The Pioneer Generation


Fifty-five years ago, at the tender age of 16, my grandfather Ghulam Akbar left Pakistan to migrate to Bradford.

Like many of his generation, he was searching for the British equivalent of the American dream; a better life and better economic prospects in a land far away from home.

The first thing he remembered when he stepped onto the cobbled roads of industrial Bradford all those years ago, was the bleak winter and smoggy bitterness typical of the north.

If there’s one thing the first generation (or “pioneer generation” as they were known) of Pakistani diaspora pined for, it was for the wholesome, vitamin D enriching sunlight of the motherland, something my grandfather insists is a cure for all the arthritic aches and pains induced by British weather.

My grandfather found none of that in Yorkshire. Instead, he found snow, something he’d never laid eyes on in his life, blanketing the rooftops, the hills and the pavements. He found coal fireplaces and caves for houses, compared to the heat and vast openness of Pakistan.

His grasp of the English language (and Yorkshire dialect for that matter) was second to none.

When he worked as a bus conductor in the 1970’s, he would always drop a charming “Hiya love!” to the English ladies who boarded his bus. The English ladies he spoke to would giggle and respond with a cheery “Hiya Mr Ack-bar”. Who could possibly resist cheery charm like that on a cold Yorkshire morning?

My mum tells me how her and her sisters would hide their faces in shame as they boarded the bus on their way to school, as their father belted out his charming, heavily accented greetings and merrily chat away with his customers, and how he’d always let some of the elderly ladies get onto the bus without paying the fare if they were short of change.

Talking about a racist encounter he had once when a man called him a P*ki, he was completely taken aback not because the man hurled the P-word at him, but because he thought he was whiter than the racist fool himself.

“Bloody fool, look here I’m whiter than you!” he bellowed at him, after which he thrust his sleeve up to reveal his pale Desi flesh to prove his point.

My grandfather still beams with embarrassing pride at the fact Prince Charles waved at him when he visited Bradford decades ago. He loves his Pashto music videos and his Bollywood films with the legendary Amitabh Bacchan. His favourite expression is “bloody fool”, an expression which comes gushing out when he offers any political commentary sitting in front of the TV.

He’s as integrated into British society as one can be, precisely like the human jigsaw David Cameron envisages when he talks about Muslims living in the UK these days.

When my grandfather migrated to the UK, he didn’t have the luxury of choice; of choosing what profession he wanted to pursue or where he wanted to live. “Choice” was not part of his vocabulary then. He had to settle for any work with a decent wage, whether it was at the mills of Bradford or as a bus conductor. He had a wife, daughters and a mother left behind in Pakistan to support.

In those days, survival was the priority.

Dreams, desires and ambitions belonged in some distant land somewhere between Bradford and Pakistan. The same boy who grew up selling chicks and looking after animals in Pakistan, wound up thousands of miles away from home, a bus conductor in Bradford.

Life has a funny way of taking us down paths we least expect.

I saw two middle-aged Pakistani men working at the local chip-shop earlier today, and they reminded me of my grandfather. Like him, these two men were working a low paid menial job just to get by and put food on the table for their families. These are the kinds of jobs younger generations like my own turn their noses at.

The Lebanese novelist, Amin Maalouf writes: “Our ancestors derived less from life than we do, but they also expected much less and were less intent on controlling the future. We are of the arrogant generations who believe a lasting happiness was promised to us at birth. Promised? By whom?”

Who indeed promised us a better future? Our grandparents and our parents did, but it makes me wonder whether we the younger generation, their descendants, have forgotten their struggles in the desperate clamber to achieve our own.

We should dream.

We should aspire to do better, aim higher, and break through the cloudy sea floating above our heads. As the well known saying goes, “the sky is the limit”.

But we should never forget the sweat and blood toiled by those who came before us, whether they came from abroad or whether they sprung up from working-class backgrounds here in the UK.

We are who we are because men and women like my grandfather, like the men at the chip shop, resigned to a simple life, a life of routine, just to make sure we their progeny, weren’t shackled by it as they were.

“Choice” is part of our vocabulary, it’s our most powerful weapon. What we do with it however, is another question entirely.


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