In this essay I will be comparing two poems about cultural displacement and being torn between two cultures and how it has affected its writers. These two poems, Sujata Bhatt’s “Search For My Tongue” and Moniza Alvi’s “Presents From My Aunts In Pakistan”, are both about the feelings the poet experiences living in one culture whilst originally from another. Sujata Bhatt includes Gujarati in her poem along English for greater effect, as this shows her entrapment between the two cultures. Similarly, in “Presents from My Aunt in Pakistan”, Moniza Alvi shows her entrapment by giving vivid descriptions of traditional clothing against English clothes. These techniques help to give the reader a more in depth feeling of what each poet was feeling while living away from their original culture and also they show the difficulties involved in doing so.
Moniza Alvi’s first stanza of the poem describes the clothes sent to her by her aunts; she lists and describes in great detail these clothes to her readers. The first things she lists are two “salwar kameez” outfits. This particular piece of clothing is specific to her Pakistani culture, however it may be unfamiliar to her English readers and this is where the effect is made, because she is showing what it is like not understanding things. On the other hand, by using these terms, she may be trying to get used to them, perhaps because she feels she is not yet familiar with them as she probably should be. This goes to say that, perhaps Moniza Alvi knows little about her Pakistani culture and feels she must know more; this may be due to self curiosity or pressure from her aunts who are always sending her Pakistani items.
A “salwar kameez” consists of a tunic dress and trousers. Alvi beautifully describes them with a symbolic vocabulary. She describes one of them as a “peacock-blue”colour and the other by using a simile which reads “glistering like an orange split open.” From this, we can see that both items are described using tropical colours, animals and fruits, all things which are not originally from the UK. This means that she feels they should not be here because they did not originate from the UK. Perhaps this means that she feels the same about herself, she feels as though she does not belong in Britain as she did not fully originate from here. However, it could mean that she wishes these things were not here because she has accommodated herself to the English ideals and culture and therefore the Pakistani items have little meaning in her life and are not necessary for her.
Furthermore, it is made clear to the reader that Alvi tries to emphasise the description of the clothes because she is using free verse:
“They sent me a salwar kameez
The free verse allows the lines to flow loosely on the page while emphasising on the important bits by giving their own line. We can see how “peacock-blue,” is written on its own line meaning that she wanted this to stand out from the rest. By structuring the poem in this way, it affects the way it is read out loud and therefore the emphasis can be made on whatever line necessary. Another example of this is:
tried to glimpse myself
in the miniature
The use of free verse here helps us to picture what the girl is doing because of the way it is written. This also shows the struggle she has to go through, symbolizing perhaps the struggle of being torn between the two cultures. The ellipsis after “I” makes a pause in reading, this exemplifying the struggle she is going through.
Moniza Alvi shows struggle again when she goes on to describe the bangles which her aunts had sent her, she explains how they “snapped, drew blood.” This is sinister and ambiguous as bracelets cannot draw blood. This personification of the bracelets could have many meanings, for one, the comma used after the word “snapped”, pauses and delays the next set of words, again reminding us of her struggle. On the other hand, it could simply be that she wanted to pause before stating something unexpected, perhaps that is what happened in her life, the sudden move to London might have been unexpected to her and in return she was hurting thus the “drew blood”.If the move to London had caused her pain, it could mean that she liked it better in Pakistan, and she did not like the fact that her life there was cut short. The reason I think her life was cut short in Pakistan is because this phrase is very short and powerful and to me, it symbolizes a short period of time, perhaps because of the use of the word “snapped” which is very simple and fast. However, the noun “blood” suggests violence and conflict which was perhaps the reason she had to leave and come to London.
Without starting a new stanza, Alvi goes on to express her new thought which was a bout fashion. She states how “fashion changes”, here she is talking about fashion changes in Pakistan and compares it to how fashion changes in London. Perhaps she is trying to find all the similarities between her two cultures. Also, she could be trying to make Pakistan somewhat appealing to her so that she can fit in with the culture without having to force herself.
