“I have always felt a weird sense of longing on hearing people sharing stories and photos from their family’s past, listening with intrigue as each tale ignites in me an ardent curiosity about my own heritage.”
In my early teens, I would dread going back to visit Chak 471, electricity was only available for a few hours a day and having a shower would mean washing outside in a makeshift brick structure, crouched under an archaic hand-pump (nalka). If you’ve ever tried washing shampoo out of your hair and eyes while operating an old-style water pump you’ll know. It’s a lot.
Chak 471 is a farming village just outside of Faisalabad in Pakistan. Before it was assigned a number as a name it was called Chak (village) Ram Singhwala. It’s the place my family called home after their exile from India caused by partition. And, it’s probably not so different from the rural East Punjabi village close to Gurdarspur in India where my father was born and his father, my Dada-Ji died.
One day in mid-August 1947, a message was broadcast from the minaret of the local mosque to inform the villagers that the final section of a new border had been drawn between a secular India and a new country called Pakistan. It had been decreed that Muslims should leave their ancestral homes immediately and go to Pakistan.
This journey for my family, from East Punjab to West Punjab, took about 25 hours on foot, from Gurdarspur, Amritsar, and onto Lahore. Overnight, residents became refugees, chaotically migrating from one side to another, and vice versa. Mayhem and horrific bloodshed followed after millions had the land pulled from under them as they scrambled to gather family members.
Some made it across the border, though millions weren’t so fortunate. In a desperate attempt to escape the unimaginable violence, people traveled in chaotic droves, caravans that included livestock and, any possessions that could be carried. My Dad, Abba-Ji, was around eight years old and he and his brothers were sat on the back of a water buffalo as they made the treacherous journey to a new land they didn’t ask for.
There are no photographs of my family’s migration to West Punjab. I have a mental image of my dad, but no photographic proof. I wish that there were pictures of him and my uncles as young boys sitting on that water buffalo, but at the same time, I find it weird that I do. It’s as though I am romanticising the horrifying events of my Dad’s life. This impulse comes from a part of me, which was brought up and lives in an age of imagery, that over-documents experiences – a visual culture that chronicles everything from breakfast to bridges.
I can remember pressing my father for details of his experience of the partition and he’d shut down and if I continued to push, he would get upset, irate. Ammi-ji (Mum) said that he didn’t want to burden me with what he’d witnessed, nor be reminded of those memories. But I wanted to know what our history was, to have some ownership of our history.
At school in Britain, the curriculum doesn’t cover the partition of India. We weren’t taught that the boundary between India and Pakistan is called the Radcliffe Line, after Sir Cyril Radcliffe, its British architect. As children, we were taken to museums to view the opulent artefacts ‘acquired’ from India during the time of British Rule over India and the sub-continent – but there is no specific history module that covers the story.
Photographing scenes on recent trips to Pakistan is, in part, an attempt at trying to recreate, and to understand my history, and to make it authentically mine. As a second-generation immigrant, I have come to recognise the importance of my gaze and to speak of and share my experiences.
When I’m behind the lens I can observe and be in the moment without fully committing to it. A visitor, connecting to the people or things in front of me. It feels meaningful even if it is a wordless, fleeting but decisive moment of taking the photo, whether on the fly of a stranger or a portrait of a neighbour from the village who shares a history with my parents.
In the 1960s my father managed to get a ‘golden ticket’ (a visa) to emigrate from the village to the UK. Daddy felt lonely living and working in the UK, despite sharing a four-bedroom house with 17 other immigrants. After six years in Maidenhead working at a local factory, he returned to Pakistan to see about a girl he liked. Two years later, Khowaj and Sugrahn were married and making their way back to Maidenhead.
In the years that followed, Abba and Ammi were busy: they had four children, a few jobs between them and a house to run. I’m the youngest of two boys and two girls. My siblings were all attending school by the time I arrived and mum had gone back to work. Pre-school, I spent a lot of time with my dad who would pick me up from nursery, having only had a few hours sleep after his night-shift. We’d sometimes go and hang out in the library, me reading ‘Miffy’ books sitting by his feet while he read the Daily Jang, an Urdu newspaper containing stories from back home.
“GO HOME PAKIS!!” was yelled from a moving car at my mum and me while we were walking home, carrying bags of shopping from town. I was aged around six or seven. My Mum didn’t flinch or have any kind of reaction that I remember. I felt hurt and confused, even though I wasn’t quite sure what they meant. As far as I was aware, we were going home. I demanded she tell me. Mum replied by saying that they were clearly stupid and had no idea what they were talking about, going on to explain the meaning of Paki-stan, quite literally ”Pure-land”. Mum said, if you broke it down they were calling us “pure-ees” and I’m pretty sure she giggled and, then so did I.
