Compelling the Tears of Mothers

Whilst laying awake in the small hours of this morning, it occurred to me that, whilst I can narrate this story of our family for you, my little one, I cannot begin to narrate its future.

Compelling me to tears, as a mother, is the fear and grief of my limitations. I have tried to understand and explore our unidentifiable identity, that which is uncategorised and unfamiliar.

Neither side of your family is what you could describe as ‘elite’. Not in India, nor in England. Rather, we are a people that blend and un-blend simultaneously with other classes.

To illustrate, you have, by your father’s side, an ancestor’s name ‘Arthur King’ carved on a War memorial that stands in the town centre. I was thinking about you while I sat looking at it through a window of a coffee shop. He was a man that was of an ordinary class, English and Anglican.


The memorial says:

‘Remember with thanksgiving the true and faithful men and women of this town and countryside who in these years of War went forth for God and the Right.’

An interesting phrase ‘God and the Right’. The God it mentions, is that the same God your father believed in when he became a Muslim? Is God simply an extension of the ego that is always right?

The way we wage war, and the way we mourn those that fell in battle is telling through every representation, including the war memorials. It is something that I find tries to compel us to cry the tears of mothers, it tries to exploit that sense of responsibility and make us mourn. It is what Susan Sontag wrote about in Regarding the Pain of Others:

The 2003 paperback edition of the brilliant book by Sontag
The 2003 paperback edition of the brilliant book by Sontag

‘To those who are sure that right is on one side, oppression and injustice on the other, and that fighting must go on, what matters is precisely who is killed and by whom…During the fighting between Serbs and Croats at the beginning of the recent Balkan wars, the same photographs of children killed were passed around at both Serb and Croat propaganda briefings. Alter the caption, and the children’s deaths could be used and reused.’ p. 9

Watching other people in pain can profoundly impact our own choices, and that is exploited heavily in every conflict by those that represent it, to draw from us love for the Nation/the Queen/democracy or our own freedoms, and attempt to win others to it.

There have been Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Atheists in our family. We have also had refugees and gypsie blood blended together, through times of peace and conflict. Some, very few, have known money and privilege, others, were homeless or, like Arthur King, died in battle and were not so fortunate.



Robert Montgomery
Robert Montgomery

Whilst typing, I misspelled a word, I had written ‘bitterfly’. I found it a curiously fitting way to describe falling upwards, because there is a granular bitterness in being disappointed with one’s life, and at the same time, blended with this disappointment is the knowledge that waking up everyday is not an option, life continues and grows.

The study of butterflies is called:




noun: The study of butterflies and moths.


From Greek lepido- (scale) + pteron (wing, feather), ultimately from the Indo-European root pet- (to rush or fly) that also gave us feather, petition, compete, and perpetual.”

Gardeners will tell you that the names of things are highly important. Latin names of butterflies and plants indicate their characteristics, just like the word ‘bitterfly’ describes me.

A fragrant, perfumed plant has ‘odorata‘ in the name, where ‘palmatum‘ describes hand-shaped foliage. I like the word ‘latifolium‘, which means it has wide leaves. I think I, along with everyone in our family, am latifolium, because our tree branches seem to stretch so far across the world.

The Violent Breakup of the Former Yugoslavia

My sister met her husband whilst they were both students in Wales. He was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina,  a south-eastern country of Europe, where his entire family still resides. You have four cousins who we said goodbye to this weekend, because they are going to live in Bosnia.


This country didn’t exist when I was born, because it formed part of Yugoslavia. The war of 1992 until 1995 created the largest displacement Europe has ever seen:

A 2012 film on the Humanitarian Relief effort by the UNHCR

As well as this, the conflict changed something internationally. Sexual violence had never been considered an international crime, rather it was treated with impunity:

“Recognizing sexual violence as an international crime

For centuries, sexual violence in conflict was tacitly accepted as unavoidable. A 1998 UN report on sexual violence and armed conflict notes that historically, armies considered rape one of the legitimate spoils of war. During World War II, all sides of the conflict were accused of mass rapes, yet neither of the two courts set up by the victorious allied countries to prosecute suspected war crimes — in Tokyo and Nuremberg — recognized the crime of sexual violence.

It was not until 1992, in the face of widespread rapes of women in the former Yugoslavia, that the issue came to the attention of the UN Security Council. On 18 December 1992, the Council declared the “massive, organized and systematic detention and rape of women, in particular Muslim women, in Bosnia and Herzegovina” an international crime that must be addressed.

