Absence of Dad: The Lowly and Lonely Pressures of Identity, Racism and War

The feeling of loneliness is a hereditary gene, passed down from immigrant parents to their children. Their respective upbringings may be oceans apart (figuratively and literally) but the feeling of isolation is what brings them together. The irony is that it’s never spoken about. Instead, both parties are made to suffer in silence, bound by the culture that told them to stay quiet and tortured by the new homeland that does not resonate with them. When the mental health of an individual is impacted, it produces a domino effect that extends beyond the individual, encroaching on connected others. In this instance, we all become victims of the effects of discrimination. We present to you our fathers – they are the providers, the loners and the nomads.

Feudalism, Dad and the National Front

My dad is the epitome of a ‘hard-nut’; a fusing of Danny Dyer and Delboy but definitely not to be laughed at; a loveable rogue with a work ethic harder than anyone I’ve ever known. He’s also one of the most complicated men I’ve met.

Growing up on farmland on the outskirts of Lahore, life was hard from the start. With the death of his father – my grandad – when he was six, to feudalism reigning supreme within his village, my dad’s upbringing was a constant struggle for recognition and power. When achieved, it came at a cost and was often swiftly taken away from him, as seen through his sudden withdrawal from law school to help tend to the family land. This was then followed by a quick move to England in the 1970’s to marry – quite a life before the age of thirty.

Hyper-masculinity is a common theme in South Asian culture. An almost-natural preference towards sons, brothers, fathers and husbands, as well as growing up watching alpha-males in Bollywood movies sit alongside a national rhetoric that has favoured men and has used religion as a means to justify this inequality. My dad was just another victim of the sub-continent’s taste for artificially-created hyper-masculine blood. Toxic masculinity exists in every society, bending to the relative context of the country. The U.K. is no different, except for the fact that it ‘bestows’ the notion of manhood to the white man. Those who have held this so-called honour throughout history from the 1940s right through to present day then exact this cocktail of racism and bragadocchio by alienating their black and Asian peers. This, alongside an unhealthy serving of racism has meant that, for those who made the arduous journey to the U.K., it has been at the expense of their mental health.

Coming to London, where my dad was racially abused and assaulted regularly was, to say the least, quite the contrast to the life he led back in Pakistan. I often think of him in 1980’s East London, trying to adapt to not only the weather but his tongue to the strange nuances of the English language (‘dad, it’s “gorge-ous”, not “gorg-e-ous”’) and the glares of passers-by, perturbed by the man in bell-bottoms and a thick South Asian accent.

In 2016, the University of Manchester conducted a study into the link between racial incidents and mental health. They found that:

‘increased mental health problems were shown to be significantly higher among racial minorities who’d experienced repeated incidents of racial discrimination. The study also found it was the fear of avoiding spaces and feeling unsafe due to racial discrimination that had the biggest cumulative effect on the mental health of ethnic minorities’.

A country that beckoned its former colonies to come to its land to work and build up the great nation did so seemingly without any care for their labourers’ health. Their desire to exploit foreign workers to rebuild the country after the ravages of World War Two outweighed their moral duty to right the racist wrongs of its state and give them the protection they deserved; instead forcing black and brown faces to be their own human shield against the racism forced upon them, having a disturbingly significant part to play in the rhetoric through institutionalised racism. Indeed, we are starting to see this callousness come home to roost through the ‘Windrush’ scandal. Mental health within the South Asian community is both rife and silenced. I’ve never had a conversation even linked to the topic with my dad and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Is that because he’s trying to retain what’s left of his masculinity, which was abused and beaten out of him like when he was attacked by members of the National Front, or has the trauma become too much for him to bear? Either way, silence is, sadly, the most used method of communication, one that teaches (or rather, fails to teach) us to speak out about our mental health. Through its muted nature, mental health has in some way, become normalised and ingrained; a necessary evil when navigating these shores.

Identity, Parenting and Dad

My father was continuously racially abused by mostly blacks throughout his childhood when growing up in Dudley. There is something deeply foreign and ignorant on my part when attempting to understand the pain and humiliation he and many others experienced. Yet, we share the same blood, the same skin tone. These experiences have impacted his broad views on certain types of people, white and black specifically. His internalised hostility meets my family and I with some shame, yet my first reaction is always to laugh at his unfounded comments (‘black people are encouraged to expand further into the arts and on our screens because of their oppression – Indians have never been given the opportunity, because we were taught to become doctors, lawyers or accountants. We, as a people, have done more for this country than anyone will ever care to admit’) and reactionary opinions (‘It’s always been a war. Islam and Christianity – these are the two evils of grooming the weak and impressionable’).

Racism sporadically continued further into his university days at Nottingham, where he met my mother. My dad is the more sensitive out of the two; my mum refused to tolerate abuse. She would regularly be enveloped in playground fights nearby in Coventry, later befriending her abusers.

My dad cuts a very bitter figure when he dwells on his past. To him, the past lingers like any other misconception. Unlike the majority of the South Asian community, he is vocal about it, which is reflective of his progressive nature in this instance. Other relatives of mine, predominantly on my dad’s side, remain cautious when reminiscing of a previous life. This attests to the ‘notion of shame’, a term that Professor Dinesh Bhugra coined when speaking out about attitudes to mental health in the South Asian community. They all received a strict upbringing from my grandfather, so it’s not like my dad had a role model in parenting. It doesn’t matter if this is the way it should have been or not, this is the way that it was at the time and that’s that. But if you look at the dynamic from that perspective, bottling up emotional trauma can only fuel the onsets of mental instability in the long term for my dad and his siblings. He had his reasons for informing me with great detail of his upbringing and they seem valid. He wanted me to gain perspective, appreciate his previous life and compare his to mine. How this approach will do either of us any good, or instill any sort of clarity, is beyond me. Thinking about it retrospectively, his method is marred by my opinion that this was guilt-tripping, emotionally blackmailing me into submission. He just wanted to air out his grievances. It has tarnished his thoughts on the people of today. He has steadily become less accepting and more reactionary, particularly in a time of political and social turmoil, with a growing trend in the normalisation of racism today.

Over the last fifteen years there has been a mounting emotional distance between my Dad and me. I noticed this trend about seven years ago. I’ve always tried to impress him. I think it’s normal, especially if you’re a boy, to try and emulate your father in some way. We bond over films and literature – two very safe and universal hobbies. As time passes, I’m seeing more of my old man in me. His instinctive hyper-critical nature continues to bludgeon my self-esteem, though I am used to it these days. I find it difficult to talk to others about this strained relationship with my dad because I know the standard reaction is sympathy and I’m uncomfortable with receiving sympathy.

I’m not a model son. I provoke my dad for my own amusement and antagonising him is something I probably shouldn’t do. I treat the stories of his past with flippancy. I’ve noticed that this is my defence mechanism for refusing to emotionally understand what I’ve never experienced.

South Asians misplace their pride frequently by adopting the ‘hear no evil, see no evil’ approach. The way things are valued in the West is vastly different to farm life in 60’s India. As long as there is enough rain for crop, any other issues were internalised, buried beyond insurmountability.

This article was written anonymously 

Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash.

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