How do Moniza Alvi and Sujatta Bhatt use their poems to show the difficulties facing people moving from one culture to another?
Moniza Alvi is from Pakistan, and is mixed race, her father is Pakistani, her mother is English, and her, her mother and father moved to England when she was a baby. She doesn’t remember travelling to England, or her birthplace. The only things she knows about Pakistan are through what people have told her and from photographs that her family had shown her.
In this poem, she describes gifts that are sent to her from her relatives in Pakistan. She likes them, because of the bright colours, but would feel awkward wearing them out because it’s not English people’s normal choice of clothes. She compares the bright, Pakistani clothes to the ones she has, ‘cardigans from Marks and Spencer’.
The stanzas of the poem aren’t very structured, they vary in length, and the lines don’t have a regular rhyming structure. With the lines being longer, they seem to be written easily, and to be spoken naturally, whereas if the line was broken up into smaller lines, I think it would mean to be spoken more thoughtfully.
The poem, ‘Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan’, is memories of Moniza Alvi receiving presents, and not necessarily disliking them, but finding them strange and unique in her English environment. She mentions a camel skin lampshade: she understands the beauty of it, but also sees it as cruel, because in England, there aren’t so many lamp shades made from real camel skin.
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Alvi also puts in the poem about two salwar kameezes that she is sent, and some gold and black, curled toe, embossed slippers, candy striped glass bangles, and a sari. I think that she isn’t very keen on them, because it’s not what she’d normally choose to wear, she describes one of the salwar kameezes ‘glistening like an orange split open’. When she says ‘orange split open’, I don’t think that she thinks orange is a very complimentary colour. She says about the glass bangles, ‘snapped, drew blood’, she sees them as a health risk, if she snapped it, it would cut her arm.
Moniza Alvi talks about trying the clothes on, and they felt strange and she ‘longed for denim and corduroy’ and the Pakistani clothes felt ‘alien’.
The exotic and vibrant colours of the clothes she has been sent aren’t normal in England and she wouldn’t wear them out. It would seem strange to her, because she has been swept away by British fashion, which is generally quite tight and shows off the shape someone may or may not have, and the bright, Pakistani clothing is normally hand made, and quite loose and shapeless.
She compares the clothes from Pakistan to the ones she has bought in England. She is attracted to the exotic clothes, because they are bright and she says they stand out from her dull English clothes “the presents were radiant in my wardrobe”. She mentions lots of colour when she describes clothes from Pakistan, but refers to no colour to her English clothes; I get the feeling that in comparison, they are very boring.
Moniza Alvi writes about what she’s heard of Pakistan in the papers, “fractured land, throbbing through newsprint”, by this she means war and conflict. Though she hasn’t been back to Pakistan since she was brought to England, I think she feels safer being at home in England, avoiding the wars.
The objects she receives from her aunts in Pakistan don’t ‘fit’ into the English way. She talks about her mother’s Indian gold that was left in the car, it got stolen. I think she liked her mother’s jewellery; she refers to it as filigree and dangling. The camel skin lampshade would be considered cruel because it was killing an animal for its skin, to make a lamp shade out of; I also think she likes the camel skin lampshade, her parents had one, and she says she likes to ‘consider the cruelty and transformation’, and she ‘marvels at the colours, like stained glass’.
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I think that when read, this poem should be read wistfully, she wants to be in touch with her original culture, because of the bright clothes, and strange, cruel and beautiful objects. I think she wants to know what it would be like if things were different, if her family had stayed in Pakistan, “half-English, unlike Aunt Jamilla”, “recall the story, how the three of us sailed to England”, and “and I was there – of no fixed nationality”. I think she wishes she had the courage to wear the clothes out, but her confidence had been knocked: “my salwar kameez didn’t impress my school friend”, and “but it was stolen from out car”. I know she doesn’t have the confidence to wear the clothes she receives because she only looks at them in the wardrobe “the presents were radiant in my wardrobe”.
Sujatta Bhatt was born in India, and her first language is Gujarati, which she refers to as her ‘mother tongue’. She moved to the USA and learnt English. The poem, ‘Search for my tongue’ is about her being worried about forgetting her main language. The poem is written in English and Gujarati.
In this poem she is trying to show the reader how hard it is to stop using the language that means most to her, and use another one. She writes it in both English and then repeats the first stanza in Gujarati, then writes the end in English. I think she does this because it shows she can still speak and write in Gujarati and it hasn’t completely been lost.
She refers to the mother tongue as a plant, because plants die when they aren’t in the same environment, so in America she won’t be using Gujarati so it’ll fade from her memory. She says it would “rot and die until you had to spit it out” then writes in Gujarati.
After writing in Gujarati, she talks about the mother tongue growing back, “it grows back”, “grows strong veins” and talks about the mother tongue coming back to her, as her main language; “it pushes the other tongue aside”. By this, she means that when she thinks she’s forgotten her first language, it’ll come rushing back to her, and doesn’t want to use her other language.
She uses strong imagery in the poem, “the mother tongue would rot and die in your mouth”, and this makes me think of a tongue going black and limp, like a dying plant. She goes on and refers the tongues in her mouth as plants, “a stump of a shoot”, “grows strong veins”, “it blossoms out of my mouth”.
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Bhatt uses begins in an informal way, I think this is to ease herself and the reader into the poem, make them think it’s a normal poem about someone worried about losing their original language. Towards the end of the first stanza, she’s graphic about the negative side of what’s happening to her first language “rot and die in your mouth”, and then the last stanza is about the positive side of what’s happening to her first language “every time I think I’ve forgotten, I think I’ve lost my mother tongue, it blossoms out of my mouth”. I think she uses this imagery to extend the metaphor ‘lost your tongue’.
If the Gujarati in the poem wasn’t there, it wouldn’t be as effective as it is. The Gujarati part is expressing the point of having to “spit it out”. It shows she doesn’t want to forget her main language.
I think the poem should be read in different ways for each part of the poem, the start, mournfully, and then between lines 10 and 16, quite angrily because she’s talking about using the language she dislikes using, that makes her forget her first language. Also, in this part, she is repeating words and phrases to give them more emphasis. The middle part, in Gujarati, should be read triumphantly to show she loves this language. The last stanza should be read viciously, but happily to show she’s proud her mother tongue comes back stronger “it blossoms out of my mouth”.
I think both poets, Sujata Bhatt and Moniza Alvi are trying to show that if someone moves to another culture, and has to learn a new way of life and language, they’ll begin to forget their original roots. Moniza Alvi doesn’t know what it’s like in Pakistan, where she’s originally from, but wants to learn and fit in there, but she also feels that because her roots are based elsewhere, she doesn’t really fit in in England either.
Sujata Bhatt feels like she does fit in in India, where she’s originally from, and wants to keep her Indian ways and language, so in this poem she tells the reader that if the language isn’t practised, it’ll be forgotten.
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I think both the poets are saying that it’s difficult going back to the first culture after being with the second for so long. They won’t be as fluent with their language, and be mixed nationality, Alvi says at the end of her poem “and I was there- of no fixed nationality”.
In the second culture, the one they have moved to, they feel they never have or never will fit in properly, because they aren’t originally from the new place. They’ve been brought up differently and speak different languages; it’s like starting again and learning everything anew.
Because neither of the poets are perfectly fluent at either of their backgrounds, old or new, they don’t entirely fit in anywhere. Sujata Bhatt wants to stay Gujarati, but lived in the United States, learning English when she wrote ‘Search for my tongue’, and Moniza Alvi wants to stay in England, though she’s curious of her Pakistani roots.