Also, the confused poem structure as she jumps from one subject to another could mean that she is lost in thought, that she has so much on her mind and she is trying to make sense of it all. This could be due to the fact that she is being torn between her two cultures. Also, as there are so many things she wants to take time to think about, she feels the need to jump from one to another without great pause in order to be able to express everything.
In the second stanza, the free verse continues to flow as she gives a description of how she tries on the Pakistani clothes. We can see the effect living away from the Pakistani culture has had on her as she explain she feels “alien” in these new Pakistani garments. In additions to this, she states that she “longed // for denim and corduroy” which shows the conflict between the two cultures. She feels she has to wear the Pakistani clothes because they are part of her culture; however she does not feel comfortable wearing them, she feels “alien” and would rather wear her English clothes. The frustration is showed again through the stanza structure; the frustration that she has no natural closeness to her Pakistani clothes is visible.
By separating “longed” from “for denim and corduroy”, giving them their own separate lines, the pause between them makes the reader think that she is ashamed of saying what she really wanted because she feels pressured to like these Pakistani clothes. Also, by longing for the two pieces of clothes which were English, she is showing her closeness to her English side of her rather than the Pakistani side. Furthermore, she shows she feels inferior to the Pakistani culture as she states “I could never be as lovely as those clothes.”
This shows that her self confidence was perhaps shattered because so many people were asking her to be more Pakistani when she was truly more attached to her English side. This made her feel inferior and trying to find excuses as to why she did not belong to the Pakistani community. If her self confidence was boosted, she could wear both her culture’s clothes proudly without any problem. Also, her non-belonging feelings could also be linked to the fact that she felt unwanted in the community because she was half English and half Pakistani. This is shown when she states that she is half English “unlike Aunt Jamila.”
Perhaps her Pakistani side of the family was making her feel responsible about not being fully Pakistani which would explain her wish to belong to their community more. She feels unwanted and confused as to where she should belong more. This also makes her confused about whether or not she should feel happy in her English clothes, as her aunts are sending her all these Pakistani clothes. She feels pressured to belong to one culture more than the other as she feels she cannot please both at the same time. She cannot see the two cultures merging as she has polarized more to the English.
Her confusion about her culture continues to be displayed throughout the course of the poem, the random memories show her displacement and her contradictory phrases show again her confusion. An example of her contradictions is when she claims she longs for “denim and corduroy” which implies that she wants to belong to the English community. However, she then says “I wanted my parents’ camel skin lamp.” A camel skin lamp is specific to the Pakistani lamp, which implies she would like to be part of the Pakistani culture. Despite this, her contradiction could simply mean that she wants to belong to both cultures equally because she wants some things from the English culture and others from the Pakistani culture. However, it could be argued that she cannot have both the cultures at the same time, thus proving that she is confused and torn between her two cultures.
Furthermore, she goes on to criticise the Pakistani culture by saying that in the making of the camel skin lamp major “cruelty” took place. This could suggest that she thinks Pakistan is a cruel country and it could also symbolise her pain when she was taken away from Pakistan.
In stanza four, Moniza Alvi mentions her mother and her love for the jewellery she owned. She tells the story of how they got stolen from her car. This symbolises culture being stolen from her. She says the jewellery was “Indian gold, dangling, filigree.” These adjectives changed the mood up to the point when she mentions them being “stolen”. The adjectives used to describe the jewellery are very significant. For example, “filigree” means very fragile which could mean that is how her cultures are as well, they could easily be taken from her as the jewellery were taken away from her mother. Also, the fact that they belong to her mother and not to her could also symbolise that, like the jewellery, she has no control over it because it does not fully belong to her. It was stolen from her when she was taken away from Pakistan just like her mother’s jewellery. Furthermore, the fact that it was stolen from Britain could suggest that British culture has stolen her original identity as a Pakistani.
Again, she skips from one thought to another now to say that her aunts “requested cardigans from Marks and Spencers.” This confuses the poet further because she does not understand why they could possibly want English clothing when they had such beautiful things in Pakistan. It was almost as though they want something different from what they already own and should cherish, which is exactly what Moniza Alvi wanted. Perhaps she does not yet understand that having both cultures within her is not all that bad. She does not have to choose between the two cultures, she could make the most out of both of them equally. Her aunts in Pakistan’s want for the M&S cardigans could be interpreted as a reflection of her own wants, perhaps her want of something other than the confusion she had live through. She wants something different, just like her aunts in Pakistan wished for the English cardigans.
