Coming from a region composed almost wholly of colonised countries, the peoples of Asia maintain an attitude that is wrought with irony: On the one end, we take a defensive stance that borders on the offensive, seeking to deny any Western influence that might hint at an identity that is not entirely our own. On the other end, however, there is the veneration of anything Western, ranging from our admiration of the ruddiness of their skin and the distinct points of their noses to our preference for Western clothes and entertainment. Thus, there appears a general conflict among Asians, between loyalty to one’s heritage and the desire to take part in ‘superior’ Western culture.
The poet Moniza Alvi captures the difficulty of this choice in a unique way. Flowering from Asian and Western seeds that have been planted in the same pot, she is conflict: though she has been raised on English soil by an English mother, the Pakistani blood inherited from her father streams steadily through her as a continual reminder of its part in her identity. Thus, an internal struggle to resolve these two cultures silently rages on in her poem, The Country at My Shoulder.
There’s a country at my shoulder,
growing larger – soon it will burst,
rivers will spill out, run down my chest.
My cousin Azam wants visitors to play
ludo with him all the time.
He learns English in a class of seventy.
And I must stand to attention
with the country at my shoulder.
There’s an execution in the square –
The woman’s dupattas are wet with tears.
The offices have closed
for the white-hot afternoon.
But the women stone-breakers chip away
at boulders, dirt on their bright hems.
They await the men and the trucks.
I try to shake the dust from the country,
smooth it with my hands.
I watch Indian films –
Everyone is very unhappy,
or very happy,
dancing garlanded through parks.
I hear of bribery, family quarrels,
travellers’ tales – the stars
are so low you think you can touch them.
Uncle Aqbar drives down the mountain
to arrange his daughter’s marriage.
She’s studying Christina Rossetti.
When the country bursts, we’ll meet.
Uncle Kamil shot a tiger,
it hung over the wardrobe, its jaws
Fixed in a roar – I wanted to hide
its head in a towel.
The country has become my body –
I can’t break bits off.
The men go home in loose cotton clothes.
In the square there are those who beg –
And those who beg for mercy.
Azam passes the sweetshop,
names the sugar monuments Taj Mahal.
I water the country with English rain,
cover it with English words.
Soon it will burst, or fall like a meteor.
Through the specificity of her words, the imagery of the country – which may be presumed, through her background, to represent her Pakistani heritage – is clear. Located at her shoulder, the part of the anatomy that is associated with a person’s capacity to bear weight, the country is a burden she must carry. Making the load more difficult is that it is not static: associated with such verbs as “burst” and “spill,” the country threatens to grow until it reaches a sudden and violent culmination. Thus, the country at her shoulder seems to be a growing awareness of the significance Pakistani culture has on her life, an awareness that pains her and that she cannot seem to control.
Supporting the notion that this developing consciousness only results in pain are the various images of Pakistani culture that she includes and the manner in which she presents them. A clear metaphor is found in the tiger’s head, a symbol of Indian culture which she desires to hide. More literally, she mentions social and political realities of Pakistan, such as the execution in the square, the stone-breakers who stand for the strict caste system, and the beggars in the square who are poor in both material wealth and civil liberties. Her response to these realities is very telling when she says that she tries to “shake the dust from the country / smooth it with [her] hands,” implying her hesitance to accept these elements – so different from the English culture she has grown up in – as part of her being (16-17).
The various relatives she mentions throughout the poem deepen our understanding of her attitude towards her Pakistani heritage. In the stanzas about her cousins and uncle, we are presented with instances of both English and Pakistani culture. For example, in spite of his daughter reading Christina Rossetti and immersing herself in Western culture, Uncle Aqbar still subjects her to the tradition of arranged marriage. Additionally, her cousin, Azam, learns English yet insists on playing ludo, and eats English sweets yet is only reminded by them of the Taj Mahal. These situations seem to portray the imposition of Pakistani culture on English culture, implying a fear the poet might have of her inability to balance these two sides of herself. The complexity of her emotions is heightened with the line, “When the country bursts, we’ll meet,” with “we” meaning herself, Uncle Aqbar, and his daughter (28). One may gather from this line that she is not averse to her Pakistani ties and that she even welcomes them. What she seems to struggle with is the uncertainty of accepting two cultures.
By highlighting her relatives, Alvi leads us to what I feel is the most crucial point of the poem: the role of blood ties. It is by blood, not by personal choice, that Pakistani culture is a part of her. Hence, she writes, “The country has become my body – / I can’t break bits off” (33-34). From these lines, it becomes clear that the choice to accept or reject the country at her shoulder is not hers, for it has been decreed by the genetic inheritance of which her body stands as proof. The lack of choice thus implies that conflict does not simply remain unresolved, but is actually the very nature of her being. Hence, in spite of her efforts to “water the country with English rain, / cover it with English words” the country at her shoulder will still burst forth in its own time and in its own way (40-41).
Alvi, Moniza. “The Country at My Shoulder.” Contemporary Literature of Asia. Ed. Arthur W.
Biddle, Gloria Bien and Vinay Dharwadker. Prentice Hall, 1996. 201-202.