Subsequently, the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY, 1993)included rape as a crime against humanity, alongside other crimes such as torture and extermination, when committed in armed conflict and directed against a civilian population. In 2001, the ICTY became the first international court to find an accused person guilty of rape as a crime against humanity. Furthermore, the Court expanded the definition of slavery as a crime against humanity to include sexual slavery. Previously, forced labor was the only type of slavery to be viewed as a crime against humanity.”

The country of Bosnia changed history through the conflict, not only through the world but also in our family. Your uncle, my brother-in-law, who originates from that country, gave a speech on our wedding day in the Shah Jahan Mosque of Woking. Your cousin was my flower girl, and she taught me little phrases in Serbo-Croatian, written in the Cyrillic alphabet.

The days after I gave birth, I wore thick hand-knitted socks that my sister’s parents-in-law send every year. Let us hope we will visit them soon.


I was playing a word association game with your name ‘Jannah’ جنة in the original Arabic). It is the name for the garden of Paradise.

The word-association went like this:

Jannah – garden – trees – belonging – roots – branches – cousins

You have a lovely mix of cousins from the branches of our family tree. Blended into your paternal Anglo-Saxon blood is your half-Arab (Palestinian) cousin, and your half-African (Ghanaian) cousin.

From my Indian side, you have cousins who are half-Slavic (Bosnian).

All of us are a mixture of what we term ‘races’. When W. E. B Dubois wrote ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ and said:

“… the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line”

I am quite certain he anticipated the ‘problem’ families such as ours have been creating over the centuries. I like what he says by highlighting how difficult an experience it is:

“To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”

However, the fact that a child can have a very different skin tone to her mother is not a problem for critical race theorists, because the idea of race is less to do with skin colour and biology and more to do with creating lines, walls and distinctions:

 “For critical race scholars, racial categories like Black, White, Latino, Asian, Mulatto, Quadroon, etc., are social constructions, produced not by biology but by social relationships, cultural meanings, and institutions like law, politics, religion, and the state. Moreover, critical race theorists also argue that the construct of “race” has been a central aspect of modern social organization and modern forms of knowledge like human biology, medicine, and law.”

Additionally, historical accounts have a lot to do with what we term ‘race’, because racism is ingrained in it. According to the online dictionary, racism is:

“1.1 The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races”

And so this belief is what we find in the narrative of imperialism that became established as the ‘official account’ of human history, according to Edward Said.

Now, our conversations about ‘race’ have to be as self-aware as Abdul R. JanMohamed wants them to be from his observation that the imperialist desire to dominate makes him see ‘confrontation’ between differences of skin colour, language, social customs etc. For a really comprehensive discussion, we have to leave behind our desire to dominate and ‘severely bracket’ our assumptions and ideologies, thereby leaving behind the security that it all provides.

Ah but security is all we ever want, and even I keep digging for roots.

The Chapman Book

photo-1431898542497-133ad897e05f So, my little child, I am trying to decide how to continue the story. Far away from my parents, your grandparents, and their letters that crossed the Indian Ocean in the 1970’s during Emergency Rule in India, is the story of your father and his Anglo-Saxon family surname: Chapman.

Your surname is Chapman, after your father, my husband and his father before him. How your Indian mother met your English father I will tell you at a later stage, but for now, let me tell you about the historical records that bear the roots of your ancient name.

There is a Chapman motto I found in the Chapman book: Virtue thrives under oppression.

King William I , the Norman who conquered England in 1066, ordered a grand-scale survey of England and Wales to determine the amount of tax due, which was completed in 1086, and named the ‘Domesday’ book, so called because the decisions it held, like the Day of Judgement, were final. Written in Latin, all the King’s subjects, rich and poor had to be identified with a surname. Now, the name Chapman derives from the old German ‘choufman’ indicating someone who traveled the countryside as a merchant trader. We know that the Chapmans lived in England before the Normans, because their name is from Old German and they feature in the Domesday Book. In your veins is the Anglo-Saxon blood that came to Britain in the fifth century, originally from Denmark and Germany.

Your Granddad Chapman likes to recount the establishment of the Anglo-Saxons before the Normans invaded, and I like to recount the Indians before the British invaded.

The Emergency Rule in India

Your great-grandmother, my father’s mother, lived in Derwa, a village in Uttar Pradesh in Northern India. I remember her with white hair, a white sari and very fair skin. She spoke Purbi, a dialect which I could understand. She worked hard grinding wheat, and she knew intricate weaving techniques that she taught my elder sister. I still have some of the things she made.