Alvi showed her school friend the clothes she received from her aunts and she tells us that they “didn’t impress my school friend // who sat on my bed, asked to see // my weekend clothes.” This could be the source of confusion about which culture she should belong more fully to. Reason being, her English friends are more interested in her English clothes making her want to push her Pakistani culture aside. On the other hand, her Pakistani family is more interested in her Pakistani side, making her question her English half. In addition, the fact that she feels pressured by her English friends to carry herself in an English manner, could explain her distance towards her Pakistani culture, because if she accepted and wore herself in a Pakistani manner, she would not be as easily accepted in society in London.
Her cultural displacement is also shown when she states “no fixed nationality.” She drops this line into the poem, along with the descriptions of beggars and street sweepers. This means that her lack of “fixed nationality”, for her, means that she is on the same level as street sweepers and all the lower class people in society. This shows her torment and confusion. Also, she shows that she would rather have a “fixed nationality” rather than having two cultures within her, where she feels like she has to choose between them.
The cultural displacement however, is shown differently in “Search for my Tongue” by Sujata Bhatt. Sujata Bhatt implies that she went to the USA when she was older as she states she is “forgetting her mother tongue”. This implies that she has used it most of her life, and it is now being taken over by the new language she has to speak, English. Sujata Bhatt was fully Indian and therefore her poem shows no confusion towards her culture and the English culture, her poem shows the distress and confusion towards the two languages now forcing each other to back out.
The structure of Sujata Bhatt’s poem is in many ways different from Moniza Alvi’s poem. Bhatt has a clear, less confusing structure, it barely contains any enjambment which shows that perhaps her confusion is not as major. Her poem is carefully planned out into three sections in which at first she is afraid she may lose her mother tongue. Her fear and anger are shown through her use of punctuation. She uses a lot of commas, which slow down the pace of the poem. Perhaps by doing this she was trying to show that she is mourning her mother tongue which she is afraid is losing. Also, her anger is shown through the negative language she uses and the repetition of the word “rot”.
Repeating this aggressive word has a major effect on how the message of the poem is presented. This noun is carefully used to point out her anger for losing her mother tongue and it also forces the audience to make a vivid picture of what is going on. This is different from “Presents From My Aunts In Pakistan”, in terms of both the structure and the language. Sujata Bhatt shows her anger through her careful use of words and shows her sadness for the loss of her mother tongue through the use of commas to slow down the poem. Furthermore, the second section of her poem is in another language. She had written this part of the poem in Gujarati, her mother tongue; this has a major effect on the poem is received as the contrast between the two languages shows her entrapment between the two languages.
However, this also shows that even though her mother tongue is forgotten through the day, as it is not being used, it “blossoms” in the night showing that it is still there and proving its existence. This also shows her assurance that she still has the most important thing of her Indian culture within her. The inclusion of the foreign language in this English poem is very mysterious, and perhaps, apart from wanting to show that she had not forgotten her mother tongue, Bhatt wants to show her audience what it really feels like not being able to understand another language.
This in some ways relates to Moniza Alvi’s poem, because in her poem, she had used Pakistani terms for certain Pakistani pieces of clothing, these terms were not familiar to the reader. Perhaps they both used these unfamiliar ways to describe their culture in order to show just a fraction of their cultural displacement. Also, the structure in Alvi’s poem is very different, the poem is very confusing and uses many run on lines to further emphasise the confusion felt by the poet. Furthermore, in the third section of the poem, Sujata Bhatt translates for us what the Gujarati meant.
The atmosphere of the poem changes here, from aggressive and gloomy to much more lively and triumphant. We can tell she feels triumphant as the commas which were used to slow down the pace are now used to slow down her excitement. The language also changes from being negative to being somewhat very positive. She uses words like “blossoms” and describes how her mother tongue now grows “strong veins” and is powerful enough to push the other tongue aside. This excites the reader as the pace is much quicker and lively compared to the first part of the poem.
