The Presents from My Aunt in Pakistan, Summary, Analysis

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Introduction, Themes, Stylistic Study & Literary Devices

“The Presents from my Aunt in Pakistan” is a poem written by Moniza Alvi, a Pakistani-British poetess. In this poem, she incorporates an autobiographical tone in presenting her identity crisis. The plot of the poem deals with Alvi receiving some presents from her aunt in Pakistan and expresses how these presents highlight the inner feelings of a girl belonging to two different cultures. 


Complete Text

Stanza-wise summary of each Stanza

Stanza 1

They sent me a salwar kameez
peacock-blue,
and another
glistening like an orange split open,
embossed slippers, gold and black
points curling.
Candy-striped glass bangles
snapped, drew blood.
Like at school, fashions changed
in Pakistan –
the salwar bottoms were broad and stiff,
then narrow.
My aunts chose an apple-green sari,
silver-bordered
for my teens.

In the first stanza, the poet describes the feelings of a teenage girl who receives gifts from her relatives living in Pakistan, the country in which she was born. She now lives in England and feels stuck between the two cultures. The gifts include the traditional dress of Pakistan i.e. the salwar kameez which according to the girl is a brightly colored costume “glistening like an orange split open”


Stanza 2 She notices the fashion change - same for the west and the east – but the emphasis again is laid how the bangles produce blood and the use of the word 'aflame' causes some alarm. Being half-English she feels restrained and uncomfortable.


I tried each satin-silken top –
was alien in the sitting-room.
I could never be as lovely
as those clothes –
I longed
for denim and corduroy.
My costume clung to me
and I was aflame,
I couldn’t rise up out of its fire,
half-English,
unlike Aunt Jamila.

In the second stanza, more detail is given on how the narrator feels about the gifts. The speaker's identity is challenged. She feels attracted to Pakistan because of its exoticness but at the same time feels restrained. When she puts the eastern clothing which according to her is just like a costume, the sense of freedom is not there. She feels just like a bird entrapped in a cage.


Stanza 3

I wanted my parents’ camel-skin lamp –
switching it on in my bedroom,
to consider the cruelty
and the transformation
from camel to shade,
marvel at the colours
like stained glass.

The narrator is confused about Pakistan and its exotic traditions that attract her. In the third stanza also this delusion is presented. The use of the camel-skin lamp, despite its association with cruelty, attracts the narrator. The colors produced by the lamp attract the narrator towards this culture.


Stanza 4

My mother cherished her jewellery –
Indian gold, dangling, filigree,
But it was stolen from our car.
The presents were radiant in my wardrobe.
My aunts requested cardigans
from Marks and Spencers.

 In the fourth stanza, the narrator recalls how her mother uses to cherishes her Indian jewelry which was stolen from their car. She also highlights how the presents from her aunt were “radiant in my (her) wardrobe” implying that the clothes which she uses to get from her relatives living in Pakistan are in her wardrobe as she herself is not able to wear them. She also explains how her aunts used to request some clothes from different foreign brands.


Stanza 5

My salwar kameez
didn’t impress the schoolfriend
who sat on my bed, asked to see
my weekend clothes.
But often I admired the mirror-work,
tried to glimpse myself
in the miniature
glass circles, recall the story
how the three of us
sailed to England.
Prickly heat had me screaming on the way.
I ended up in a cot
In my English grandmother’s dining-room,
found myself alone,
playing with a tin-boat.

In the fifth stanza, she explains why her dresses were radiant in her wardrobe as her English friend was not too impressed by the salwar kameez. The narrator after wearing those clothes used to feel alienated from her friends who were not fond of her eastern identity so she uses to try the costume when she was alone. She also recalls how she and her parents traveled to England in “pickly heat”. After traveling to England the narrator found herself all alone on the English soil “found myself alone playing with a tin-boat."


 Stanza 6

I pictured my birthplace

from fifties’ photographs.

When I was older

there was conflict, a fractured land

throbbing through newsprint.

Sometimes I saw Lahore –

my aunts in shaded rooms,

screened from male visitors,

sorting presents,

wrapping them in tissue.

The narrator used to cherish her memories of her homeland. She often used to recall her mixed memories of Pakistan. She recalls how in the photos of “a fractured land” her aunts were screened from the males.


Stanza 7

Or there were beggars, sweeper-girls

and I was there –

of no fixed nationality,

staring through fretwork

at the Shalimar Gardens.

In the last stanza she explains that how she feels like an outsider, neither fully a Pakistani nor fully an English but like a beggar and a sweeper with no fixed nationality. The poem ends on the note that the speaker has “no fixed nationality”.


