I always thought mum would want to be buried in Pakistan. I understood the appeal of being buried in one’s ancestral graveyard. There’s a romance in being laid to rest in the company of your loved ones. Our graveyard is situated in Nila, the family village near Chakwal in the Punjab. It is reached soon after we enter the village, and it’s always felt to me like a special place, a pilgrimage of sorts. On arrival, mum likes to stop there first to pay respect to her parents who lie here, side by side, surrounded by the children that died too young, and ancestors that led full lives.
Leaving the car under the cool canopy of an old banyan tree, I respectfully wrap the diaphanous dupatta around my head as I trail behind mum into the main burial ground, cautiously and courteously keeping to the well-trodden narrow path, to avoid treading on the modest mounds which signify resting places. In accordance with Islam, the graves are simple, mostly unassuming, their unremarkable appearance making their residents indistinguishable by their achievements in life. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor, all lie here awaiting judgement, as equals before God.
A few graves are affectionately adorned with sweet-scented strings of deep red rose or pure white, elegant jasmine, while other graves have been damped down this morning with a reviving splash of water. Purposefully we make our way to a low walled section to one side, uttering only assalamu alaikum ya ahlal qaboor (peace be upon you O people of the grave) under our breaths, to formally announce our arrival to the residents. Voiceless they may be, but they can hear visitors, mum explains. I imagine mum commanding their full attention today because it’s been a few years since she was last in Pakistan. Few of the graves have any markings at all so it’s as if mum’s feet are being guided by some force to her favourite spot. Stopping beside her parents’ final resting place, mum’s face and shoulders seem to relax as she bends down dutifully to place a tender finger on her mother’s grave. “That’s how they know it’s you,” she tells me before losing herself in prayer and contemplation for the mother she lost some thirty years ago.
Having spent most of our lives in Bradford, alas with no network of uncles, aunts and grandparents within reach, and only mum to look up to, it seems strange to be reminded that she was once someone’s daughter too. Her mother could barely read anything other than the Qur’an when she married my grandfather in her teenage years. She was barely literate since the total sum of her formal education was the memorisation of large passages of the Quran, which put her in the meritorious position of being able to invoke God’s name without having to break off from her chores. Theirs was a formidable partnership, with respect for each other’s values at its core. Given her devout nature, grandma asked her husband to recite Surat Yasin (chapter thirty-six of the Qur’an), such commanding verses with benefits manifold that it’s often referred to as the ‘heart of the Qur’an’. It is said to be particularly valuable in easing the path that lies ahead and is therefore recited to the dying. They say my grandfather was unable to recite so his bride insisted that he commit the verse to memory. It would be enriching for him, she reasoned. He’d have the benefit of carrying the verse with him at all times, being able to call upon it at a moment’s notice.
For his part, my grandfather insisted that his wife learn to write Urdu. He was a clerk in the British Indian Army and would spend most of his married life posted out of town. What he conveyed in letters to his wife, he didn’t want to share with a third party. Accepting her challenge, my grandmother would hide the old fashioned child’s chalkboard she practised on, lest the women in the village mock her for writing love letters to her dashing husband. For as long as they lived, grandfather’s letters addressed to his wife were always neatly written to make them more legible. Grandma had trained her eye to read her husband’s letters to such an extent that she actually couldn’t read anyone else’s handwriting.
Mum is now introducing me to the graves of aunts and great aunts, maternal and paternal, who lie nearby. There are uncles and great uncles, as well as other members of the extended family, interwoven by a complicated web of cousin marriages, making it impossible for me to keep track of the entire network. Like the banyan tree at the entrance, our family’s robust roots are mapped out beneath our feet. It’s an arresting sight – a century’s worth of bonds which began life above ground, cemented after death into the earth below. I am in awe of their enduring strength which continues to prop up the fledgling branches of our family to this day.
I always imagined mum would want to be buried in Pakistan. She might have spent fifty of her seventy-five years living in Bradford, but Pakistan has always been her first love. The soil of the homeland is sweeter and more inviting, she says. She still remembers the scent. But then, Pakistan is where she was born, where she grew up, where her roots were. That’s where her inspiration came from. She didn’t belong here. It was initially my father’s work that brought her, and then circumstance. It was my father and his father who settled in Bradford in the 1950s to work in the textile mills. After her marriage was arranged, mum bid farewell to her entire clan in the early 1960s to begin a new life in Yorkshire. In the days leading up to mum’s departure, grandma would repeat a sobering Punjabi saying: ‘Off you go, my beloved daughter, to the other side of the River Ravi, to where no-one goes and from where no-one returns’. Grandma no doubt sensed it would be years before she would see her daughter again.
