Enough now YesterTown: A tough love letter.

Dearest YesterTown,

I tried hard to ignore you when we first met, frequenting only when it was essential. Truth is you scared me, I did not know what to do with the desolate energy that surrounded you. A town where most high street shops had left and people with drink and drug dependencies were so visible. A centre that came to life only on market days. One that became empty and threatening very quickly after 5pm each day.

Nowadays your story is just as grim although you have muscled your way into my affections. I see your distressed beauty. There’s an elegance about your exaggerated swagger. A rich history sits along every street in your centre. You won me over with your hard exterior and vulnerable core combo. Much to my own surprise, I have come to love you YesterTown.

I know you don’t believe it. You spend all your time in the past. In an age, long vanished, when you felt special. Folk from neighbouring towns and cities came to spend an afternoon with you. The sounds of busy cash registers and a strong, familiar, local dialect part of the everyday. You must have been spectacular, I wish I could have told you then.

It would have been easier than what I must tell you now. You have been slumped and binge-watching re-runs of your glorious past for too long now. This grieving for the past is eating up your present and all hopes for the future. It is fuelling an anger that you will not be able to contain. Take off your rose-tinted spectacles and turn your face to what is to come. Darling dare to imagine what you could be.

You must take all your disparate parts and claim them as your own. Even the ones where you feel shame and afraid. Show them a little love. In much the same way as I cannot survive without all my organs working together harmoniously, you cannot continue to have your parts fighting amongst each other. Find the ways for harmony and you can do much more than merely survive.

Listen to your champions and ignore the haters. There are people who believe in the place that you are going to become. They invest their time, energy and dreams in your future. They talk you up, put you first and challenge the naysayers. They are on your team and I want you to show up for them.

It’s too hard you tell me. I know my sweet, remember this: there are hundreds, or even thousands of places like you. Yestertowns coming out of the shadows, recovering from the impact of a globalised economy. Finding ways to re-imaging futures. Replacing ‘we used to be’ with ‘we want to be’. Seek out these places both on our island and beyond. Take what you can and share what you know, it will lighten your task.

Please take heed. You and I both know that your story is due an upgrade. I hope that I witness your rise to triumph now Yestertown. I will give you a new name then my love.

I believe in you.



The price of freedom: Partition then and now

An envelope arrives on 14th August 2017, it’s the 70th anniversary of the independence of India from British rule. I hold a document that pulls me back through time and then propells me forward in a heady pendulum swing.

In 1947, after almost three hundred years in India and unable to afford the luxury of an empire after World War 2, Britain was forced to grant my ancestors self rule. A high price for independence, the country split in two with a border drawn through the region of Punjab. A new homeland for Muslims in Pakistan, while Hindus and Sikhs were to reside in the new shape of India. Millions of people found themselves on the opposite side of the border, were uprooted and began their journeys to the other side.

This year I realised the brutality of Partition. A rushed and clumsy exit by the British created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. Communities that had lived together harmoniously, erupted into horrific violence as the forced migration of 15 million people, claimed over 1 million lives. I learnt of stories from that time – of lootings, mass killings, death through exhaustion, women and girls raped, unborn babies ripped out from wombs and womens’ breasts cut severed and piled high. Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs turned on each other both perpetrators and victims of tremendous horrors. No one tribe is innocent of atrocities. This is perhaps why I didn’t know about this part of the history – my history.

Recent Partition stories I’ve come across hang this often unspoken chapter of South Asian history within a tale of forbidden love. A Muslim and Sikh or Hindu fall in love and though their struggle to be together we are led through the macro issues of the time. In Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House (2017) set in 1947, a Hindu boy’s love for a Muslim girl creates an universal point of reference for us. Local to me here in Yorkshire, UK,  BBC Radio Leeds commissioned writer, Nick Ahad to produce a story about partition. Partition (2017) centred around a Muslim and Sikh couple about to be married in the present day and explores why the union is problematic for their families today. It seems a love story makes the history lesson easier to swallow.

Actually, they are MY stories and if anyone should and could tell them it’s me. Or so I think, until I realise that I’m so caught up in the twists and depths of these tales I cannot give you a clear beginning, middle and end never mind a happily ever after. My story speaks in many languages and often doesn’t speak at all. I’m the heroine and the villain. How can I tell you my story?

In England at least, one of the legacies of Partition is that some of our South Asian communities are often suspicious of each other. Indians mark themselves as different from Pakistanis. Hindus and Sikhs have prejudices against Muslims. Conversations about caste continue. We are somewhat fixated on difference. Despite all of our similarities, we see one another and often we see “an other”.