She and my grandfather had seven children, six that survived. There is my eldest uncle, Rahmatulla, then Amanatulla, then a brother who died in infancy, after whom is my father, Barkatulla, then Habibulla, Aziz and the youngest, a girl, Muni who everyone says I resemble. When the children were young, my grandmother and grandfather moved from Derwa to a small industrial Muslim town close to Mumbai called Bhiwandi. Here, they invested in electric looms, as weaving had become more commercialised. Our family textile tradition came into the modern age.

However, the political landscape was hostile at the time, and the resulting policies affected their lives forever.

It started with Emergency Rule, that was declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi:

“Opposition leaders threatened a civil disobedience campaign to force the prime minister to resign, and many of her oldest cabinet colleagues and Congress Party advisers urged her to step down pending an appeal to India’s Supreme Court. Following instead the advice of her ambitious and energetic younger son, Sanjay, on June 26, 1975, Gandhi persuaded President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a national emergency, which empowered her to do whatever she considered best for the country for at least six months. The elite Central Reserve Police force, the prime minister’s palace guard, was ordered to arrest Desai and the ailing and aged Narayan, as well as hundreds of others who had worked with her father and Mohandas Gandhi in helping India to win its freedom from British rule. She then blacked out the entire region of Delhi in which the press was published and appointed Sanjay as her trusted personal censor of all future news leaders and editorials.” (

The Prime Minister had listened to her son Sanjay Gandhi, the politician that, according to the civil servant Anand Sarup:

“negated everything Jawaharlal Nehru had wrought for the running of a democratic India, and destroyed the old culture of the Congress party”. (

Sanjay Ghandi was a member of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, and he proved a disaster for Muslims in India. My father told me of the sterilisation campaign that was secretly taking place on Muslim men, that was an attempt to control the Muslim population. I didn’t believe it until I found evidence, which Sarup clearly provides when he describes his fraught relationship with Sanjay Gandhi:

“I got into real trouble with him over the target-driven vasectomy programme, which was widely known as Sanjay Gandhi’s pet project. Government officials were made responsible for ‘recruiting’ large numbers of ‘volunteers’ who would undergo vasectomy in return for some monetary payment. Besides the District Medical Officers, District Magistrates, Superintendents of Police, Excise Officers and almost all the officers who had some powers to put pressure on field level functionaries were told that if they expected the government to show them any consideration, they must ensure that the vasectomy target for their district was met.

As a result, anyone who went to see a government officer for any official work was likely to be asked to bring some people for vasectomy. What mattered to the government was the magic number they had to achieve. How this was achieved was immaterial. I am sorry that I have to say that during the Emergency officials indulged in the worst kind of torture to achieve their targets. While all communities suffered, the brunt of this approach to population control was borne by the Muslims. Perhaps the officials were carried away by the propaganda that the unwillingness of the Muslims to limit the number of their children was adding too many people to our already burgeoning population.”

As a result of Emergency Rule, an aggressive and oppressive Indian regime made lives intolerable. A McCarthyite paranoia was underway, only this one distrusted the poor and vulnerable.  This was the decade of the 70s, when your father’s white, working class English family in Britain witnessed Miners’ strikes and the world’s first test-tube baby in a Conservative Britain.

This was also the age when Britain joined the EEC and began borrowing from the International Monetary Fund, the same Fund that sought to curb the large Indian population:

“Sterilisation camps are not new to India; they have been part of the struggle to contain its population for more than forty years. At one point they weren’t even voluntary. In 1976, Sanjay Gandhi, the son of Indira and grandson of founding father Jawaharlal Nehru, initiated a widespread compulsory sterilisation programme. The IMF and World Bank were demanding action to curb India’s population. If numbers were not brought under control, the fledgling nation risked losing vital funds just as it was getting on its feet (after the Raj and partition).” (

My father, a privately educated young man in his early 20’s that spoke fluent Arabic and Farsi, was sent by a committee in Bhiwandi to go to Saudi Arabia and meet with journalists to publicise the plight of Indian Muslims to the rest of the Muslim world. he had recently married my mother, and they exchanged letters in this bittersweet moment of their history.

Our Family Story

To my little girl,

I will write our family story, about India and England, about race, class and history, about death and life.

Ours is a story untold, because too often we fall into the marginalised groups, those without a voice, untold because your great-grandmother was illiterate, untold before Gayatri Spivak told us we could speak.

After walking through echoing corridors in universities, handing in essays and presenting theories, I have learnt that a true education teaches you more about yourself then any other subject. And you were my education.