In my last blog, I outlined the way that I was brought up to think about race. In it, I mentioned the stories my mother would tell me and how she has always stuck firmly to the idea that some relationships are simply more important than any social construct.
Here I think we should start with the stories that her Grandparents told her.
All of my mother’s grandparents and both parents were born in the Punjab, which is now part of Pakistan. I believe that the following is an excellent documentary on the subject.
The trauma of partition is hard to fathom (I mean trauma in a genuine sense of the word, not the way some use it as a means of exaggerating the extent of feeling some level of discomfort or being uncomfortable).
Let’s face it, in any place where people with different ethnicities/religions/beliefs exist there is going to be tension among those who struggle to live and let live. But this does not mean that people can not live in that way or indeed never have.
This is not about the right to self-determination, but more could have been done to avoid the conflict and provide safeguards for those that wanted to stay or leave the newly formed states from all leaders. Instead, chaos ensued. Hidden in all of the tensions and violence were real people who simply found themselves with little choice but to move. Some held out but for others the danger seemed to great, as well as being caught up in the fear that if they stayed their lives were in danger. So they moved, on foot, with as much as they could carry to cross an arbitrarily drawn border.
Amid this chaos were members of my family, who if there had been some real chance of staying, would have never left their corner of the Punjab. For mum, who was born a decade after independence, her views on partition were informed less by biased textbooks than by her paternal grandparents who knew only too well that there was blame on all sides.
Her grandmother was heart-broken and never really recovered. She didn’t accept the new India easily or the idea that she should be happier now that she didn’t live in a Muslim majority region. She missed her home, the tree growing in her backyard, her neighbours – well basically her life. So mum learnt, early on that yes family mattered, but so did your neighbours. Let me reiterate, these were not perfect people with halos glowing, they just cared about their neighbours more than they cared about the religion of their neighbours that’s all.
Later I would hear one of my elderly Indian neighbours (who lived on the same street as us in England) talking about her experiences, how they had to hide their neighbours while a mob burnt their house down and figured out a way to enable them safe passage out of their neighbourhood.
My grandparents adjusted to their new reality easier but were more likely that the local population to still mix and be friends with Hindu’s (there were no Muslims in that part any longer). My grandfather didn’t much care for the tribalistic attitudes of his new neighbours but had an easy way and so went about his business as he chose to. So again mum grew up in a different set up to that of most of her background.
One of the issues I want to explore later on is how race and the emphasis on ethnic divisions seems to do little other than hamper our understanding historically. When Yugoslavia was splitting up, it got to me, the old Serbs in Croatia who refused to leave even at gunpoint, the sheer tragedy of Bosnia and the displacement of people along ethnic lines. I’d heard it all before and felt for those who just didn’t want this. Again nothing beats the following documentary in its explanation.
It was hard not to care about those who, in a different place and time, were forced to move on based on the sectarianism of others.
And so to my mother. Maybe it is her village roots and the proximity of neighbours and community that has never really left her but growing up I knew that my neighbours were important. That some of them were white British wasn’t an issue or consideration. They were our neighbours – end of.
We were expected to be polite, speak to them, treat them with respect and she would try her best to converse with them. Over time, with our immediate neighbours, she would send Christmas cards and gifts.
I am not going to pretend that she was as close to our white British neighbours as she was to the Indian families who lived on the same street but then I think it’s unfair to put this down to ethnicity alone. Most of our neighbours were elderly with children who had long flown the nest. They were at different stages of their lives. It did not help that mum’s English wouldn’t always hold up. Mind you she is especially close to Mary and her elderly mother, who we went round to see on regular occasions because she could not get out much. In the end, I guess we get on with and are close to some people more than others.
My parents now live in a small, old coal mining village and she lives there quite happily among her neighbours of all religions, backgrounds and ethnicities. She has always been naturally friendly and giving. She has managed to get to know them and having the allotment helps.
In all her time in Leicester, there just weren’t any black Caribbean or African families in our area and I did wonder about her attitude towards people from that background. Of course in typical style, no sooner is one of her neighbours a black British man, she relates. It is perhaps a gift now that I think of it. More recently, he has separated from his wife, so mum tends his allotment for him while they as a family sort out what is to happen next. It’s the same as for her white British neighbours who are lucky enough to head off to Goa for six months of the year.
Mum would not pass any test of the PC thought police but then again actions do speak louder than words.