A black-and-white photograph has been resurfacing on my Twitter feed since last week: women carrying their belongings in cloth bundles on top of their heads while migrating to their new and uncertain homes during the India-Pakistan partition, which unfolded 74 years ago this month.
At a time racked with tumult and instability – owing to both the pandemic and political unrest in many parts of the world – the image feels unexpectedly poignant.
I’m the granddaughter of a UN ambassador and an admiral of the Pakistan Navy, yet I’ve remained rather oblivious to the history of my heritage. Born in America, and raised across the US and the UAE by parents who lived most of their lives abroad, I’m not exactly in tune with my Pakistani roots.
I’m surrounded by friends who speak Urdu to their children, feed them kheer and tailor-make shalwar kameezes for them to wear on Eid – yet for me, these expressions of cultural pride don’t come innately.
Rather, I’m your typical "third-culture kid" who pauses when asked: “Where are you from?” I don’t fully identify with my American nationality, my Canadian education or my time living in London. To me, Dubai is home.
And then along came motherhood, leading me to question how I would pass down elements of my culture – or rather, my grandparents’ culture – to my child. It’s tricky because there are some aspects of it I find problematic as a woman, such as honour-based ideals that place the onus of modesty on us, societal pressures that prioritise domesticity over personal career goals, and almost-comical cliches that make me feel insufficient for being unable to make a perfectly round roti.
The country of my elders has also faced horrific cases of femicide in recent times. On one side of the border, in Afghanistan, the Taliban have taken over; on the other side, India continues to be plagued by casteism and violence against women.
As I watch the world around me change at a frightening pace, I worry about how my complicated culture will be imprinted on to my young daughter. I certainly didn’t expect any help from the farfetched plots and floral fields of Bollywood and yet here we are.
After months on end of hearing snorts and grunts emanating from pink cartoon pigs on the television, I realised that I would need to make our 5.30am starts more tolerable. I decided to replace Peppa Pig with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the first Bollywood movie I watched as a child. I fast-forwarded to a song-and-dance sequence featuring children in colourful outfits with balloons at a summer camp – and voila, my daughter was hooked.
From there, we worked our way up to other classics – Dilwale Dulhunia Le Jayenge, Dil To Pagal Hai and Taal. Soundtracks from these films have now replaced the Cocomelon nursery rhymes during car rides, as my daughter seems to be quickly memorising song lyrics that I can’t even fully translate.
Bollywood films are serving as a somewhat romanticised medium through which she’s getting a glimpse of South Asian culture.
The superfluous songs with several outfit changes might be excessive, but they’re far preferable to the endless Peppa episodes and Baby Shark renditions we used to spend hours watching on YouTube. Not to mention, they offer an escape – a more jovial, colourful alternative to the dismal reality of the subcontinent at present – for her and me.
My daughter is now busting out random lines of Hindi movie dialogues and asking me what certain words and phrases mean. Emulating the bindis worn by some actresses on screen, she has even started putting circular stickers on her forehead, proudly donning what she calls “the red dot”.
The films we’re watching may be a facade, painting a prettier picture of “culture” than those currently splashed real-time across news channels, but my daughter is at an age where she can get away with being naive. As she grows, her life experiences will form her own interpretations of culture, even as I guide and comfort her throughout. Some might even argue I’m immersing my child in Indian, not Pakistani culture, but, to me, the roots are common.
In the meantime, I have more pressing concerns: to ensure she’s in the Shah Rukh Khan camp rather than a Salman Khan fan.