Deborah Palmer was a life model at the Berkshire College of Art and Design, which was around the corner from our house. Debbie was blonde and bohemian, staying as a lodger in our family home from about 1982. By 1985 she was married to my uncle, Mum’s brother and, became my auntie.
Auntie Debbie introduced me to Blondie, the 1980s female-fronted punk band, and photography. Before she came to live with us, there were maybe three photos that existed of my immediate family. The first photos that ever existed of me were taken by Debbie. I was around three. She documented my immediate family, the photos she took, now allow me and my family to recall our past in a way that wouldn’t be possible without them.
There are no photos of my parents’ marriage and none from their childhood. I imagine my Mum and dad as kids, running around rural villages in the Punjab. I can picture my Mum as a tomboy, climbing trees on the way home from school, sneaking into orchards to pick ripe fruit. And envision my athletic dad, going for early morning runs alongside the river. I can see them finding their way home, through fields at night, the dusty pathways lit by fireflies and glow-worms. I can imagine these things as I, too, witnessed the fireflies and glow-worms lighting up the darkest nights on my visits to Chak 471.
I regularly visited Pakistan, often accompanying my Mum as a child, but never with Dad, which may be why I never felt fully connected to it. I remember that my Nani-ji, aka Bobo, my Grandma, always cooked outside. I remember her squatting in front of a clay pot, burning dung cakes as fuel. I’d watch Bobo prepare and smoke a hookah every night. I love the food, the farm animals, motorbike adventures with my cousins and, the majesty of the mango trees planted by my Nana-Ji (Grandfather, on Mums side). Away from the comforts of family, Pakistan felt too unfamiliar for what was supposed to be “home” or “where I actually came from.”
Looking back now, I am indebted to have had that exposure in my formative years. Those trips helped shape me as a person. Experiences “Back Home” in Pakistan expanded my perspective, making me more empathetic and providing me with diversity of thought, which has empowered me and allowed me to exist in a no-mans-land of estrangement. A displacement that I have become accustomed to, a place that enables me to fluidly move among all different types of people and communities with relative ease.
After a visit in the early noughties, I didn’t go to Pakistan again for around 15 years, which was a really long time. The main reason was much to do with 9/11. Post 9/11, being a Muslim, having the surname Ahmed became a strange experience. Now followed by a suffocating sense of mistrust and hostility, especially prevalent when catching flights, which became a stressful, even more so if you had a stamp in your passport from visiting Pakistan. I had started traveling to the US regularly to visit my sister, who had moved there. I stopped going to Pakistan… for around 15 years, disassociating with it in many ways.
In the years that I didn’t go to Pakistan, I went to many other countries, the privilege of a British passport and working as a camera-person with a world-touring band. One of the countries I visited was India. Which was the hardest for me to enter. It didn’t matter that India was the birthplace of my father, grand- and great-grandfathers. It took weeks and weeks to get my visa, while British mates with no connection to either India or Pakistan or anywhere close to the sub-continent got theirs in a day. Meanwhile, I was asked to provide references from work, hand over my British passport to the Indian Embassy and wait.
Before Daddy, my Abba-Ji passed away in 2016, he and my mum bought some land in a housing enclave he loved in Lahore. I thought it was important we honour his memory and build the house. Though my mum is more than capable, it was important that since I helped her arrive at the decision to build it she didn’t feel alone doing so. In April 2017 I went back to Pakistan, armed with my camera and a desire to reconnect to and take ownership of going “back home”.
The photos in the essay are taken during trips to Pakistan in 2017 and 2019. It’s hard to navigate a place independently when you rely on relatives to drive you around. I can drive in London pretty confidently, but the roads in Lahore are a hot mess. All of Pakistani society bustling through on all manner of transport, from cars to beautifully and brightly painted rickshaws, trucks, buses, on bicycles or donkey, horse and buffalo-drawn carts. Families, furniture and produce, is transported on motorbikes. There’s almost certainly order in all the chaos; I just don’t have an understanding of it.
Much of my travel around Lahore and out to Chak 471 had been in the confines of a car. This transitional space, though mostly comfortable, can get tedious, always being a passenger. I use my camera to actively participate in a moment and in doing so I connect with what I see on the other side of my lens. And here, I feel wistful and nostalgic and become preoccupied with ideas of migration, travelling toward something… away from something else.
Photographs give events, time and people a sense of importance just by the very fact that they exist. It is a way to hold on to and illustrate memory. A large part of my interest in taking photographs in Pakistan is to try and make sense of having dual nationality, of having two homes or maybe none.
It is a way of asserting my gaze and owning that. Being behind a camera provides me with the looking glass – I go from being looked at to being the looker.
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