Content note: imperialism and colonialism, British Empire.
They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone; well, in the case of the heritage, culture and history of a third-generation Pakistani woman, I am thankful that the knowing has taken place before the going has gone.
Iconic Pan-African philosopher and Black nationalist Marcus Garvey famously said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” I was reminded of this quote today as I rifled through the local archives to find out more about the first South Asian migrants to West Yorkshire. Reminded that this act of “history” was more than just that, this was personal, this was about being rooted.
As the grandchild of migrants to this country – migrants coming from ‘The Empire’ to the ‘Imperial Center’ – being in academia and having the opportunity to research aren’t just trifling matters. When the time came to choosing a dissertation topic, there was only one thing I could think of, only one thing I longed to piece together, one story I wanted to hear and one topic I had sorely felt the absence of in studying the history of twentieth-century Britain: the history of me.
For me, the history of me is the history of the women I am of. The stories of the women who crossed half the world to reach a pitiful place, a pitiless place, but a place they survived nonetheless. Every woman I have talked to so far has inspired such fondness in me and such love. It is hard to feel neutral or impartial when they tell me their stories, their feelings, their anecdotes. I am desperate for more. I cling to their words which come to me in a tongue I just about still understand but stumble over to speak. I know that for me this means so much, this work, this research; because it fulfils everything I wish academia would fulfil for me. It gives me my story, but also, it gives the women I so respect and love, a chance to tell theirs.
Picking my options for third-year History at Cambridge I was dismayed to see less than a handful of non-Eurocentric options. I felt myself grasp at them, yearning for the stories of people who may look something more like me; who may have a similarly non-European history like me. For two years now I have been immersed in British and European history. Not just geographically, but ideologically. Not just history based in Britain, but history as Britain perceived it: whitewashed history. The history I learnt at home and the history I have been taught have rarely coincided. Indian partition was touched on merely as an aside to post-war British politics; in my mind I envisioned the black-cloaked man who rode up to my grandmother’s village and told them to “Run, the Sikhs are coming” when formerly they had been friends and neighbours – this story stayed etched in my mind since my childhood days. I remember when my history teacher at school asked if anyone’s parents or grandparents had fought in WWII. I put my hand up and explained how my great-grandfather, fighting for the British in the far-east, was taken as a prisoner of war. That was the only time the war in the East and the Indian army were touched upon.
Studying History is thus both wonderful and devastating for me. Both enlightening and erasing. The histories I learn are ones I am fascinated by, but not ones that root me, not ones that explain my presence or my experiences. And that is why I devour these women’s stories. Stories almost robbed from me, stories buried. Yet nearly every woman has mentioned their anxiety that what they have related about their lives may be “wrong”… as if it could be incorrect. As if their realities could be false; or their truths, untrue. It saddens me.
I recently ache to feel in touch with where I’ve come from. Not necessarily where physically, but where cuturally, where as an imagined space. In many ways then the women are the ‘where’ for me. Their stories give me placement for mine, their experiences colour in the space surrounding mine. I feel a sense of belonging, acceptance, in their midst. I feel closeness to them when I too have my nose pierced, a sense of placement when they expect I understand their meanings. The gold bangle passed down to me from my grandma for my 21st birthday is a piece of them, of her. They left home to create homes; and with them I cross the border back to Us, taking Me with me. Because despite the fact that I have come to accept that I am not them; I am of them, and without them I would not be.