Presents from my aunts in Pakistan was written by Moniza Alvi in the late 1950’s and is about a Pakistani born girl with an English mother and a Pakistani father. They migrated to England only a couple of months into her life, now sensing that she is ‘of no fixed nationality’ and living in two worlds. The Poet compares the exotic presents she receives with what she had seen at her school. The presents seem to form a link to an alternative way of life in Lahore, her birth place.
Moniza Alvi writes about herself at thirteen unsure about her ethnic group. Her aunts send her three tunics from Pakistan, one peacock blue, one orange and the other apple-green for her teenage years. She also receives a pair of black slippers laced with gold embroidery. A set of glass wristlets were given to Moniza but when she tried them on one snapped drawing blood from her wrists. The poet explains that like in the UK, fashions changed, the salwar bottoms she received were narrow, when they used to be broad and stiff.
When she tries her new outfits on for the first time she feels out of the ordinary, an ‘alien in the sitting-room’ and doesn’t think she suited the clothes. She feels that wearing the clothes in the British culture she has grown up to recognize would be inappropriate; although she was passionate about her new items of clothing she ‘couldn’t rise up out of its fire’ being only half-Pakistani. ‘Unlike Aunt Jamila’ is the final line of the second stanza; I think that here, she desperately longs to be more like her aunt. Earlier in the stanza she says ‘I longed for denim and corduroy’, this means she doesn’t feel comfortable wearing the new clothes and wants to be more English. Both of these lines contradict each other in my mind, adding to the sense of unknowing what nationality she may be a part of.
Moniza’s parents’ camel skin lamp was one of the many things they owned, brought back from their Pakistani origins. She wanted the lamp in her bedroom, so she could watch the phenomenon of the colours, while considering the vindictiveness caused to the animals. She states the lamp was ‘Like stained glass’; here she is trying to put emphasis on the amazingly bright colours. Her mother valued the Indian gold jewellery in her possession dearly until she discovered that they had been stolen from the car. In the fourth stanza the poet continues with the requests her Aunts gave in return for the presents given to Moniza and her family. They wanted some clothes commonly found in the British lifestyle, purchased from ‘Marks and Spencer’s’. She says that the cloths in her wardrobe didn’t match any of the clothes her aunt’s sent, they were simply too bright with the brilliant, intense colours.
In the fifth stanza she has invited a friend over to her house, she sat on her bed and asked to see her weekend clothes. Her friend wasn’t too impressed when she showed her the new ‘salwar kamez’ she was given. But Moniza didn’t really care… Small mirrors had been sewn on to the tunics and she loved them. She tries to picture the tale of how her and her parents came to England. The poet had seen herself when they first came to the U.K. in a picture her grandma had, in it she saw herself in a cot, alone, playing with a little tin boat.
She looks at some old photographs of the city of Lahore (her birthplace) taken in the 1950’s and compares them to how it looks now. As she grew up, she viewed images and studied articles about how the city was with the conflict; she describes Pakistan as being ‘a fractured land’. She illustrates to us the conditions her aunts were in as they wrapped up the presents they sent to her. In their country the female faces are screened from the males. In the final stanza, she imagines herself to be living there, in Lahore, staring through the fretwork, staring at the Shalimar Gardens. She still believes that she is there ‘of no fixed nationality’.
This poem is very emotive; it makes the reader really feel for the girl desperately wanting to be a part of both cultures. She really likes living in England but would also like to know what her life would be like if she was in her hometown, all she knows about Lahore is what her family have said, what she sees on the news and the old fifties photographs. I like the way this poem is presented, all the lines seem to be jotted randomly across the page, I think this symbolises her state of mind as she was writing the poem, confused and all messed up.