By Dr Sabreena Razaq Hussain
Sept 21, 2013
Pakistani heritage has become an embarrassing and awkward liability for many British-born Pakistanis
I wouldn’t have done it myself but I could understand why she did what she did, I thought to myself. I also silently conceded that had there been more intense Pakistani company in the vicinity she could’ve easily earned herself a clip across the ear and a mouthful of a few authentic taunts. It was the first time I heard a Pakistani call herself an Indian. But why was I not shocked?
I guess there is less risk of a stampede when you are seated in a fairly sparse Virgin Atlantic train en route to London on a Monday mid-morning, when most people are at their desks high on coffee beans. I can’t even remember what I was doing on the train to London that day, one of my many random escapades I’m sure, but more interesting were the travels of this confident young girl on her way to New Delhi. Well, kind of.
“Yes, I have lots of family there,” she continued to tell an unsuspecting smartly dressed Englishman who seemed humbled by her plans to spend two months working for orphanages in India, her ‘homeland’. Not quite the Karachi orphanages she had so passionately been telling me about before he had boarded the train and started enquiring about her mammoth sized suitcase.
Why despite being a proud and passionate Pakistani through and through, was I not entirely shocked at her sharp and defiant leap across the border? Well, being a British-born Pakistani can come with its growing pains. Living in both segregated English and Pakistani communities within the UK produces both its fair share of ‘coconuts’ (with the tagline of brown on the outside and white on the inside), and on the other end of the spectrum the ‘inbreds’ (who look as though they’ve literally jumped off a plane from Mirpur despite being born and bred in the UK). That leaves a good few at varying levels in between these two extremes and it is in this grey area you may find those comfortable and content with both their eastern roots and western abode, and it is only these that hold some hope for Pakistan in an otherwise dying breed overseas.
Anyhow, this bright girl on the train, whom I will name Kiran, appeared to be from the former category, until of course she started telling me about her compelling plans for Karachi. I was pleasantly surprised at this discovery, after having had a half-an-hour conversation with her in her staunch Queen’s English, where Pakistan, being brown or anything of the sort did not come across at all. Sadly, my hopes of interrogating what could’ve been a rare or mutated breed of the ‘coconut’ were washed away the minute the Englishman sat opposite us and started probing into her trip, which much to my shock, she chose to tell him was to India. “It’s safe for me to travel there,” Kiran reassured the probing stranger. “No, no, the bombs are going off in Pakistan, not India,” she corrected him. It was almost as though I had vanished into thin air. I knew she knew what I was thinking, because now she did not look at me.
Day to day parts of Pakistani life in the UK has at face value demonstrated some penetration into the British culture, but to a negligible degree. Chicken Tikka Masala was, in recent years, the nation’s favourite food and western fashion has of late taken many influences from the Indian subcontinent. But dodgy kormas and embroidered sandals are probably where the similarities end and the ‘confusion’ of the so-called ‘British Born Confused Desi’ or ‘BBCD’ begins. The lay Englishman would not be able to distinguish to a significant degree the difference between Indian and Pakistani culture, thus diffusing the argument that Indian culture has made more of a mark in the UK and, therefore, it is easier to be Indian, so why did Kiran pretend to be just that?
Our passive relief was a testimony itself to the dismal state of our affairs, when we were ranked as the 42nd most corrupt country out of 184 countries worldwide by the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions index in 2011. With corruption in the country as ripe as a Jamaican mango, the layman would expect the ranking to be a lot higher. Less was the relief and more was the shame however, when the BBC global poll in February 2012 ranked Pakistan as the second most negatively perceived country within those in its survey, with Pakistan also being the only country having a negative perception of itself.
Several hours west, for many that cannot even name the capital city of Pakistan, negative perceptions of the country have cast a shadow over their day-to-day lives. Pakistani heritage has become an embarrassing and awkward liability for many British-born Pakistanis, including Kiran, so it appeared. Unfortunate when you think of some of the positive contributions that Pakistanis have made in their communities and professions abroad.
The last half-hour of my journey was an awkward one. The Englishman looked at me flittingly in between nodding his head to animated stories of Kiran’s childhood visits to India, or to my Pakistan, shall I say. To be honest, I wasn’t angry; her identity crisis made me feel sorry for her. And for us. My heart sank when I thought of the future of Pakistan. Despite their deep attachment, natives cannot get out of the country quick enough to escape the gaping holes in the governance and welfare systems, many even for fear of their lives. Most first-generation migrants for the same reasons no longer take their children to Pakistan in the holidays. With visa processes getting tougher and less travel either way, we have become more and more isolated from our roots and one another. The vast majority of second-generation Pakistanis abroad, or BBCDs, wear, speak and eat Pakistani (albeit at a sharp decline) but without any desire for themselves or their future generations to visit or take an interest in their country or its people.
Currently, one in five overseas Pakistanis is residing in the UK, a total of 1.2 million of a total 62 million UK population. The Daily Telegraph estimates by 2031 there will be 2.63 million people in the UK of Pakistani ancestry. But what will this mean to Kiran’s children? Or to mine? Towards the end of the journey she had actually started to get on my nerves a little, but I was even more annoyed at these little gems that would pop out amidst her stories every so often. Now one thing that she did not deny was that she was a Muslim, or that the future of culture was in jeopardy full stop. “In these difficult circumstances living abroad,” she told the fascinated stranger, “for us second-generation Indians,” she continued, “the future will be about saving and preserving our religious identity. Religion will become our identity.” This time I turned to glare at her. What? Saving Islam at the cost of Pakistan. A devastating aftertaste stayed with me the whole day.
Dr Sabreena Razaq Hussain is a doctor, political activist and writer based in the UK.