Perhaps mum’s relationship with Britain would have started differently, were it not for my father’s attitude. To be fair, this attitude was shared by the vast majority of male Pakistani migrants scrambling to British shores to relieve the labour shortage during the post war industrial boom. My father had already been living and working here for the best part of ten years, but he wasn’t interested in building a relationship with the place. Residence was purely and utterly a financial arrangement, and a temporary one at that. A British wage and exchange rate meant that men like my father could send more rupees each month to their extended families than they could dream of earning in a whole year back home. The men hoped that working in the mills for a few years would give the family in Pakistan a leg up; clear debts, build a house, and perhaps start a business. The aim was to earn as much as they could whilst living as cheaply as possible.
If ever there was a man dedicated to finding his pot of gold, it was my father. If the work was available, he’d happily do double shifts all week, the equivalent of sixteen hours on the trot. And what was the point of spending Saturday resting when he could earn time and a half at the mill! Being an entrepreneurial chap, dad bought 1 Alpha Street, furnishing the modest terrace with several beds in the two bedrooms and two attics, as well as the lounge, and taking in about fifteen lodgers. A rota system determined who slept when. If you finished work early, you might have to wait for a housemate to get up for his shift before you could use the bed. We might call it overcrowding now, but this was the norm among the migrant workers living in group houses, and of course it made things cheaper. They were probably awake for no more than an hour or so at either end of a shift, which was probably a blessing – there wasn’t much personal space to be found.
The men didn’t have much time to socialise. Any time off tended to get taken up with births, deaths and marriages among the new settlers. Seriously, people waited until the weekend to bury the dead because the concept of taking a day off didn’t exist. Unbelievable as it sounds, dad didn’t even attend his own wedding. The family had taken on debt to buy land in Pakistan. It didn’t make sense for him to lose money by taking time off and incur the expense of flying back to Pakistan. So with mum dressed in her bridal finery in Pakistan and dad at home in Bradford, the couple took their marriage vows down the phone in 1964. A few months later, the last lodger at Alpha Street was just moving out as mum landed at Heathrow Airport. Thankfully it was a weekend, so her arrival didn’t interfere with dad’s shifts.
Even after mum joined him in Keighley, dad still regarded his stay here as temporary. Neither was being a homeowner enough to make him feel settled. He didn’t buy the house because he was swayed by the area’s aesthetic values. It was because he knew it would make him money – what you might call a buy-to-let I suppose, crucially located within a few minutes’ walk of several mills. When mum grew tired of using the mismatched crockery she’d inherited from dad’s lodgers and decided to buy a dinner set, dad chided her for wasting money on things they’d one day have to leave behind.
Ironically, it was my father who returned to Pakistan after my parents divorced a few years later. Mum, meanwhile, decided to stay in Bradford to raise her children, holding down three jobs to keep a roof over our heads. Christian Housing Aid kindly sent a truck to furnish our rented council home. They also supplied our kitchenware – but rest assured, mum diligently recited the Shahada (the Muslim declaration of belief) to ritually cleanse the pots and pans whilst rinsing them three times with Fairy Liquid, just in case they’d been tainted in a previous life by un-Islamic substances.
But it still felt like mum’s heart was beating in Nila. Here was her dilemma. Pakistan was the ideal and we were leading second best lives in Bradford, yet mum knew it was easier to make a life for herself and her children in Britain. It’s less judgmental and more forgiving. And the distance allowed mum to pretend to her family that life here was much better than it actually was. It also meant she could indulge us in a love affair with her homeland. It became the place where everything was good, where the sun shone brighter and where the mangoes were sweeter.
Our finances made it impossible, yet mum planned an interim trip back home with a suitcase filled with nothing but anticipation gathering dust under her bed. If mum could just get through the next thirty years of employment in Bradford and raise her children, then she could look forward to retiring to Pakistan with a handsome pension, awarded in pounds sterling, to be spent in rupees at a substantially profitable exchange rate. The day finally came when she did pack up and move to Pakistan to make up for lost time, to be with her nearest and dearest. Poignantly, it was only after she got there that she realised that the people she yearned for had all passed away or moved on. Her parents were no more, and the group of cousins she’d grown up with had scattered. So, after a year or two, she reluctantly returned, having reconciled herself to the idea of living out her remaining years on the soil that doesn’t smell as sweet but which her children regard as their permanent home.
I always thought mum would want to be buried in Pakistan. But maybe she didn’t want to settle for the arrangement she had with her parents’ final resting place. Perhaps it was the thought of only hearing from her children if they happened to be in the country which changed her mind. Perhaps she liked the idea of her children stopping by whenever they feel like it, as they do now. Or perhaps because mum understands all too well the sacrifice involved in living seven seas away from loved ones. The devastating news of her mother’s passing was cruelly conveyed to her by a solitary phone call in the middle of the night. The nightmare recurred a few years later, when she was given the crushing news of her father’s departure from this world. The burial had already taken place by the time she got the news, not that mum had the financial means to make the trip for a proper farewell. And anyway, we would never have got there in time because Muslims are buried as soon as possible, preferably before nightfall on the day of death. Once more, mum was left to lament her loss alone, without ceremony or cold hard proof to help bring closure, nor even the comfort of family to help ease the pain. Perhaps that’s what she doesn’t want for her children.