At the Lahore Karhai by Imtiaz Dharker

It’s a great day, Sunday,
when we pile into the car
and set off with a purpose –
a pilgrimage across the city,
to Wembley, the Lahore Karhai.
Lunch service has begun –
‘No beer, we’re Muslim’ –
but the morning sun
squeezed into juice,
and ‘Yaad na jaye’
on the two-in-one.

On the Grand Trunk Road
thundering across Punjab to Amritsar,
this would be a dhaba
where the truck-drivers pull in,
swearing and sweating,
full of lust for real food,
just like home.

Hauling our overloaded lives
the extra mile,
we’re truckers of another kind,
looking hopefully (years away
from Sialkot and Chandigarh)
for the taste of our mothers’
hand in the cooking.

So we’ve arrived at this table:
the Lahore runaway;
the Sindhi refugee
with his beautiful wife
who prays each day to Krishna,
keeper of her kitchen and her life;
the Englishman too young
to be flavoured by the Raj;
the girls with silky hair,
wearing the confident air
of Bombay.

This winter we have learn
to wear our past
like summer clothes.

Yes, a great day.
A feast! We swoop
on a whole family of dishes.
The tarka dal is Auntie Hameeda
the karhai ghosht is Khala Ameena
the gajjar halva is Appa Rasheeda.

The warm naan is you.

My hand stops half-way to my mouth.
The Sunday light has locked
on all of us:
the owner’s smiling son,
the cook at the hot kebabs,
Kartar, Rohini, Robert,
Ayesha, Sangam, I,
bound together by the bread we break,
sharing out our continent.

These
are ways of remembering.

Other days, we may prefer
Chinese.

Summary and Analysis

The poem begins on a happy note: ‘It’s a great day, Sunday’. The group of six friends get into a car and set off for lunch at the ‘Lahore Karhai’, a restaurant in Wembley, London. The poet immediately underscores the sanctity of the visit: it is a ‘pilgrimage’ and the association is with a journey undertaken to connect with a higher being or their inner selves. It is a way of staying in touch with their roots, their ethnic identity.

They reach the restaurant just as lunch has begun to be served. Note the line: ‘No beer, we’re Muslim.’ Their request for beer is turned down by the staff but they are happy with the morning sun and the old classic film-song playing in the background. The song ‘Yaad na jaaye’, is from a popular Hindi film, sung by Mohammad Rafi in 1963. The words, roughly translated, mean ‘memories refuse to leave.’ The significance cannot be missed. It is the memory of their homeland, the longing for Indian/ Pakistani food and music that brings the group to this restaurant. The music echoes their sentiments.

The ambience of the restaurant reminds the speaker of the dhabas that dot the Grand Trunk Road and are popular with truck drivers and travelers. The reference to the Grand Trunk Road is significant as this ancient trade route connects the Indian subcontinent; it starts from Bangladesh, runs through east and west India, and from Wagah goes on to Lahore and Rawalpindi in Pakistan. The poet dwells on the common historical inheritance of these countries in the Asian subcontinent.

The dhabas are the lifeline of truckers travelling on this road. Away from home, they are hungry and tired, seeking the taste of home-cooked food. Observe how the poet uses a word implying strong physical desire to describe their hunger: ‘full of lust for real food/ just like home.’ The comparison is carried over into the next paragraph; if the restaurant has morphed into a dhaba then this group of friends are like the truckers: miles away from home, rootless and restless, separated by both distance and time:

looking hopefully (years away
from Sialkot and Chandigarh)
for the taste of our mothers’
hand in the cooking.

The poet says that their lives are ‘overloaded’. What do you think this means? Do you agree that there is a hint of fatigue and tiredness? Why is the immigrant tired? Perhaps tired of having to bear the double burden of making adjustments in a foreign land, and maintaining their cultural entity without support mechanisms.

The poet identifies her friends by nationality. The ‘Lahore runaway’ is a reference to herself. Imtiaz Dharker was born in Lahore but spent most of her life in Britain and India. Then there is the Sindhi refugee and his wife, and two young girls from Bombay, India. The group has a cosmopolitan composition and also includes a young Englishman. It is not a homogenous group like that of the Indian audience in ‘Indian Movie, New Jersey.’ The boundaries between nations become blurred, and it seems the poet is conscious of the South Asian, regional identity of this group. Don’t miss the mention of the Sindhi lady who prays to Lord Krishna. The group comprises both Hindus and Muslims; as well as a British national; truly indicative of a unified global culture.

It is indicative of a certain degree of cultural assimilation with the host country that there is an Englishman in the midst of the other immigrants. He is ‘too young to be flavoured by the Raj’, suggests that he in untouched by any form of racial prejudice. He does not relate to his friends as a colonizer as he was born after the end of British rule in 1947.

There is nostalgia for home but without any of the anxiety-filled, herding together of the group in ‘Indian Movie, New Jersey’. These people seem to have come to terms with life in a foreign land, making the transition from the past to the present and revisiting the past without discomfort, as expressed in the following simile:

This winter we have learn
to wear our past
like summer clothes.

