How Subhani Met Margaret

How English came to us

Like my students, I grew up in a culture of many languages: English, Urdu, Punjabi, Arabic, and if we were lucky, some Farsi, too. Pakistan was where I was born and spent most of my formative years, but English is my mother tongue. For the majority of the people in Pakistan, English is the legacy of Imperialism, one that continues. Despite the departure of the British in 1947, English remains the language of education and business.

But for me and my sisters, we have the added benefit of a mother from England. For us, English is our mother tongue. 

Languages we spoke

English is what we spoke at home, listened to on television, sang along to on the radio, watched on the big screen at the cinema. English formed the soundtrack of my thoughts. The strange effect of this is that what should have been my native language—Urdu—sounded foreign, as though it were exotic or strange.

In Pakistan, where intelligence and knowledge are often measured through English proficiency, my sister and I stood out. We spoke English not only proficiently but fluently. In short, we lucked out.

Subhani leaves Pakistan

Our luck began in the late 50s, when my father, Subhani, an engineering student from Pakistan, attended a college dance in Kent. He was in England to further his education. Not in the idealistic way one might imagine, which was the bright pursuit of immigrant dreams. He never planned to stay in the UK.  With a British degree, he would return to Pakistan.

Like the many South Asians encouraged to assist the crumbling Empire, Subhani was welcomed to England. He had no problem entering the country. And while many people assume that immigrants venture abroad for a superior education, Subhani found his engineering classes in England to be easy, compared to the ones back home. The difficult part was assimilating into a culture that was not familiar with a name like Subhani. So, he changed it to Bill.

He took on this new name with the confidence with which he approached everything. The eldest son who knew who he was, regardless of the name change.  Whatever he was called,  some of his happiest memories were of his time in England.  But then he was also content in one of Pakistan’s all-boy public boarding schools, this one in Ghoral Gali, The Valley of the Horses.

Party in Kent

Soon after arriving in England, the young man now known as Bill bought himself a Kodak so he could send photographs to his mother and nine siblings.

A year later, at that college dance in Kent, he placed the camera on a long bench and went off to get a drink. When he returned, the camera had disappeared under the edges of tulle lace bordering a blueish green party dress. The woman wearing the dress chose that color to match her eyes. Margaret Catherine Davies, a student of art and literature, brushed back her deep auburn bob as she talked to her friend, unaware of the camera. Bill cleared his throat. Margaret looked up at the curly-haired young man with smiling brown eyes.

Would you like to dance?  he heard himself say.

That’s all it took

Margaret looked at him. What would her parents say if she accepted?  According to her, she shifted uncomfortably at the thought, causing her dress to lift. Subhani glanced at the camera appearing from under the tulle, but she interpreted his downward glance as an appealing bashfulness.

Ship to Karachi

Three years later, with a one-year-old daughter in tow and another on the way, Bill and Margaret sailed from Southampton to Karachi on the RMS Circassia. The ship that had once carried Allied troops now carried passengers, including a young family embarking on a new life.

In taking on this new life, Margaret also took on a new faith, Islam, and a new name, Zarina. Bill became Subhani again. And for us, they have always been Mummy and Abu.


  1. I really liked it the words were well chosen and no one will be bored with long details wish there was more to read can’t wait to see it all

  2. As sweet as can be! I have always been fascinated by the way aunty Zarina came from England and adopted Pakistani culture.

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