-- Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed
Whenever I look at black and white photographs of my parents' families in India, there is a crowd staring out at me: great-uncles and aunts, grandparents and babies, squeezed together into the frame. They lived together in the same family compound, ruled over by an aging matriarch or patriarch.
Their extended family situation meant that a wedding was a triumph shared by all, prospective brides and grooms required to impress many future in-laws, fabric swatches and jewelry designs argued about over breakfast, the peace enforced by family elders by dusk.
A new job was a boost to the collective finances, the money dropped into the purse of the family head, to be redistributed as needed between siblings and their wives. Cousins of the same gender took their afternoon nap together, crowded on a narrow cot in the soothing shade, or sat in courtyards under the stars, playing cards into the night. New babies were shuttled and rocked in untiring arms.
When I look at those photos and think of the sheer press of humanity living under one roof, it is always a shock to think of my parents' wedding, thousands of miles away in a London bedsit. A meal was prepared with love by a handful of newly arrived transplants from India and Pakistan. It was cooked on a small stove without the traditional and obscure ingredients necessary, so that the food was, while delicious, no more than a memory of what it should have been. There were no servants to prepare vats of biryani and salaans, stirring and grinding spices for days before the event, no lights strung up outside the house, no groups of traditional singers to proclaim the impending joy of a wedding to the whole neighborhood.
My mother and father married in a simple ceremony in a one-bedroom flat, with white sheets laid over the carpet to cover the stains and cigarette smell. My mother wore a red sari, light in embellishments, which she had brought in her suitcase, and my father placed a simple wedding bend from a local shop on her ring finger. It was a cold October day, and after the ceremony, my mother put on a long coat over her sari and my parents walked to the second-hand car dealership and purchased their first car. My grandfather had to wait several weeks for an airmail letter to read an account of his daughter's wedding; the photos, when they finally arrived, were pored over and commented upon and brought out proudly for guests to praise.
My parents belonged to an intrepid generation that gave up communal living and tight family bonds in India and Pakistan to find new opportunities in the West. There was a lack of job opportunity in their homeland at the time and bribery and corruption were rife. In the West, the allocation of visas to citizens of the former British Commonwealth and new immigration laws in North America meant that hundreds of thousands of people like my mother and father were able to seek out a better life for themselves in England, America and Canada in the 1950s and 1960s.
In England, the expansion of the British economy and the ensuing labor shortage at this time meant that job opportunities were opened up to engineers and other candidates with specialized skills from the former Commonwealth countries. In the 1960s, the British National Health Service was actively recruiting medical professionals, like my mother, to meet the demand for doctors. In America, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 prioritized entry for immigrants with advanced degrees or family relationships with US citizens.
For many South Asians, the destiny of successive generations was based on which country approved an application first—on which letter arrived first at the post office in the 1950s or 1960s, addressed to an eagerly waiting young man or woman. My father-in-law was waiting for a letter from Canada, but his US application was approved first; my uncle's visa for America came before his English one; my father was allowed to look for work as an electrical engineer in England and my mother was given permission to join him and take up a position as a doctor at a local hospital. The formerly tight-knit communities of Lucknow, Hyderabad and Karachi were scattering across the western hemisphere.
Once they arrived at their fated destination, like the Irish and the West Indian immigrants before them, South Asian immigrants quickly adapted to their new environment and welcomed their relatives to join them, building communities and establishing places of worship and lines of retail that met their unique needs. They had to adjust to an unfamiliar climate, food and clothing, and an utterly foreign—and profound—sense of isolation. I heard of a family that regularly drove to O'Hare Airport, in Chicago, Illinois, in the hopes of hearing someone speak Urdu, convincing that unknown traveler to come to their home and have dinner with them.
My parents' generation often had to overlook indignities to gain a foothold in their new country of residence: my uncle spent his first night in America looking for a hotel in which to accommodate his tired family. As a light-skinned doctor with excellent English, he had no trouble booking a double room. However, when his sari-clad wife entered the hotel with their three small children, they were soon told that there had been a mistake and there was no space left.
There is no margin for error when you have uprooted and traveled halfway across the world with no safety net to cushion you from your failings. I can't tell you how many stories I've heard from first generation Indians and Pakistanis who came with meager savings and were down to their last pound or dollar before they found a job, an experience no doubt common to immigrants everywhere. All it took was one lucky break or a fortuitous connection, and they were able to stay and build a life, bringing wives, having children, calling over siblings and extended relatives until a family tree flourished on fresh soil.
My father came to England with £10 in his pocket. He knocked on many doors to get his first job, but it was a chance encounter with the foreman of an electrical engineering plant that led to his lucky break. The foreman had spent some of his childhood in India under British rule and his warm reminisces with my father about the old days in India stirred him to ask my father if he needed a job. Just in time, my father had a salary that would pay his rent.
The new arrivals settled and made themselves a new home, but they still longed for India and Pakistan, for the happy chatter of family and friends who dropped by at a moment's notice and who stayed up talking late into the night, for ripe fruit that was not available at any English greengrocer or American store, for a connection to a community they had lost. They talked of going back, but as children were born, grew, and entered schools in the new land, the idea became an increasingly elusive dream.
They maintained their relationships with aging parents over the years that came, through sporadic visits and by blue airmail letters, the Urdu script spidering over every side, cramming in a lifetime of new memories, the senders trying to share what could not be shared, their readers trying to grasp what they could no longer experience.
They learned of loss, too, through these thin blue missives: the passing away of parents they had not seen for so long and now never would. For a culture that prides itself on honoring the elderly, this break in tradition and loss of precious time with parents must have been particularly heartbreaking. A family friend told me of how she learned of her father's death in a letter; I think of her throwing on a thin coat to brave the bitter chill of a Chicago winter, pushing her sleeping baby in his pram in front of her blindly for hours, tears streaming down her face, not realizing where she was walking, and that it was already too late to get there.
As my parents' generation reaches their own old age, they can only try to assess what was gained by the decision to uproot. There is no time now to make up for the losses; there is no time to go back and adapt yet again to a country that has rapidly changed without them—the vacations back to India have taught them that. Many have now lived many more years in the West than they ever did in India or Pakistan and there are now children and grandchildren they could not bear to leave behind.
My parents have achieved everything they set out to do, and my generation has benefited. They will always be nostalgic for a feeling of belonging that second and third generation children of immigrants, like me, can only begin to comprehend. Whenever I open the photo albums and stare at those sepia photographs of my distant forefathers and mothers, I can see what my parents gave up, but I can only guess at what haunts their dreams.
Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed writes about emigration and assimilation in her literary and historical fiction. She is the author of A Deconstructed Heart and The Purana Qila Stories: The Dust Beneath Her Feet and A Change in the Weather.
Books by Shaheen Asraf-Ahmed
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