Moniza Alvi’s “Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan” is penned in free verse echoing the randomness of her ruminations. Regarding the poem Moniza Alvi says:
” Presents from My Aunts…was one of the first poems I wrote. When I wrote this poem, I hadn’t actually been back to Pakistan. The girl in the poem would be me at about 13. The clothes seem to stick to her in an uncomfortable way, a bit like a kind of false skin, and she thinks things aren’t straightforward for her.
I found it was important to write the Pakistan poems because I was getting in touch with my background. And maybe there’s a bit of a message behind the poems about something I went through, that I want to maybe open a few doors if possible.”
The clothes that came as presents from her relatives in Pakistan were indeed symbolic. The flamboyant colours were suggestive of the colourfulness of the tradition. She refers firstly to the ‘peacock-blue colour”. Thus, unconsciously the thirst for the unified India springs up yet gain as she refers again and again to aspects of the same in other poems like “An Unknown Girl”,”The Country at My Shoulder”.etc. She refers to another conspicuous colour “glistening like an orange split open”: as the culture had blossomed and was ripe and open. The rich architecture even adorned footwear, and curled at its points. This curling of the footwear may point to the concept of modesty in the Eastern cultures; that strongly believes that the feminity of a woman lies in her modesty. Though the bangles were ‘candy-striped”, they drew blood. The word “candy-striped” connotes childlike innocence. The poetess implies that it was this innocence that made them vulnerable, and enabled the easy breeding of extremism in their hearts (This explains the broken bangles that drew blood).
Like at school, fashions changed
in Pakistan –
the salwar bottoms were broad and stiff,
For the Pakistani-British poet, “school” stands for her British upbringing. Alvi claims that fashions (or principles) changed according to time and space. The Salwar bottoms were first broad, and later stiff. This signifies the narrowness of thinking, or the superstitious belief that has now become an inherent part of the culture. Her aunty chose a less flambouyant color ‘apple green” with a silver border to neutralize the effect of both the cultures.
As she tried on the satin-silken top, she felt like an alien in her own sitting room. One’s own sitting room is supposed to make one comfortable, and here she was feeling out of place. Though she longed for her Western attire of denim and corduroy, she could not rise up from these passionate colours like her Aunt Jamila easily did. It was as though the clothes seemed to cling on to her .Note that she does not use ‘hold on to” but “cling on to” as with a sense of desperation. Her feeling of love is also extended towards the non-human world, as she considers the cruelty and transformation from “camel to shade”. She watches the lamp with mixed feelings as the other side of her admires its colours “like stained glass”.
Her mother cherished her own jewelry because of its tendency to elaborately embellish, “Indian gold, dangling, filigree” or for the value of it. Nevertheless, the speaker says that it was stolen from their car. Alvi probably alludes to the relegation of its worth a family heirloom. Similar was the case with the other aunts. Though Alvi’s Eastern clothes stood out in her wardrobe with their radiance, the aunts requested cardigans from Marks and Spencers.
Neither did the Salwar Kameez impress her English school friend who preferred to see her weekend Western casuals. However, the poetess did admire the miniature glasswork quite often. She pictured herself in the tiny mirrors, seeing ‘broken images “of herself evocative of her identity crisis, and mirroring the lack of coherence in her personality. She recalls her initial sailing in to England, how she suffered through the prickly heat. The pain emblematizes the pain of migration, both physical and mental. She finally landed up in her English Grandmother’s dining room ‘alone’. Therefore, she found herself detached from these British surroundings at first. Her sole companion was the tin boat, an inanimate object.
The poetess articulates how she now locates her birthplace from the fifties photographs. She recalls the “fractured land” that throbbed on newspaper prints. The fact that she aspires for the unified India is evident yet again as she called Pakistan “fractured land”, it is incomplete without its counterpart ,India. But note that she utilizes “fractured” instead of “handicapped”. So there is scope for healing, and indeed hope for reconciliation.
She still recalled her Aunts in shaded rooms dictated by social doctrines, shielded away from male visitors.The elite were wrapping away gifts in tissues, and there were beggars and sweeper-girls that seemed to fit into the same picture. The only thing that seemed out of place was the picture of her that lacked organic unity -“of no fixed nationality”. The phrase may have two meanings here. It may imply that after the partition, she wondered whether she was an Indian or a Pakistani. It also strongly connotes her birth, Alvi being born to an English mother and a Pakistani father. The phrase ‘of no fixed nationality” also echoes “of no fixed abode’ – that is utilized in law courts when the defendant is homeless. The speaker is said to stare through the fretwork at the Shalimar gardens at Lahore, a symbol of their rich heritage. Just as Shajahan was imprisoned in his own fort and would gaze at the Taj Mahal through the hole in the Agra Fort; the poetess is visualized as being imprisoned in her adopted culture as she gazes through and at her roots(the fretwork) in quest of herself. To quote Moniza Alvi:
“But it’s important to know where you come from, which is perhaps what I was lacking as a child. I think it’s important to know what has gone into your making, even quite far back, I think it gives you a sense perhaps of richness.”