In this climate to love “the other” is a betrayal, to leave the tribe – unforgivable. And that’s my crime, to have loved another and desired the freedom to choose my own path. The price of my freedom is as bittersweet as that of the independence of 1947, a sharp severing of family, roots, memory and history. I am disowned. Erased from a lineage. I am certain my absence there screams as loudly as the victims of the bloodthirsty mobs that roamed as a nation was severed. I often wonder whether the price of such a love would be as high if the history were not so bloody. Would I pay the same if I were not a woman? Would I still have to give up a part of myself for my freedom? For the freedom to love as I please?

Some freedoms we fight for and some arrive when we have expended everything in fighting against them. As legal papers initiating a divorce, land on my doormat on 14th August 2017,  I wearily acknowledge the cosmos playing cruelly with my heart. The history and the love – hungry demons – both demanded too much from me. I’m still unable to untangle the threads of this tale. The yarn that stretches across decades and continents, religions and languages, between me and him and me and them and them and them. So I’m struggling with how I tell you this story.

There I stop.  Unable to write anymore caught up the giant narratives that circle me. It’s months later that I understand that this is where this account can cease and I’ve shifted to sharing my story through the prism of my art. The inadequate ways I place the words together as poetry and the clumsy images I create. Every playlist and meal I feed you are a flavour of my tale. You will see that I am seeped in its every colour. I’ll use my final words here to tell you the one thing above all I want you to know about me. In my story I will pay with almost everything I have for the precious freedom to be my own woman. Despite the cost of the prize, I hope that is your story too.

From Nowhere: my inability with words

“Where are you from?” you ask and I’ve learnt more about you in that question than you will ever learn from me. It’s the manner in which you ask it, you see, what you want from me in my answer and my inability with words. 

Brown men who drive taxis have asked me this question, a short, pointed look in the rear view mirror. They note the mini-skirt, early hours and post club high-heel hobble. They want to know how bad is this bad girl?Indian-bad? Muslim-bad? Do-I-know-her-family-bad? 

The white collegue, asks hesitantly, fumbling over the words and drawing out the question with ‘erms’ and ‘uhs’. They want to dip into their exotic, tell me of their taste for faraway food and landscapes. 

The brown sisters, usually they ask as a matter of course. After a head to toe scan for clues they want confirmation of which sub-sub-sub culture of brown woman I belong to. Religion, country of origin and caste. It’s ironic how the most most similar, search the hardest for difference. 

Usually I feign ignorance and pretend I don’t know what or why you are asking. “I live in England” or “I’m from Yorkshire”. I may relent, “I was born in the North-east of England”,  “My parents are from the Punjab in India”. It depends on how pissed I am in that moment about your need to ask this of me. To use this lazy interrogation to attempt to understand me at best, or at worst, place me somewhere in your neat and simple catergorizaton of the world. 

In the uncommon event that I want to answer you fully, I’ll tell you “I’m from nowhere”. You will look at me like I’m a crazy women and I won’t have the courage or the words to tell you what I mean by that. That I’m a kid of the diaspora and I am from no one place, not only because my parents migrated but because I refuse the limitations, the simplicity and the comfort of being from one place. 

I’m from a place that you can’t easily find, it’s not on a map and doesn’t have borders. It stretches back and forth through time in a way I cannot speak of but feel instead, as I, a girl from the future, cannot let go of the past. I’m from a place of fire and fight, it’s poetry in a language I don’t understand, green abundant fields I’ve never seen yet I know they’ll feed me still. It’s the place that I’m forever migrating to or is it from? 

And sometimes, I see that place I’m from in you. In the friend who speaks in foreign tongues but when she inquires into her people’s horrors and histories, I see that place I’m from too.  As the restaurant owner, bellows in a typically Punjabi fashion and calls me, sadi Punjabi kuri, I feel the place I’m from. When the DJ plays Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Got Your Money* and we dance, only partly at the party and mostly in that place, the place where we from. 

Those moments, when we are from the same place in this present moment, are electric. I would almost call them home but I’m not the settling type. Instead it’s electric, an unruly, unpredictable energy that draws me, despite the trepidation and, who knows what that could set in motion and where it could take us. 

Don’t ask the question for I can’t answer but if we put the words aside for a while and if you can show me the places we’ve both frequented, we may get somewhere. 

*or any other banging tune to which we move with smooth synchronicity. 

Wow…What a Line ?!

It’s Friday night and in a slinky black dress and heels too high, for anything other than considered steps, I head up to the private function room of the Aagrah restaurant in Bradford.

