South Asians and Swans in Great Britain

Our year in England outshines the brilliance of the Punjab. It is a whirlwind of trips on red double-deckers and barges down the Thames to the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square, and Kew Gardens. I am pulled into Mummy’s obsession with Tudors.  She tells of the headless ghost of Anne Boleyn running through the halls of Hampton Court. 

On the radio, we listened to the soft melody of “Green Sleeves”, a tribute to Anne as she was courted by Henry VIII. Later, I realize the inaccuracy of this story, which makes the music so much more haunting in the premonition of what followed.

Noli me Tangere

A decade later, in Pakistan, Anne Boleyn will return to me through Wyatt’s sonnet “Whoso List to Hunt“, in which it is clear that the deer belongs to Caesar. A royal deer, a royal love, a royal swan, none to be pursued.

In England, when Mummy takes us to Kensington Gardens, we bring stale bread to feed the swans.

The unmarked mute swans belong to the queen. Mummy tells us.

Can we still feed them? I wonder.

All the swans in England and Wales belong to her.

What else does the queen own, but I’m still taking in the fact that one person owns all the swans in the country. How does that even happen?

Eight hundred years ago, someone decided it would be that way. And everyone in England finds no reason to disagree. Did anyone ask the swans?

The four of us on Barnes Common

What to Eat

But those thoughts can wait. I have other more important decisions to consider. So many ice cream flavors. Which one do I not choose? And at tea time, Battenberg cake. For Sunday lunch shepherd’s pie. Fish and chips served in newspapers with vinegar drizzled all over.

It is easy for my six-year-old self to become comfortable here. I am wrapped in mummy’s faux fur coat of British culture.

The constant drizzle, or spitting as it is called by the locals, does little to dampen the fun we are having.

If only Abu was with us. I think, and mummy tells us that he will join us by the end of the year. 

Betrayal of a Commonwealth

I don’t know this then, but the British have begun to distance themselves from their brown and black commonwealth cousins. They are afraid they will make this place home, so they pass the Immigration Act of 1971.

We send Abu letters more regularly than we receive. I tell him about the friends I have made in school. Unlike him, I haven’t changed my name for them even though they can’t pronounce it.  They stress the “u” making the end of my name the beginning of a question.  Despite my polite reminders, that extra sound remains.  Oh well!

I won’t even write to him about how mummy has told us not to use the word “Paki”.  I imagine it is the English word for people like us, people from Pakistan.

It’s not.  She tells us on our walk across Barnes Common.

Years later I will understand the stares we feel when mummy and her four brown daughters wait for the Number 9 bus outside Richmond stop. A polite stare.  The kind that you can feel, but when you look up to where you thought it came from, it becomes a “look away”.

South Asians in England

On Laurel Road, with granny and grandad, we are sheltered from the prevalent feeling in England that makes immigrants from Pakistan an easy target.  We never know that as a group, we are considered “weak” and “passive”.  This according to a report assessing violence against the immigrants from Pakistan.

A few decades earlier, the fathers of these Pakistani immigrants were named the “martial race”. This was done to recruit them to join the Imperial army and end fascism in World War II. Later, they were invited to rebuild the nation. Now, they bring their families.

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