Culture is something that was argued over thousands of years and is still something to be questioned. It was the main theme in the 1990’s as immigration was at its peak. Therefore poems were common to express different opinions regarding immigration. Moniza Alvi was born in Lahore in Pakistan, the daughter of a Pakistani father and an English mother. They immigrated to Hatfield when she was a few month old. She did not revisit Pakistan until after the publication of her first book of poems ‘The country over my shoulder’ from which ‘Presents from my aunts in Pakistan’ comes from.
The poem is about how Alvi felt as a young girl about her cultural identity. She felt English, but was attracted to Pakistan, and confused and even repelled by it. There are some feelings of guilt about this uncertain attitude. There is a general sense of a young person trying to work out who she is. In her poem, Alvi doesn’t quite know what to think about the presents. The way she uses metaphors and similes to describe them makes them sound beautiful ‘peacock blue’ and ‘glistening like an orange split open ’these vivid and colourful images are rich in connotations and appeal to several of our senses: the sense of sight, smell and taste.
For example the image of the orange, as the colour of the orange appeals to our sense of sight because orange is a warm and vibrant colour that makes us think of warm, sunny days in summer. It gives not only the idea of warmth but also joyfulness. The image also appeals to the sense of smell as you can almost smell the scent of the orange as the words are read. This image gives the impression that the Pakistani culture is outwardly very showy, grand and beautiful in its richness and variety.
However when you split something open it is mostly a negative thing the reason for Alvi including it is that she refers it to what happened to her as her identity was split between England and Pakistan. As the reader we feel torn for her and the image of an orange being split open gives us an idea of how Alvi might be feeling. Furthermore she also describes them to be slightly dangerous using such expressions as the ‘bangle drew blood’ but also this can be a metaphor to show that although the bangle did not really draw blood but it did inside of her. Presents from my aunts in Pakistan’ is a very sensitive poem and many emotions are expressed throughout the poem. In the first stanza, Moniza Alvi expresses excitement as she lists all of the wonderful things that her aunts have sent her from Pakistan. In the second stanza, she seems down heartened about everything and says, “never be as lovely as those clothes” She does think the clothes are wonderful, but feels she is inadequate, not good enough for them. This may be a form of guilt about her uncertain feelings that may be due to her being ‘half English’ and thinking that she does not deserve to wear the Pakistani clothes .
For the rest of the poem she seems confused about her background and indecisive about which background she prefers. ‘Presents from my aunts in Pakistan’ is written in the first person. This makes it a lot more personal and makes the reader feel more involved with Moniza Alvi. The reader feels closer to the action as well and it makes them feel as if they were there and they begin to feel the things she felt. “I longed…I wanted…” It generally makes the poem seem more intimate. ‘Presents from my aunts in Pakistan’ is written in free verse: the phrases are arranged loosely across the page.
It is divided into stanzas of varying length. As well as this it is set out on the page with no real structure in a rather confused pattern with no rhyming scheme in order to give the poem its natural feeling and this reflects her confused feeling towards which background she is from. She is just remembering her memories and writing them down on the page and still she needed her “fifties’ photographs” to help her remember the time when she was in Pakistan. The language of the poem is quite informal, appearing to flow from the writer’s mind as many of the lines are indented in an irregular pattern.
The visual aspect of the poem adds to the sense of uncertainty. The lines seem to move backwards and forwards on the page, echoing the idea of going to and fro between two cultures. This is a creative way of underlining the theme of the poem, the feeling of not really belonging to any one particular place, of being unsure of one’s identity. Alvi then relates how a visiting school friend of hers did not appreciate the salwar kameez or sari when shown them. This leads into Alvi’s expression of her admiration of the mirror-work in the Pakistani clothes. She tells us ‘I / … ried to glimpse myself / in the miniature / glass circles’, but the fact that they were so small leads to our realization that Alvi would not have been able to see her whole reflection, just a fragment of herself, which underlines the idea of a split identity. She then tries to remember the journey she made from Pakistan to England at a very young age. ‘Prickly heat had me screaming on the way’ emphasises the idea of pain and the difficulty of being torn between two cultures. She recalls being in a cot in her English grandmother’s home, and stresses being alone with a tin boat to play with after the long voyage.
Stanza six focuses on memories of Pakistan. Alvi looks at photographs taken in the 1950s to help her remember the country of her birth. Later, she read about the ‘conflict’ in Pakistan in newspapers, seeing it as ‘a fractured land’, which again reflects her own feeling of having a fractured identity. She can still picture her aunts in Lahore as they wrapped presents. They would have been hidden from ‘male visitors’ by a carved wooden screen this idea again adds to the sense of not being able to see clearly, of fragmentation. The final stanza opens with memories linked with poverty: ‘beggars, sweeper-girls’.
As though it was a dream, Alvi pictures herself as part of the scene, saying ‘I was there of no fixed nationality’. This phrase tells us exactly how she feels that she does not belong wholly to any country. Like her aunts, she is behind a screen, or ‘fretwork’, looking out at the Shalimar Gardens. This echoes the image of her trying to see herself in the mirror-work of the Pakistani clothes, as in both instances a complete picture would have been hard to see. In conclusion the message in the poem is that the poet suggests that it is possible like her to be torn between cultures and to experience problems of cultural identity as a result.