At the Lahore Karhai
About the Poet: Imtiaz Dharker (born 1954) is a poet, artist, and documentary filmmaker of Pakistani origin. For her English poetry, she was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal.
Dharker was born to Pakistani parents in the city of Lahore, Punjab. She was raised in Glasgow, where her family relocated when she was a baby. She was married to Simon Powell, the founder of Poetry Live, who died in October 2009 after a battle with cancer for eleven years. Dharker works in London, Wales, and Mumbai. She sees herself as a “Scottish Muslim Calvinist,” having been adopted by India and married into the Welsh family. Her daughter Ayesha Dharker (whose father is Anil Dharker) is an actress who has appeared in foreign films, television shows, and on the stage.
Imtiaz Dharker’s poem “At the Lahore Karhai” is analysed as a representation of an immigrant’s nostalgia for home, explored through the metaphor of food. As the poet brings in a day at the Lahore Karhai, Wembley, a famous hot cuisine for a Pakistani, she feels a great nostalgia erupt from within her. The title tells volumes about the migrant speaker’s nostalgic longing for the meals of “home.” The visit to the Lahore Karhai in Great Britain on Sundays is described as a pilgrimage sanctifying her endeavour to reconnect with her roots. It illustrates how significant this journey has become for her. “No beer, we’re Muslim,” she says, reinforcing her ethnic identity. This difference of religious identities based on food and drink emphasises the correlation between food and personal and social identities.
The poet describes old memories surfacing from her heart. She compares her journey to that of truck drivers in India, who drive their trucks on the Grand Trunk Road across Punjab to Amritsar and then get off at a dhaba, drenched in sweat and swearing, expecting food that tastes like home. She, too, is a trucker, albeit of a different kind. Instead of trucks, people like her, non-resident Indians, who have spent years away from their homes in Sialkot and Chandigarh, bear the weight of the rush and chaos in their lives for a few extra miles, and then, at times like these, they, too, stop at restaurants and places that promise them the feeling of home, in the hope of getting a break and giving the memories reverberating in their hearts a chance to come to life and fill their environment with nostalgia. The poet enters Lahore Karhai with this emotion, anticipating the taste of her mother’s hands in the bread she is about to break.
The poet also describes the company of people she’s sitting with at the lunch table: a Sindhi migrant who left her home in Lahore, sitting with his wife, who prays to Krishna every day, “the keeper of her kitchen and her life”; an Englishman too young to be influenced by his surroundings and instil a sense of superiority; and two girls who represent typical Bombay culture with their confidence. She goes on to claim that winter taught them to dress in their past as if it were summer.
As they swoop on the wonderful supper on a glorious day, the poet’s mind is rejuvenated by recollections from the past. Every meal she eats reminds her of someone from her past. Tarka dal reminds her of Auntie Hameeda, karhai ghosht brings back memories of Khala Ameena, and gajjar halva is linked with Appa Rasheeda. The warm naan reminds her of a second person singular “you,” which could be a reference to her soulmate. As she draws another mouthful closer to her mouth, her hand comes to a halt halfway to take in the divinity and nostalgia of the moment. The owner’s son’s beaming smile, the cook preparing the kebabs, and the fact that everyone on the table—Kartar, Rohini, Robert, Ayesha, Sangam, and she herself—are sharing their past, joined together by the bread they break—the nostalgic supper. She concludes by stating that such activities, such as traditional feasts, are merely excuses for recalling our long-forgotten past. On a regular day, they would have preferred Chinese, but the history and nostalgia that such a feast entails are incomparable, and it is perhaps more vital than the food itself that folks like her, truckers of various kinds, make such a trek once in a while.