Deshis (Sindhi nationalist cadres) do not. I am regarded as an outsider – with suspicion. And due to my sympathies for the Sindhi nationalist movement and my abhorrence for the proto-fascist Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which claims to represent the Urdu-speaking community, I am regarded as a ‘traitor’ by MQM cadres. Who am I, then? If I am Southasian, why did the government of India deny me a student visa to my father’s country of birth? If I am Pakistani, why do bureaucrats at the passport office harass me and ply me with needless questions about my parents’ immigration when I try to get my passport renewed? If I am Sindhi, why am I treated with suspicion in my own land?

I wonder if this otherisation of Urdu-speaking people by Sindhi-speaking people (and vice versa – there absolutely is a vice versa) will eventually lead to bloodshed of the sort we saw in 1971. I wonder if one day, my children will write about a mother who was sympathetic to the local nationalist movement despite being forced out of her home. My parents made Sindh their home. It is my home, and will hopefully be home to my children and theirs – or will it? Will they be forced to be outsiders in a strange land too? Where? Will they be able to have an identity? Or will they, like me, to paraphrase Kai Bird’s quote from Helen Epstein’s ‘Children of the Holocaust‘, carry the burden of ‘a history that they never lived’? A terrifying history of otherisation, injustice and violence. A history that was thrust upon my mother and me – a history that neither of us chose to be part of. How long will we continue to be forced to suffer for the sins of others? The sins were not those of our forefathers; they were committed by larger players with bigger agendas – with absolute disregard for the micro. Why do their sins deny me an identity in my own country of birth?

*The story of my father’s emigration from Calcutta is not connected with this particular narrative, except for the fact that it adds to my ‘otherness’ in Pakistan, and is therefore not discussed in detail here.
  1. Rabia
    August 2, 2010 at 20:48

    Urooj. Great piece! X

  2. Saher Baloch
    August 2, 2010 at 19:50

    Urooj this is simply very well written piece i have read in a while. Awesome work and after reading it i have started missing you. Have fun and take care..

  3. mchisto
    August 2, 2010 at 17:48

    *hug* – i miss you at work!

    now as for the post itself, fascinating is the word and i second naimat.

  4. naimat
    August 2, 2010 at 17:03

    i’ve decided after reading this piece that i’ll read with great enthusiasm your autobiography, if you ever write it…. brilliant!

  5. Danish
    August 2, 2010 at 15:23

    Great Work Urooj and a great reality

  6. Mujtaba Zamir Kirmani
    August 2, 2010 at 14:23

    Great work, Urooj!

  7. August 2, 2010 at 13:42

    Excellent piece, Uzi.

  8. beenasarwar
    August 2, 2010 at 13:28

    Wonderful piece, thanks for sharing.

  9. August 2, 2010 at 11:55

    That is an exquisite piece Uzi, perhaps the best, certainly the most mature, that I have read of yours. You lay your roots and bones bare and have a grip of past, present and future and the uncertainties of present and future, that merits a wider publication.

    Perhaps there is evolving a class…race?…of people who belong everywhere and nowhere, with their borders only defined by their keyboards and imagination. We have to find where we want to be, which may not be where we were born. For you, Pakistan is the wrong place, for now. That might change. For me it is both wrong and right. I don’t ‘belong’ here culturally but do want to be here.

    ‘Otherisation’ need not have negative connotations. It is ‘other’ that on the scale of deviancy defines normative values. They are the shapers, the formers of ideas and opinions. Their sense of otherness can feed across into the comfort zones of others who are less ‘other’ than they but not so ‘other’ as to be able to join them across the divide.

    Cyberhug, your direction.

  1. August 2, 2010 at 13:57

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