Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan

Moniza Alvi


Moniza Alvi

Nationality: English, Pakistani

Moniza Ali is a Pakistani and British poet. Her work explores her identity, various cultures, and more.

She won the Cholmondeley Award in 2002.

This poem, ‘Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan’, gives voice to a young person who has been living away from her homeland for quite some time. The voice reflects the way in which she has adjusted to her new home, yet still yearns for the place of her childhood. The speaker receives gifts that make her long for homeland. These gifts were given to her by her aunts, who still lived in Pakistan. The speaker reveals that she moved to England because she had an English grandmother and Pakistan became a dangerous place for her. Although her homeland was not safe and she was forced to relocate, the tone of this poem reveals the memories of her past life that she cherishes.

Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan by Moniza Alvi

Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan Analysis

Stanza One

They sent me a salwar kameez


                 and another

  glistening like an orange split open,

embossed slippers, gold and black

           points curling.

  Candy-striped glass bangles

           snapped, drew blood.

  Like at school, fashions changed

           in Pakistan –

the salwar bottoms were broad and stiff,

           then narrow.

My aunts chose an apple-green sari,


           for my teens.

The speaker receives gifts that reveal to her the similarities and differences between two places- the place she currently resides and the place in which she grew up. Like in England, the styles in Pakistan had changed. They were quite different from the styles in England, but it is interesting that both groups of people have changed their tastes in style over time. The speaker notes the differences in the clothes her aunt sent her, comparing them to the clothes she wore in childhood. The clothes her aunt chose for her were styles in Pakistan geared toward teens. These styles, however, were quite different from the styles popular in England at the time.

Stanza Two

I tried each satin-silken top –

  was alien in the sitting-room.

I could never be as lovely

           as those clothes –

  I longed

for denim and corduroy.

  My costume clung to me

           and I was aflame,

I couldn’t rise up out of its fire,


           unlike Aunt Jamila.

For some reason, the speaker feels that the clothes from Pakistan were too beautiful for her, and she “longed for denim and corduroy”. These are likely the materials that were popular in England at the time, and she had already begun to feel more comfortable in her English clothes than Pakistani clothing. The speaker, however, specifies that she believes the clothes from Pakistan are too beautiful for her. This implies her feeling that she lost a part of her beauty in the transformation that took place as she adjusted from Pakistani culture to the English culture. It is interesting that she refers to herself as an “alien” as she looked at the clothes. She was, by definition, an alien in England. And yet, she felt she was an alien when she looked at the clothes sent from Pakistan. She notes at the end of this stanza that she is half English. The English part of her is what causes her to feel that she is not as beautiful as her full Pakistani relatives such as her “Aunt Jamila”. This reveals her admiration for that side of her heritage.

Stanza Three

I wanted my parents’ camel-skin lamp –

  switching it on in my bedroom,

to consider the cruelty

           and the transformation

from camel to shade,

  marvel at the colours

           like stained glass.

This stanza of ‘Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan’ reveals that the speaker has carefully considered certain aspects of her Pakistani culture. For example, when they moved, she wanted the camel-skin lamp to be in her bedroom, where she could “consider the cruelty and the transformation from camel to shade” and “marvel at the colours”. This reveals that she embraces even the so-called “cruel” aspects of her culture, such as the use of camel hide to make lamp shades. She admires the items that have come from Pakistan, noting them all as uniquely beautiful.

Stanza Four

My mother cherished her jewellery –

  Indian gold, dangling, filigree,

           But it was stolen from our car.

The presents were radiant in my wardrobe.

  My aunts requested cardigans

           from Marks and Spencers.

This stanza reveals that her mother also cherishes her Pakistani jewelry. This implies that her mother is from Pakistan and her father is from England. When they came to England, however, her mother’s precious jewelry from back home was stolen from their car. This reveals that even though Pakistan had become too dangerous for the family to live there, England was not without it’s own crime. The speaker describes her presents as “radiant in [her] wardrobe” suggesting that they stood out against the dull English clothing she wore on a daily basis. She then states that her aunts has asked her for certain items of English clothing, including cardigans.

Stanza Five

My salwar kameez

  didn’t impress the schoolfriend

who sat on my bed, asked to see

  my weekend clothes.

But often I admired the mirror-work,

  tried to glimpse myself

           in the miniature

glass circles, recall the story

  how the three of us

           sailed to England.

Prickly heat had me screaming on the way.

  I ended up in a cot

In my English grandmother’s dining-room,

  found myself alone,

           playing with a tin-boat.

The gifts from her aunts remind the speaker of her days in Pakistan. Even though her “schoolfriend” was not impressed with the clothing, the speaker admired the items greatly. She often put them on and tried to catch a glimpse of herself in a small mirror. As she looked at herself in this clothing, she tried to recall a memory that was apparently fading. She thinks about the day they sailed to England. She can remember the heat on her skin, and she can remember “screaming on the way”. The fact that she was screaming suggests that the speaker was quite young when she made the journey with her family.  The move must have been quite traumatic for her to have remained in her memory though she had been so young.

Stanza Six

I pictured my birthplace

  from fifties’ photographs.

           When I was older

there was conflict, a fractured land

  throbbing through newsprint.

Sometimes I saw Lahore –

           my aunts in shaded rooms,

screened from male visitors,

  sorting presents,

        wrapping them in tissue.

This stanza of ‘Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan’ also suggests that the speaker was quite young when she relocated to England. She can picture her birthplace, but not so much from her own memory as from the “fifties’ photographs” she had seen. She knew that there had been “conflict” and she had heard it referred to as “fractured land”. It was all over the news, and it is likely that she saw some of the news of her homeland even while in England. In the pictures and in her memories she can picture her aunts. They were in rooms that were “screened from male visitors”. This difference between the two cultures has clearly made an impact on the speaker. She specifically notes that her aunts are kept out of sight of “male visitors”. Her tone remains one of fond memory. It is clear that this, also, is a part of her heritage and culture that she cherishes. She remembers the tasks her aunts did as they mingled with one another away from the view of the men.

Stanza Seven

Or there were beggars, sweeper-girls

  and I was there –

           of no fixed nationality,

staring through fretwork

           at the Shalimar Gardens.

Only in the final stanza of ‘Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan’ does the speaker expound upon the negative aspects of her past life in Pakistan. She saw “beggars” and “sweeper-girls” who were likely homeless and had no place to go. And yet, when she saw them, she still felt that she was the one who was on the outside, because she was “of no fixed nationality”. When she was in Pakistan, she had pondered this as she stared out “at the Shalimar Gardens”. It becomes apparent that the speaker has never felt entirely at home anywhere. Neither Pakistan nor England seemed to welcome her entirely. In Pakistan, she felt different because she was part English. In England, she felt different because she was part Pakistani. The speaker subtly reveals her inner feelings that she has no place to call home because she is from two different cultures and ethnicity.

Allisa Corfman Poetry Expert
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.

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