My mother came to an alien London in 1972 when she married my father who was already here. They didn’t have any relatives in the UK, and I remember my mother saying she would approach women in the street wearing shalwar kameez, and befriend them. Before long, we had our own Pakistani network in London.

The California of Sabaa Tahir’s All My Rage, sounds more like a sparse desert than the London my mother encountered. Teenagers Sal and Noor are the only Pakistanis in their school. The town is indifferent to their background. Their Muslimness, or Asian identity becomes a shared bond. The Urdu and Punjabi they speak with the older generation, with all the cultural references, become a private code between them. My mother was again on my mind when I picked up Aamina Ahmad’s novel The Return of Faraz Ali. My eyes were drawn to the date I saw written on the first page: ‘Lahore, February 1943’. By coincidence the place, year, and exact month of my mother’s birth.

Both Sabaa Tahir’s All My Rage and Aamina Ahmad’s The Return of Faraz Ali are written by second generation Pakistanis, like me. One from the USA, and one from Britain. Aamina recreates scenes from Pakistan’s history, while Sabaa constructs a microcosm of an immigrant world in California. As I read the novels, questions swirled around in my mind. How does the ‘immigrant self’ come into being? It is not the first time I have wondered this or reflected on my experience of being born in Britain to parents from Pakistan. Your difference, and the fact that you are seen as different, become part of your identity. From an early age in interactions with the white world, you are aware, and made aware, that you are not the same. A process that generates difference, in addition to the difference that is already there.

All My Rage is the love story between Sal and Noor. The youngsters carry with them the failed dreams of their parents. And yearn for an empowered future beyond the small desert town of Juniper, away from main cities and main centres. But the voraciously open minds of our protagonists source a wealth of ideas and inspiration from a few dedicated teachers at school, and in particular, from English literature. Worlds of imagination are vital if your daily reality is running a motel or liquor store. For these adolescents, the ability to imagine another world is about survival itself. Daily life is precarious, weighed down by debt. Their elders have given up, and in an indifferent world, they turn to the few adults who care, their idealistic and principled teachers.

Sabaa Tahir, All My Rage, Atom, London 2022

Aamina Ahmad, The Return of Faraz Ali, Riverhead Books, Hull, 2022

Education is a way out, and for this second generation going to university becomes imbued with multiple meanings. Escape from the small town, and escape from parents who did their best but who found their spirit inevitably broken by survival in the New World.

The aspirations Noor and Sal carry are not just their own. They are inherited ambitions, sometimes forgotten or unconscious, of parents and grandparents. He will be a neurosurgeon, your father said. He will be a writer. He will be an architect.’ The parents and children, albeit in different ways, share this will to build something. It is a will to life, they cannot rest. There is an inner and external turmoil that drives them. I recognise this completely. Both my parents were teachers, and our environment at home was about education. We were expected to become doctors or engineers. I found some old home videos of myself at the time of applying for university aged 17. I see my brother coaching me on interviews, and what to put on application forms. And there is a scene in which I get offers from various colleges, and my entire family is discussing my future. I can see the existential pressure written on my face at that pivotal time.

Juniper, California, is a world away from London where I grew up. I zoomed into this small town on google maps and found a dusty landscape. A few listings close by are the Alturas Gun Range (temporarily closed), the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, and the Desert Rose Casino. But despite this contrast of location, Sabaa Tahir captures well the culture of immigrants from Pakistan that I am familiar with. And also, the way this culture goes down a blind alley. When Sal’s mother dies, they ‘scrape together 19 Muslims from Juniper’ to have an Islamic funeral. Sal depends on a religious man to guide them through the process. He feels acutely at this point that culture and religion are something he is dislocated from, and he yearns for a guide to make things intelligible in the Californian landscape. 

My mother died last year. She was more embedded in a Muslim Pakistani community in London than Sabaa Tahir describes of her life in the USA. But after her death there was a gap in ritual and cultural practice that I continue to feel like a constant ache. My link to Pakistani culture was my mother. When she died I lost the person I would have asked what to do. So instead of 40 days of mourning, and ‘Quran khatams’, gatherings of aunties and uncles, there was a painful void. This does pertain to my very specific family circumstances, but it is says something more – about beached cultures on alien shores. 

In the novel, Sal’s full name, Salahuddin, is pronounced and mispronounced in various ways. A daily reminder of his other-ness. This has a reinforcing effect of feeling like an outsider. And surely this must be one of the many origins of unstable cultural identities we see in the children of immigrants. In my own fragmented self I look for a mirror but find vague approximations. I grew up feeling my bicultural British-Pakistani situation was unique, although of course it’s not. I have always looked for glimpses of myself in others’ stories. It is in this comparative mode that I approached All My Rage.

If being second generation means existing in fragments, what must follow is a search for wholeness. You seek it in a number of places, one of which is literature. By comparing my fragmentation with the fiction in All my Rage, I could see the active sorting, shifting and processing happening in my mind. All of it in the end to assemble a more complete image of who I am. An elusive end of course. 