Though dislocated from their homeland, the immigrants are on their way to becoming truly global citizens; embracing new cultures while retaining an ethnic identity. The summer clothes are a metaphor for the home and culture they have left behind.

The poet shifts her attention to the food on the table. Observe the innovative use of food as a metaphor for familial ties. As I explained earlier, the poet uses food as an implicit extended metaphor for her ethnic roots. In the following lines, she uses specific Indian / Pakistani dishes to affectionately remember her relatives:

Yes, a great day.
A feast! We swoop
on a whole family of dishes.
The tarka dal is Auntie Hameeda
the karhai ghosht is Khala Ameena
the gajjar halva is Appa Rasheeda.

The warm naan is you.

Within this stanza, Imtiaz Dharker has used no less than five metaphors. The dishes are perhaps those which their aunts cooked for them, back home in Pakistan; food that was an expression of love, reinforcing interpersonal relations. Families in the Indian subcontinent maintain ties with almost every member of their extended family; cousins, uncles and aunts. This distinct cultural practice is evoked in the fond remembrance of relatives back home. As the poet say:

bound together by the bread we break,
sharing out our continent.

These
are ways of remembering.

Food is not only a way to stay connected to home; it also forges relationships in the present. When the light falls on the people in the restaurant it makes the poet realize that they are ‘bound together’ by the food they eat, sharing a common culinary legacy. The sense of connectedness is presented through the metaphor of food.

The last paragraph comes as something of a surprise because till this point the overriding mood of the poem is nostalgic, to the point of sentimentality, about the taste of home-cooked food. The immigrants’ visit transports them to a past where food cooked by a loving mother or aunt nourished them. How then does the preference for Chinese food fit into the theme of the poem?

Other days, we may prefer
Chinese.

The point I wish to make is that there is no sense of conflict with the host society and these Asian immigrants have learnt to enjoy other, foreign cultures existing in Britian; one of the most multi- cultural societies in the world. They seem to have learnt to effortlessly make the transition from one cultural ethos to another. Nostalgia co-exists with assimilation. Unlike the Indian community in ‘Indian Movie, New Jersey’, who share a deep anxiety and a sense of failure to integrate with the host society; the immigrants in ‘At the Lahore Karhai’ have come to terms with life in a foreign land and embraced multiculturalism. They can enjoy a beer with their curry and naan.

At the same time, there is perhaps a subtle suggestion that for the immigrant, her/his culture has been reduced to the same status as other exotic cuisines, such as Chinese, which they consume as a break from their everyday monotony. The lived culture they left behind is now experienced on an occasional weekend outing. The taste of food, lovingly cooked by mothers/ aunts each day is now sought in restaurants. But not always; sometimes they eat food from other countries as well.

Language

The poem uses free verse, which does not depend on a system of end-rhymes. Imtiaz Dharker’s language is colloquial, with a liberal use of Hindi and Urdu words which give it a distinct ethnic flavor; kadhai, naan, kebabs, and khala are some of them.

Although there are no end-rhymes, Dharker uses internal rhymes liberally. When the accented last syllable of two words in one line of a poem rhyme, it is called half-rhyme, as in:

It is a great day, Sunday,

and in the first paragraph there is another example:

begun / sun / two-in-one,

or

hair / air.

In other places Dharker uses vowel rhymes, where the vowel rhymes but the consonants don’t matter, as in:

Hauling our overloaded lives
the extra mile,
we’re truckers of another kind,

and in para 6 there is the Hameeda / Ameena / Rasheeda which creates a rhythm. This technique is known as assonance.

In addition to the implicit extended metaphor of food that permeates the whole poem, the poet uses food as a metaphor to evoke the memory of loved ones back home. In stanza 6, Dharker uses no less than five metaphors to describe her family.

Another literary device is that of metonymy – which means using one word to stand for another, usually larger, more general thing, as when you say ‘fond of the bottle’ it means’ fond of drink’. Note the poet’s use of metonymy:

looking hopefully….
for the taste of our mother’s
hand in the cooking.

and

bound together by the bread we break
sharing out our continent.

Conclusion

The poem, ‘At the Lahore Karhai’ is an expression of the immigrant’s nostalgia for home. The speaker is both participant and observer, enjoying lunch at a restaurant with her friends in Wembley, London. She is an immigrant of Pakistani origin, now settled in London. In the poem, many elements of the culture of the Indian sub-continent are reinforced, especially the sense of community, both the old familial one that has been left behind and the present one that comprises people with a common regional inheritance.

The poem represents the different elements of the poet’s regional culture through the metaphor of food. References to old Hindi film songs, the dhabas on the Grand Trunk Road, the Sindhi lady who prays to Lord Krishna every day, and the memories of loving aunts and a mother who cooked special dishes for them: all these create an image of a culture that is distinctly Asian.

At the same time, the poem is devoid of any discomfort about the immigrant’s place in a new culture and the poet is comfortable with her situation. There are no disturbing background whispers of xenophobic behaviour or racial discrimination, as one read in ‘Indian Movie, New, Jersey’. It is significant indicator of assimilation that one person in the group is of British origin and very comfortable with them. The speaker in this poem misses her home but she has embraced her life in London. She celebrates the multiculturalism of the city.

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