Inside, the rows of seats facing the elaborate stage are filling quickly with south Asian men and women, in traditional dress. Shit…the exposed, wonderfully tanned and toned, calves beneath the dress are too provocative for this audience. I pull my shawl across my shoulders, it is hand embroidered from Pakistan. 

I am attending a mushaira, hosted by Yorkshire Adebee Forum on the opening weekend of the now spectacular Bradford Literature Festival. Mush-what? you are asking me. I know because I have tried, in vain, to lure many a plus-one to this event and this is often the first response I received. By the time I’ve uttered the words – Urdu and poetry, I’ve used two more words that guarantee I’m flying solo tonight. The mushaira has been a huge part of the culture of the Indian subcontinent for centuries. A forum for poets to share their love of language and appreciate the craftsmanship of each other’s literary efforts. A place for intellect, creativity and self-expression. I imagine lavish mushairas, with beauties studded with jewels, poised and delivering words with precision and power… I have always been prone to over dramatisation but you get the gist.

Although my peoples may not have taken up my invitation tonight, there is no shortage of attendees at the event. There’s around 300 here tonight and my friend Ghazal Ansari, chairwoman of Yorkshire Adabee Forum, informs me that the event has sold to full capacity and that they have had to refuse folk entry at the doors tonight. The crowd is mostly conservative, middle-class Pakistani. The owner of a conglomerate of Asian media companies is in the audience. I overhear there is a Pakistani General and his beti (daughter) in the room and there are various doctors who seem to be regulars at Yorkshire Adabee Forum events as they receive shoutouts from the hosts, Ghazal and Mr Mir, throughout the night. The female VIP’s are presented with a bracelet made of fresh red and white flowers. This is a tradition from Pakistani weddings where colourful, fragrant flowers are used to adorn the bride, women of the family as well as homes and the marital bed. I am surprised when a young woman approaches me to tie a bracelet onto my wrist a little into the evening. “From Ghazal”, she explains and I feel better about my outfit choice.

The poetry is everything that Urdu shahyari (poetry) is, elegant, rich, complex, frustratingly unreachable and then in the next moment perfectly reflecting my innermost parts back to me. The themes include the usual suspects of love and heartbreak. The words are so beautifully constructed and poignant that my heavily fortified heart is besieged and I risk ruining a decent application of eye makeup. The poets speak of patriotism, intolerance and religious extremism. My favourite of the night speaks of gender inequality imploring young women to rise up and resist the pressures and burdens of unsuitable and exploitative marriages.

I’m unsure of whether the poets are a diverse group. On the face of it yes – there is a young women from Yorkshire, another from Scotland and a Brummie too. The female to male ratio is low but we are represented. There are men in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and beyond, hailing from London, Sheffield, Manchester and places inbetween and an ‘angry young man’ from Germany. Yet I get the impression that they are all part of the same clique. It’s privileged, conservative and international. Contrary to all my ideas about the universality of art, it seems understandable that privilege is a prerequisite for those who engage in creating this art form. Urdu poetry is incredibly complex and those who reach any kind of competence will have studied the form for many years. In Pakistan where the adult literacy rate is at 56% and the female adult literacy rate is 42% it is the elite who have the academic and economic freedoms to play with words in this manner.*

The words may be highbrow but I witness a convention of mushaira that reduces the space between performer and audience. The experienced audiences are extremely vocal in their appreciation of a good verse. In fact, they are rowdy and loud, engaging in what I would describe as positive heckling. Shouts of waaah are accompanied by an exuberant upward flick of the hand and forearm. I heard many times an incredulous questioning, “kya kerai hai?” Which literally translates to “what are you saying?” More accurately means something like, what a line! At times members of the audience repeat back the lines that the poet has shared or ask the poet to repeat their prose. It’s a wonderfully joyful appreciation of the art form.

The evening finishes with a dinner that, typical of south Asian timing, is served much later than expected. After dinner, Punjabi songstress, Shabnam, steals the show for me. A songbird of the diaspora, she seamless swings from soulful Punjabi classics like Terai yai Naina to Stand by Me. The familiar dohl beats and words of my ancestors stir up a desire to move inside of me. I look over the audience and can easily spot others like me, itching to defy the no dancing convention of this gathering, swaying, clapping and moving to the beat while in their seats. 

It’s past midnight as I say my goodbyes. I promise to return to another mushaira soon because unexpectedly, tonight, conservative, middle class, Pakistanis made this liberal, daughter of Indian migrant farmers feel a little bit of home. I will, of course, be inappropriately dressed next time too. 
*UNESCO Institute for Statistics http://en.unesco.org/countries/pakistan