Moniza Alvi: Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan
This poem can be compared usefully with the extracts from Search for My Tongue and from Unrelated Incidents, as well as with Half-Caste - all of which look at ideas of race and identity. Where Sujatta Bhatt, Tom Leonard and John Agard find this in language, Moniza Alvi associates it with material things. The poem is written in the first person, and is obviously autobiographical - the speaking voice here is really that of the poet.
Moniza Alvi contrasts the exotic garments and furnishings sent to her by her aunts with what she saw around her in her school, and with the things they asked for in return. Moniza Alvi also shows a paradox, as she admired the presents, but felt they were too exquisite for her, and lacked street credibility. Finally, the presents form a link to an alternative way of life (remote in place and time) which Ms. Alvi does not much approve: her aunts “screened from male visitors” and the “beggars” and “sweeper-girls” in 1950s Lahore.
The bright colours of the salwar kameez suggest the familiar notion of exotic clothes worn by Asian women, but the glass bangle which snaps and draws blood is almost a symbol of how her tradition harms the poet - it is not practical for the active life of a young woman in the west.
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In a striking simile the writer suggests that the clothes showed her own lack of beauty: “I could never be as lovely/as those clothes”. The bright colours suggest the clothes are burning: “I was aflame/I couldn't rise up out of its fire”, a powerful metaphor for the discomfort felt by the poet, who “longed/for denim and corduroy”, plainer but comfortable and inconspicuous. Also she notes that where her Pakistani Aunt Jamila can “rise up out of its fire” - that is, “look lovely” in the bright clothes - she (the poet) felt unable to do so, because she was “half-English”. This may be meant literally (she has an English grandmother) or metaphorically, because she is educated...