academic, cultural, immigrant, Pakistan, Uncategorized, USA

Eliza Doolittle returns to Lahore

One of the most poignant scenes in My Fair Lady is the one where Eliza returns to Covent Garden after being groomed and bullied by Henry Higgins into becoming a ‘lady.’ The happy, singing London poor – Eliza’s former comrades – treat her with distant deference. She is vaguely familiar but they do not know her. Her demeanor and her language have transformed her from an insider into an outsider. She has all the cultural capital of a lady. As a result, she has lost the cultural capital that enabled her to hustle, to ply her wares (flowers) on the London street, and to form some kind of a rough but instant and real connection with her former colleagues.


Eliza is now a beautiful, glamorous person
of quality, but Eliza is no flower-seller. She is an exile forever. She has had a room, a house, pillows and sheets, maids and expensive attire, and now, without all of these, she is bereft and bare, shorn as a lamb, entirely lost.

I am on my way for a two-week trip to my hometown of Lahore. This is where I lived, grew up, attended school and college, and this is where I still have my family. Now, my nuclear family is here in Illinois.

Now my hopes, dreams, routines, and rituals wind their way around Panera, Millikin University, functional traffic signals, the D.M.V, book-writing, and tenure. I have been disconnected, in my adult years, from the deep-rooted dreams, routines, and rituals that wound their way around my heart – rituals of picking out lemon tarts in the Ghalib Market bakery; dissecting Bernard Shaw in class at Kinnaird College; getting involved in student politics at Punjab University; spending long hours in Ferozesons Bookshop; ordering freshly-made mango ice-cream in Liberty Market, and early-morning dusty trips to relatives in Gujranwala.

I keep returning to these roots, to these rituals. But now, I cannot digest the mango ice-cream. Ferozesons bookshop burned down last year, ironically, during my last trip: the ruins of the historic building were still smoking when I stepped out toward it. I have been trying to re-establish a connection as an alumna with my alma maters, and have only made it (thanks to an old friend who teaches there) as far as a short visit to the Convent of Jesus and Mary school. I’ve been to Punjab University, but I am like a ghost wandering through the buildings. I suppose I could do better if I was less diffident, but like Eliza, I am uncertain when I step out of the plane and into the airport in Lahore. I am nervous. I don’t know what awaits.

I keep sanitizer and bottled water handy. Most of the time, I look like a fright because my hair, skin, and body have forgotten how to handle the heat, the humidity, and the dust. I complain incessantly of the heat, the humidity, and the dust. I love the hot, chaotic, unpredictable beauty that springs out and startles me at every corner yet I struggle with it constantly, willing it into the disinfected, white-tiled, cookie-cutter clean lines of American life. I must have my mangoes and my jamuns, but I must have them washed with bottled water. I hang out with my family, reclining on beds all day in the single air-conditioned room, but I cannot stand it when the power goes out and I cannot check my email 24 hours a day.

And much has changed. Some of my old haunts have disappeared, or have transformed themselves. The quiet part of Gulberg where we lived is now intensely fashionable and exudes quantities of wealth I had never known or seen. Parts of Lahore Cantonment that barely existed during my girlhood now flourish, throbbing with activity.

When I try to re-insert myself into former routines and spaces, those routines and spaces have changed beyond recognition. For friends and family who remained in Pakistan, yes, change has occurred, but they have been there to witness it, to shape it, to become part of it. I have not. I have seen it in the news, heard of it second-hand. Many beloved relatives are now dead. I haven’t even attended their funerals. I forget who is still alive and who is dead. Celebrities who were all the rage during my girlhood are dead and dying. I am Rip Van Winkle, returning home after a long, long nap, to tell stories of the past that everyone else has gotten over. I am now the relative who visits every few years. I am like an absent lover, trying to force Pakistan to embrace me again as it used to, to become again what it used to be, except Pakistan has moved on. And what right do I have to expect it to fall in love with me again? It is those moments that I dread, moments where Pakistan spurns my advances, shuns my English-accented words of endearment, stares coldly at my attempts to be collegial, and tells me I do not belong. During a discussion on politics, an uncle disagreed with my perspective and called me “you Americans.” Naturally, Americans would disagree with him. I am that dhobi ka kutta – the washerman’s dog who belongs neither at home nor at the riverbank.

gladys cooper, audrey hepburn & rex harrison - my fair lady 1964

During a faculty workshop at Lahore College for Women University in the summer of 2012, I cracked a joke in Urdu to bring home the importance of tone in the ‘thick description’ of qualitative field-notes. When the laughter died down, a professor commented with wonder on how I was one moment an ‘American,’ and the next moment, a ‘typical Pakistani.’ I am. I can do that. I am bicultural. Isn’t it great? But true belonging is usually monocultural. You have to be provincial to be a real insider. Comopolitanism is foreignness at heart – it is an exile.

Even now, when I go grocery shopping in the U.S., I find myself lost as to what groceries to buy. What do people do with leeks? Where are the teenday, the arvi, the jamun? And when I go back home, I can’t even eat out of doors because my stomach is frustratingly delicate. No gol-guppay or open-air samosas for me, thank you: I’ll stick to my kichri, and it will stick with me (if I’m lucky). I make stupid grammatical mistakes in Urdu and my mother laughs at my Punjabi accent. Every merchant knows to charge me double. I don’t get any of the political jokes in Pakistan. I am Eliza, out of place at Ascot and out of place in the streets of London. I can perform and approximate belonging, but I am not fully understood in both places, and I do not fully understand both. But I can theorize the hell out of it all. And a lot of good it does me.

4 thoughts on “Eliza Doolittle returns to Lahore”

  1. Shabana, you pull thoughts and feelings that lurk in my sub-conscious out in the open. Feelings I’ve buried because it’s painful to re-visit them. thoughts of people who are no longer there and a way of life that exists only in my memory. But I thank you, because you so eloquently write of things that make me smile and cry at the same time.

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