Even if your own family history doesn’t span across more than one nationality, there’s bound to be a degree of cultural difference present in your family that’s been the hotspot of some tension at a gathering. Whether it’s Gran confessing to you that she never wanted your Mum to marry to your Dad because his family wasn’t good enough for her after a few gins at a wedding, or the first of your cousins to announce they’re marrying outside of the homogeneous racial lines that exist within your family, these actions can have considerable impact on how you view your identity.
Admittedly, when you come from a family that gives you what I call the ‘internal culture conflict’ (that of being born into a culture while being raised in a different one), viewing your identity within your family and their ancestry becomes more pronounced. My situation is perhaps slightly more complex, I was raised by Pakistani parents in the UK, by a father who did all he could to protect me from what he refers to as the dangers of Western culture, which I now consider the best bits of living in Britain and a mother who used to take me to Devon, Cornwall and the Isle of Wight for summer holidays. Though the religious barrier was still there with my Mum (I was raised to be a strict Muslim which I have now denounced), I essentially had one parent raising me as a foreigner and one as a local. My entire life has been in the UK, I’ve been to Pakistan 4 times and only one of those was when I was of an age when I could commit it to living memory. I don’t feel any connection to the country – I may have family that live there, but asides from an incredibly fond love of the food (nothing will make me feel more at home than fresh naan and chappali kebabs), I am a Brit through and through. During my time at The Manchester Historian while running the Our Histories project, I did some investigation into my only living grandparent’s history (my Mum’s Mum). We’ve always spoken about her life, which has been amazing, she’s lived in over 10 countries and she grew up in what became Pakistan near the Pakistan-India border, witnessing all the horrific events of Partition. I suddenly realised having grown up in one country, then not moving but living in another and then spending about 30 years living in London to then return to Pakistan on an increasingly more full time basis must have made her question her identity quite a lot.
Big thanks to my cousin in Pakistan who took down all my questions and interviewed my Gran for me. Naturally as you can imagine, the feeling at the time of Partition was one of great instability or insecurity. My Gran was only 15 at the time, but the changes she witnessed she has held with her forever. Though her family remained safe, violence was widespread. One of the hardest things she recounts from this time is losing all her Hindu and Sikh friends from school after where she lived became Pakistan and no longer India; most of these people she never heard from again. She describes the identity transition as being confusing – she was suddenly no longer Indian, but due to the tensions between the nations and post-partition India being India and not ‘British India’ as she had grown up in, her old nationality no longer truly existed.
Growing up and marrying a Pakistani diplomat, she has said for a large part of her life, she has felt like a Pakistani having had to act as a cultural ambassador of sorts in all corners of the world. She says that though she had cultural similarities to Indians, particularly those of the same ethnic group, she doesn’t feel she could ever be Indian because of the politics that have shaped events in the subcontinent. Upon arriving in the UK in 1977, where she spent over 30 years and where two of her children ended up going to University, she found herself developing what she calls not her second home, but one of her two homes. My Gran loved her life in the UK and when I was younger would always tell me stories about going to the theatre with her husband in Covent Garden and shopping for fabric at Liberty so she could sew and knit. Partially through her husband’s career and through many Pakistani people she connected with in the UK, her Pakistani identity, conflicted as it may have been, never left her, however she was able to form her own new British identity and find her own community and home.
Reflecting on where her true home lies now, she still feels a part of both nations are within her. This is beyond simply enjoying taking the tube when she visits London or my Uncle’s house in Lahore that she lives in, but both cultures have had considerable influences on the way she views the world. Though it could be argued that the Britain she came from is not the one of today, the Pakistan she returned to was certainly not the one she grew up in. My Gran says that if a stranger met her on the street, she would call herself Pakistani, but perhaps only as not to confuse ethnic guidelines or to state where her current long term residence is. If she was asked to explain her identity and nationality, it is a myriad of both nations, but through many conversations I have had with her in the past, defining yourself as one or the other is necessary in many situations. A small part of her still feels connected to the British India she grew up in, but the pressures from Pakistanis in the UK would not allow her to even express this feeling of identity.
When I compare what my Gran has been through to me, my main thought was I should stop complaining as I was only raised in two cultures and two nationalities and I have grown up in a time within a society which is relatively free of ‘identity pressures’. Though members of my family actively express their dislike for my full adoption of British culture, it is throughout my life where I have always felt like I belong and where I feel safest. This is not to say I completely ignore my Pakistani heritage, I just express and explore the parts I feel connected to and accept. My Gran however, didn’t have much of a choice wherever she went. In Pakistan it became no longer acceptable to Indian or British Indian. In Britain, it wasn’t acceptable for her to be British until much later in her stay. In Pakistan now, she cannot be anything other than a Pakistani. I get so angry whenever I express my nationality or home as Britain or London and then get the follow up question, “no tell me where you’re really from”. At least though, I have always had a stable idea of where I know I’m from and where I belong. My Gran has not yet been afforded such luxuries and unfortunately in her home in Pakistan, she is unlikely ever to do so. The real historical message I would take away from here is that notions of identity have lost certain dimensions (despite taking on many others) as movement between peoples becomes increasingly common. Though we may be aware that the freedom to express one’s individual identity and/or nationality is a recent phenomenon restricted to certain parts of the globe, what we often fail to ignore is the complexities of identity struggles of those from the past. In my Gran’s case, the story of the individual plays out very differently to the unification of Muslims and of Hindus that shaped the geography of present-day South Asia. Perhaps if we examined identity struggles within the context of nationality and home in past societies, we may have a better understanding of why today’s identity struggles have taken the forms on that they have developed.