From Punjab to the peaceline

From Punjab to the peaceline

The immigrant experience in Belfast demonstrates that family values tend to be universally shared argues MALACHI O'DOHERTY

I'M SITTING in a little theatre space in east Belfast. It’s in an old church building but here inside, this might be a dark little intimate club, chairs at round tables, a tiny bar in the corner. There’s a woman on the stage and she’s telling a story. We are all listening.

Lata Sharma is local, born and raised in Belfast. She speaks like a local and laughs like a local. She has the native humour so fierce and caustic that this cannot be imitation.

The show is called Sausage Soda and Onion Bhajis. It illustrates points of contact between Indian and Northern Irish culture, moments of perplexity, moments of recognition and affirmation.

Lata recounts a life of growing up in Belfast where she integrated well and became a Belfast girl.

She makes fun of moments that others might make more of, like the gym teacher looking at her brown legs and telling her to take her tights off.

She wants to pay tribute to a Belfast that accepted her family and also to have a little dig at some migrants arriving here and being oversensitive to the easy mistakes that arise from cultural differences.

She says, “My duty is to project a story about how lovely it is to be raised in a society like Northern Ireland.”

At the heart of that story are her mother and father. The mother is Maji.

There’s a joke in that name itself. Ma, in Belfast slang is an over casual, slightly disparaging way of referring to your mother, your ma. There is no such suggestion when Ma is a Hindi or Punjabi word. And the suffix ‘ji’ denotes respect.

Wee Lata is invited to sing at the Nativity play. She is going to take singing lessons. Maji doesn’t like it. A good Punjabi girl does not aspire to being a singer.

And then she is offered a part in West Side Story and will be kissing a boy on stage. Maji is furious.

Lata’s father is happy with this but Maji reminds him of the pact they made when she agreed to come to Belfast. He had agreed that they would not abandon their traditional values.

But really, they have no choice but to let their daughter grow up a Belfast girl.

Then she is singing with a band, this is all too much for Maji to take.

But what choice has she?

We know she has no choice but to accept Lata’s white Belfast boyfriend and their marriage because we know the story already, or at least my generation does.

It could have been the story of a Catholic Irish girl in the 1950s whose parents would have had the same worries about her meeting a Protestant boy, losing her faith, perhaps getting pregnant. We know both versions of what comes next. Either the family accepts everything that they feared or they lose their daughter.

Irish girls were thrown out of their homes, sent to the nuns to have their babies in secret and give them up for adoption. Some were condemned to lives of incarceration and enslavement in the Magdalene laundries.

But others, perhaps most, were ultimately accepted, and we know this from our own acquaintances and experiences.

Parents who had had fierce Catholic values instilled in them and hoped to pass them on found in time that they could not police their children and chose to preserve their relationships rather than disown them.

But those parents had their own grievances and fears drawn from their own distant pasts.

Lata’s story unfolds to explain how her own parents had come to be married.

Her father’s first wife died giving birth to their third child and her cousin was asked to marry him so that the family could be held together. Maji had agreed to that.

Her father had been a refugee from Pakistan after the partition of India when two million people died in the rush of Hindus and Muslims to cross the new border in opposite directions to safety from sectarian carnage on a scale that is beyond imagining.

The Sharmas arrived in Belfast, like other Indian and Pakistani migrants in the 1950s and ‘60s with a more intimate experience of sectarian horror than anyone here had had at that time.

When the Troubles came they preserved their friendships in both communities, not taking sides, well aware of how vicious division can get, more aware of it indeed than we were ourselves.

Maji was anxious to preserve their culture and tradition but repeatedly gave ground as Lata’s father asserted his daughter’s right to grow up within the local culture.

Lata’s story might have been a minority report of an unfamiliar experience and yet the audience erupted in applause because it was, essentially, a reworking of their own.

She is a Belfast girl. I asked her if she would pose for a photograph. Let’s have some fun, I said, we’ll pose you in a sari on the peace line. “Aye, your arse,” she said. You don’t get more Belfast than that.


MALACHI O’DOHERTY, one of Ireland’s leading political commentators and author of eleven books on the North of Ireland, in his regular column looks at how we can catalogue our recent history