Blog: Umar Butt on Alex & Eliza

I, Umar Butt, am a Scottish Asian man with a Glaswegian accent, living in Stockton on Tees. It’s an everyday occurrence for people to ask: “Where do you come from?”

I tell them, “I’m from Glasgow,” to which they’ll say, “No, I can hear that…. But where is your family from?”

When I was young, in the summer holidays, my mum and dad used to take me to Pakistan to visit my six uncles, eight aunties, and their families, all of whom lived in my grandmother’s house.

I wasn’t close to my grandmother. Maybe because I was always distracted by so many cousins. I didn’t know her. She was a stranger to me. A stranger who made her own olive oil and mango pickle. A stranger who sat in the summer sun, and combed her grandchildren’s hair.

On my 19th birthday, my gran travelled all the way from Pakistan to Glasgow to visit. This was the first time she had left her house in Gujranwala to travel anywhere.

My parents were supposed to collect her from the airport, instead they went away to attend an Islamic convention in Manchester. Mum made us four different curries and told me to entertain Gran for a couple of days until they came back…

My parents are very religious, and I wasn’t allowed to watch TV, never mind play music but secretly I was part of an amateur theatre company, and had been asked to audition for the role of Tyrone Jackson, in Fame the Musical! (There were no Black actors and I am Brown. Next best thing.)

Knowing my grandmother is hard of hearing, I thought, this is a great opportunity to exploit, to rebel, so I sat down in the living room, and tried to learn.

My grandmother came and asked me why I was playing the chords so badly. My grandmother told me to get her a harmonium and she would teach me a thing or two about music.

It was snowing outside; the pavements were covered with black ice as I made my way to the music store.

I took the harmonium, and placed it in the middle of the living room floor. My grandmother stood up. My grandmother who couldn’t even walk properly, stood up. Her eyes were full of youth and wonder. Her fingers started to shake. The harmonium seemed all too familiar to her. She sat down….. And she started play. And sing.

And then, she told me that she was born in Agra (India) to white Christian parents. She told me all about partition. How she met my paratrooper grandad, a Sikh from Rajasthan (India). And how they travelled to Pakistan across that partition, changed their names, and their religion out of fear and out of love. They built a house and home – the house, she, along with her 14 children and their families stayed in. The house I visited in my summer holidays.

My mind was racing, I had a so many questions for her - she told me that she was tired and that she would tell me the rest of her truth the morning.

The next morning never came for her. She slipped away from this world in her sleep. It was as if she was waiting to share her story.

Alex & Eliza is my story, my grandmother’s story, the story of a young couple, fleeing their country, their religion, their lives for love, and for freedom.

Alex & Eliza

As a girl she lived through the death and destruction of the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan, but now Zubair’s grandmother is like everyone else’s grandmother: old and wrinkly, slow in speech and speed.

Full of beautiful music, humour and first class story-telling, Alex & Eliza is the story of a young couple, spanning three generations, and as told to a grandson.

Sat 12 October
Book now >>

Alex & Eliza

Saturday 12 October

Book Now >>