It is curious and interesting why out of all the books Sabaa Tahir has written; this is the first in which she refers to her own cultural background. She is a renowned writer in the fantasy book world and has had a number of bestsellers. In interviews she speaks about taking 15 years to write All My Rage. This book then, is something in a different category to her other writing. Much closer to home, and also something I imagine she wanted to ‘get right’. It is the work of an accomplished, clear and confident writer. I think Sabaa wanted to do justice to this story, so she was patient with herself to arrive as a writer (and a writer with an established audience) to finish it.

The Return of Faraz Ali, in contrast to All My Rage, is set in Pakistan’s past. Aamina Ahmed constructs an elaborate interlocking world of the lives of a policeman – Faraz, and politicians and bureaucrats, set in the red-light district of the androon shaher (walled city) of Lahore. In doing so, she creates a vivid picture of the first decades of a new nation. Where regardless of class and privilege, individuals enact their desperate existential struggles.

A girl from a prostitute’s family is killed. And this sets up the story. Faraz the policeman lives the life of a state functionary. His ability to act is bounded by his superiors. Secretly, he carries inside the stigma of being born into the red-light district himself. The tensions of his loyalty to his superiors, and to his origins, is what propels the narrative. 

Like Aamina I was born and brought up in London. Via my mother and her family I have a deep connection to the city of Lahore. We went there every few years and it is barely possible to capture the essence of the city and what makes the place what it is in all its beauty and imperfections. But Aamina manages this, conveying Pakistan’s Lahore in a way that is neither romantic nor objectified. My own relationship to the country of my parents is complex, and I realise how unthinkingly it tends towards a romantic lens. But Aamina’s Pakistan is brutal. Where an ageing film star rises from the red-light district to the cinema screens of Lollywood to a different social circle. But is in constant danger of slipping back to the world she emerged from 

The book moves through pivotal moments in Pakistan’s history. From protests against Ayub Khan, the first military dictator, to mass support for Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, his rise to power, and then the breakup of the country and the creation of Bangladesh. The characters are participants and witnesses to what happened. So, this book is in effect, a fictional political and social history from 1942–1968. In a short but poignant episode, Faraz finds himself stranded in Dhaka on the eve of its independence. There is a strange liminal moment when he realises he is considered a foreigner and occupier, and not a fellow countryman. This reminded me of a memory I have of speaking with my mamoon (uncle) in Lahore. My uncle was an engineering intern in Chittagong in 1969, and insisted that Bengalis were ‘lovely and hospitable’. He had no idea at that point they wanted to be free of West Pakistan. 

As children, we went to see the usual sights during our summer trips to Lahore: Badshahi masjid, Shalimar gardens, and Jahangir’s maqbara. But I had to insist to be taken inside the walled city itself. My relatives with their Victorian, middle-class sensibilities failed to mention the heera mandi (red light) bazaar there. Walking through you heard snippets of music and tabla. And the occasional flash of a woman in a red dress in a window. I heard about a time before partition when some of those streets were known as the ‘Chelsea of Lahore’. Muhammad Iqbal, the famous poet and philosopher, lived there. This was the forgotten time of the 1920s and 30s when Lahore was on a par with Bombay and Calcutta as a centre of creativity, boasting publishing houses, the cinema industry and a vibrant intellectual life. I was told that some of our relatives had a whole street in the adroon shahar called ‘kakazai gully’, named after the Pashtoon-Punjabi tribe they belonged to. Some of them were also involved in the publishing industry before partition. 

The conservative attitudes of my own family did not permit any interest in the trashy ‘cheap’ world of Lollywood in Punjabi films. Growing up in London, we only knew about it through Pakistani TV comedies like ‘50/50’ that spoofed giant moustaches, dhotis and guns. This was considered low culture, in contrast to the elevated world of Urdu poetry and ghazals sung by the likes of Iqbal Bano and Munni Begum. For me the strength of Aamina’s novel is to blow apart these binaries of low and high culture. It is fiction yes, but a way into seeing how power intersected with entertainment in Pakistan’s history. There is no Islamic purity in the land of pure. There is nothing elegant in a world of prostitutes and murder. But there is still dignity in how the characters try and keep their heads and lives above water. 

The Lahore of my childhood visits was of the narrow streets of Mughalpura, the colonial bungalows of Mayo Gardens, and the crumbling plaster of the British-era Mall road. In my most recent visits the rooftops of the Heera Mandi, the red light district, are now fancy cafes overlooking the grandiose Mughal expanse of Badshahi Masjid. And the historic street beneath has been given the unromantic name of ‘Food Street’.

I recently learned that the word ‘nostalgia’ is a combination of the Greek for ‘homecoming’ and ‘sorrow’. I connect to Pakistan through this emotion, even though it’s a place I’ve never lived in. Perhaps the pain is related to this displacement, or an alienation that goes alongside. My mother would have been intrigued by these two novels. The world of The Return of Faraz Ali would have been intimately familiar to her – a world of horse drawn tongas, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Indo-Pak wars. But she would have been equally intrigued by All My Rage. A book that captures so well this year zero of the arrival of an immigrant, and the birth of a new hybrid generation that inhabits multiple identities.

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