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Pakistani Life in 1960's Glasgow

Author: Lubna Kerr

It was a cold wet December in 1965. It was only 4pm but it was dark outside as we stepped off the plane. We’d come all the way from Lahore in Pakistan to land in Govan, Glasgow.

My parents left a very comfortable middle class life in Pakistan when my father was offered the chance of doing a PhD in Chemistry at Strathclyde University.

Our first house was a one bedroom, 4th floor tenement flat. My mum who was pregnant with her third child had to not only negotiate the stairs but also the comments from our neighbours.

Being a positive person my mum was able to bat away the questions – “How come your hair is so dark, do you use coal?” – with her smile, charm and food.

My mum, who was an excellent cook, would fill the tenement close with the aroma of delicious curries. She was an expert in Pakistani cuisine; I wish those genes had been passed onto me. I got the funny genes, my sister got the cooking genes and my brother the software development genes. Luckily we all got the smiling genes.

My father would spend his days researching at Strathclyde University and then work in a factory at night, so that he could help look after his family. He was a very hard working and clever man. In Glasgow people used the words that we don’t hear nowadays. In Pakistan he had taught at one of the best institutions and commanded respect from his students. My father struggled to understand why people would treat him differently just because of the colour of his skin. Racism was a word my parents had never heard nor experienced. This caused him a lot of stress.

Like most migrants my family looked and found other Pakistani families to share their joys, woes of the weather, food and discrimination.

I remember one Christmas when we went to the Carnival at Kelvin Hall. My father tried a baked potato with butter on it for the first time. We looked at him with amazement, fear and some apprehension. He was eating a potato with its skin on, and there were no spices, no colour and no flavour: he took one for the team! We were then treated to candy floss, 1 between 3 children (money was tight and teeth were important). Pakistani people have a very sweet tooth, something we have in common with Glaswegians. Have you ever tried a gulab jaman? It’s like a deep fried mars bar. Gulab jaman is normally served at Pakistani weddings with ice cream, the mixing of cultures, of food and of hope.

Not being able to afford a car but keen to travel and explore our new home, we took bus tours around Scotland. I remember them quite clearly. We children brought down the average age of the tour bus. We went to Stirling Castle, Callander, Inverness and everywhere in between. My favourite trip was the mystery one where you never knew where we would end up. On every trip my mum would make lamb kebabs, unda khakina (a spicy egg omelette) and we would have this with bread and Irn Bru; the mixing of foods and culture were very prominent.

The older occupants of the bus loved having us children around. Well, most did. On the odd occasion we did hear comments about the smell in the bus as my mum would open the tasty food and hand it round the family. It made me very conscious of smells and to this day I am paranoid about it. That is why I always buy the most expensive perfume.

My father loved the Highlands of Scotland. I think it reminded him of his homeland where he had grown up after partition from India and where he would often visit the Himalayas. Those mountains were slightly higher than our own Ben Nevis. One sunny day, many moons later when we had a car, we climbed to the base camp in our chapals (sandals).

I can still picture the scene: my father walking across the rope bridge, using his hands to hold the wire rope. Then balancing his feet on the single wire that took him across the fast flowing river below. He reminded me of an acrobat taking his first steps on a high wire; I had never seen a person of colour who was an acrobat. He turned and smiled at us as he crossed. I was so relieved to see him make it back.

My favourite memories of us as a family were of playing cricket in Maxwell Park in Glasgow. My father, the slow-spin bowler, me batting and my siblings the fielders. My poor mum was the umpire, holding onto all our coats with no hands free to sign for a 4 or 6.

Again a picnic was always part of the joy, eating Pakistani food, samosas, chicken kebabs, with chapatis, and, as ever, washing it down with ginger. We’d expanded from Irn Bru to Tizer and Coke.

Because my mum was a great cook, people would never refuse an invitation to eat at our house. My father would invite his colleagues to come to our now 2 bedroom tenement flat in Pollokshields for dinner. He was so proud of my mum and how well she had coped with the change in landscape, weather and expectations.

Theirs was a true love marriage, one cut short by the death of my father at the age of 45. He had a massive heart attack caused by stress, discrimination and racism. Strathclyde University named a chemical reaction after my dad died, acknowledging the fact that he was a brilliant academic researcher. It was called the Khand-Pausen Reaction. A legacy to be proud of.

My mum lived for 33 years after my father died and never looked at another man.

True love can never be underestimated.