This is fairly different from Moniza Alvi’s poem which kept relatively the same mood throughout the poem. Perhaps the reason Sujata Bhatt has chosen to change the atmosphere in this way was to make a clear comparison between how she was feeling when she thought she had lost her mother tongue and how she feels now that it is coming back to her. Also, Moniza Alvi perhaps had no reason to show something like this, instead she used run on lines and random memories to represent her confusion about cultures something that Sujata Bhatt had chosen not to do. Sujata Bhatt’s poem is much more organized.
The language used in both poems is similar yet different in some areas. They both create imagery through the use of their language and other techniques. Sujata Bhatt uses an extended metaphor throughout her poem by repeatedly referring to her tongue as a plant. This is shown when she describes her tongue as “it would rot // rot and die.” The reason this is compared to a flower is because flowers die and rot in places that are not appealing to them. This shows Sujata’s strain in the new country, her strain to speak a new language. However it also shows the plant imagery she is creating. She goes on describing her tongue as “it grows strong veins.”
Again this shows the plant metaphor, and the fact that this is towards the end of the poem shows that the metaphor was kept even after her mother tongue had made its return; this then supports the fact that the poem contains an extended metaphor. In comparison to this, Moniza Alvi creates imagery firstly through the structure of her poem, because she has random memories the way the poem is structured forces the audience to picture what they are reading. Also, unlike Sujata Bhatt’s poem, “Presents From My Aunts In Pakistan” contains a lot of imagery which compares her two cultures.
And where she describes her Pakistani culture in a very elaborate way, she explains the English using dull, plain words with no emphasis. This is somewhat similar to Sujata Bhatt’s culture comparison as she made her Indian culture stand out by including some of her own language in the poem, she is making the foreign language stand out to English audience, making it very mysterious and therefore interesting. Also, Sujata Bhatt’s use of colloquial language is very sinister as she ends with more elaborate and triumphant vocabulary. This colloquial language is exemplified by “lost my tongue”.
This, in colloquial language means tongue tied and she might be saying this to display her cultural displacement and what it feels like. Perhaps she has no voice within her new society just like Moniza Alvi felt she did not belong in the English society, Sujata Bhatt may be feeling excluded with no voice. In addition to this, the ending to these poems show very different attitudes to their supposedly lost cultures. Sujata Bhatt ends her poem triumphantly by saying “it blossoms out of my mouth”. This last line of the poem shows how her cultural displacement has been settled and she is now reassured that her Indian culture will always be with her no matter what. Also the use of the word “blossoms” gives the poem a more positive and joyful feel and ending.
Perhaps Sujata has done this to show how much her culture means to her and how she feels when she is in control of it. In comparison to this, Moniza Alvi’s poem last few lines include the phrase “no fixed nationality” and this shows that her ending is not a happy ending as she is still feeling confused. However the last reference about cultures she made at the end of the poem is about the Pakistani culture which perhaps shows that she would love to be much more attracted to it, and she misses being a part of it.
In conclusion, both these poems show their cultural displacement through various techniques such as the language used for effect, the structure to express feelings better and even the tone of the poems. The change in tone in both poems was very significant, where on one hand Bhatt went from a mournful mood to a triumphant and glorious feeling, on the other hand, Moniza Alvi showed her confusion through her constant change of tone and atmosphere. Both poems have a unique way of showing their pain living away from one of their culture. They both however, sent the same message out, that you can never be entirely happy without your original culture, or without both your cultures involved in your life.
Bhatt’s poem shows her triumph in recovering her culture which assured her that no matter what, it will always stay with her. Alvi on the other hand, is still confused as to what nationality she belongs to best, although she should recognize that she belongs to both equally, she is still torn between the two and her pain is reflected in the lines of her poem. In addition, the pressure to belong more to one culture than the other gets higher as her aunts are somewhat pushing her to belong more to the Pakistani culture. However, the structure shows that her confusion is more due to the Pakistani culture, as her random thoughts are mostly about her life in Pakistan.
The imagery is also very powerful in both poems as they both show what is more vivid and what stands out more to them through various techniques.