Analysis of the Poem

Themes: 

Identity Crisis: One of the major themes of this poem is an identity crisis. The narrator neither feels like a full Pakistani nor a British and is torn between the two cultures. She feels the longing which she has for Pakistan, her love for the fractured land, and the memories of her relatives which she cherishes the most but at the same time feels like an alien while wearing the costume. She is drawn to the exoticness of Pakistan but at the same time cherishes her western identity.


Cultural difference: Another major theme of this poem is the cultural difference. This cultural difference is presented through many different imageries. The narrator describes the Pakistani culture with the use of the traditional dress of Pakistan consisting of brightly colored shalwar kameez with bangles, a camel-skinned lamp, and the screening of female relatives from the male. On the other hand, western culture is described as something different from this exoticness of the eastern. It is described as something isolated.


Alienation: The narrator after coming to England finds herself alienated from the Western culture and tries to adopt it. She feels alienated on the English soil and tries to adjust herself. In trying to adjust to the Western culture she somehow loses her Eastern identity. She after living in England adopts the Western culture wholeheartedly but still feels like an alien while wearing the eastern dresses her aunt’s from Pakistan use to send her. Her identity is challenged as she can neither disregard her Eastern identity nor fully accept the Western culture.


Separation: The theme of separation is also present in the poem as the narrator feels separated from her relatives living in Pakistan. The narrator cherishes her memories of her homeland and often recalls her memories. She recalls how after traveling to England she found herself all alone playing with herself.


Poverty: The theme of poverty is also presented in the last stanza where the narrator highlights the lives of beggars and sweepers who have no fixed nationality. Poverty is, unfortunately, becoming a part of Pakistani culture. The sweepers and the beggars represent the lower class of Pakistan and the narrator hints at the point of how these people live. They neither have an identity nor a nationality. They live their lives living from hand to mouth to survive. The narrator explains how these people because of poverty chose to beg from others to survive.


Theft: This theme is presented in the fourth stanza with the mention of how the jewelry of the narrator’s mother was stolen. The poetess very beautifully depicts this social evil of theft by pointing out that this evil is not peculiar to Pakistani culture but also the English culture.


Literary Devices

Simile: 

Metaphor: The “shalwar kameez” is a metaphor, representing the culture of Pakistan.

Color Imagery: The poetess incorporates certain colors like “peacock blue”, “orange”, “golden”, “black”, “apple-green” and “silver” to represent the clothes the narrator got from her aunt. By analyzing one can see how these light and bright colors are related to Pakistani culture.


1.     Stylistic Analysis

  • The use of first-person “I”, “me” and “my”. 
  • The irregular structure of the poem.

In terms of language and diction, the choice of words in presenting the Pakistani and English culture is quite significant. The poetess mostly employed negative connotations with the Pakistani culture or the things representing Pakistan. The words like “shaded”, “conflict”, “fractured”, “broad”, “stiff”, “narrow”, “alien”, “costume”, “aflame“ and “cruelty” are the most significant connotations.


2.     “The Presents from My Aunt in Pakistan” as a representative of Pakistani Culture:

“The Presents from my Aunt in Pakistan” by Moniza Alvi is a representative of Pakistani culture in the following ways:

The employment of Pakistani tradition through clothes, shoes, and jewelry. She starts the poem by sharing that how her aunts from Pakistan “sent me a salwar kameez”, “Candy-striped glass bangles” and “apple-green sari” which seemed to her like a costume. in the fourth stanza, she highlights the culture of Pakistan by telling about her mother's Indian jewelry “My mother cherished her jewelry – Indian gold, dangling, filigree”.


The employment of specific color imagery peculiar to Pakistani culture i.e. the use of bright colors. The representation of cultural evils: Moniza Alvi in the third stanza highlights the evil of hunting and the cruelty of the lamp maker “consider the cruelty and the transformation from camel to shade” and “marvel at the colors”. Similarly, in the last stanza, the evil of begging is also highlighted by the poetess by comparing herself with the “beggars,sweeper-girls” who have no fixed nationality.


The employment of Pakistani norms and religious values: In the sixth stanza, of the poem the poetess presents Pakistani norms and religious values through the employment of “Purdah”. The narrator in the poem narrates how her aunts were “screened from male visitors” in the photos she saw of her aunts.

 


Conclusion

In conclusion, one may say that the poem “The Presents from my Aunt in Pakistan” by Moniza Alvi is representative of Pakistani culture and highlights certain themes such as identity crisis, cultural difference, and alienation with the use of rhetoric language.

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