I do not have many memories of my very early childhood, apart from the obvious ones, of course. You know, my windswept, bewildered parents in their dusty Indian village garb standing in the open doorway of a 747, blinking back tears of gratitude and heartbreak as the fog cleared to reveal the sign they had been waiting for, dreaming of, the sign planted in tarmac and emblazoned in triumphant hues of red, blue and white, the sign that said simply, WELCOME TO BRITAIN.
‘You’re so lovely. You know, I never think of you as, you know, foreign. You’re just like one of us.’
My mother would smile and graciously accept this as a compliment. And yet afterwards, in front of the Aunties, she would reduce them to tears of laughter by gently poking fun at the habits of her English friends. It was only much later on that I realised in the thirteen years we lived there, during which every weekend was taken up with visiting Indian families or being invaded by them, only once had any of our neighbours been invited in further than the step of our back door.
I rarely rebelled openly against this communal policing, firstly because it somehow made me feel safe and wanted, and secondly, because I knew how intensely my parents valued these people they so readily renamed as family, faced with the loss of their own blood relations.
But to be told off by a white person, especially a neighbour, that was not just misbehaviour, that was letting down the whole Indian nation. It was continually drummed into me, ‘Don’t give them a chance to say we’re worse than they already think we are. You prove you are better. Always.’
‘I will never understand this about the English, all this puffing up about being civilised with their cucumber sandwiches and cradle of democracy big talk, and then they turn round and kick their elders in the backside, all this It’s My Life, I Want My Space stupidness, You Can’t Tell Me What To Do cheekiness, I Have To Go To Bingo selfishness and You Kids Eat Crisps Instead Of Hot Food nonsense. What is this My Life business, anyway? We all have obligations, no one is born on their own, are they?’
But whatever he did to make money was not what papa really was; whilst my Aunties and Uncles became strangers when listening to him, papa became himself when he sang. My tender papa, my flying papa, the papa with hope and infinite variety. And then one day I made a connection; if my singing papa was the real man, how did he feel the rest of the time?
I wanted to tell him about the old lady, but then I looked at his face and saw something I had never seen before, a million of these encounters written in the lines around his warm, hopeful eyes, lurking in the furrows of his brow, shadowing the soft curves of his mouth. I suddenly realised that what had happened to me must have happened to papa countless times, but not once had he ever shared his upset with me. He must have known it would have made me feel as I felt right now, hurt, angry, confused, and horribly powerless because this kind of hatred could not be explained.
Papa’s singing always unleashed these emotions which were unfamiliar and instinctive at the same time, in a language I could not recognise but felt I could speak in my sleep, in my dreams, evocative of a country I had never visited but which sounded like the only home I had ever known. The songs made me realise that there was a corner of me that would be forever not England.
When I said that we talked, what I mean is that Anita talked and I listened with the appropriate appreciative noises. But I never had to force my admiration, it flowed from every pore because Anita made me laugh like no one else; she gave voice to all the wicked things I had often thought but kept zipped up inside my good girl’s winter coat.
I had seen how in an instant, those you called friends could suddenly become tormentors, sniffing out a weakness or a difference, turning their own fear of ostracism into a weapon with which they could beat the victim away, afraid that being an outsider, an individual even, was somehow infectious.
I knew I was a freak of some kind, too mouthy, clumsy and scabby to be a real Indian girl, too Indian to be a real Tollington wench, but living in the grey area between all categories felt increasingly like home.
‘They’ll want cookers!’ giggled mama. ‘Doesn’t he know we were fitting bidets into our houses when their ancestors were living in caves? Oh God!’ and then she went suddenly quiet and looked hard at papa. ‘God Shyam, is that how they see us? Is it really?’
It was all falling into place now, why I felt this continual compulsion to fabricate, this ever-present desire to be someone else in some other place far from Tollington. Before Nanima arrived, this urge to reinvent myself, I could now see, was driven purely by shame, the shame I felt when we ‘did’ India at school, and would leaf through tatty textbooks where the map of the world was an expanse of pink, where erect Victorian soldiers posed in grainy photographs (…).
Mr Topsy/Turvey watched her with devoted eyes. ‘I served in India. Ten years. Magical country. Magical people. The best.’
‘Shouldn’t have bloody been there anyway, should you?’ I muttered under my breath. ‘Who asked you to lock up my grandad and steal his chickens?’
I was by now walking fast, making Nanima puff and trot a little to keep up, but I could still hear him shouting behind us, ‘We should never have been there. Criminal it was! Ugly. You look after your nan! You hear me, Topsy!’
‘. . . understand why, but just think if you could use all that energy to do some good. Find out who the real enemies are, the rich, the privileged, not the other people trying to make a living like you, not people like . . .’
Sherrie did not even know that her parents were thinking of moving, Sherrie and Anita did not know what I suddenly realised now, that Deirdre had no intention, ever, of buying Anita a horse. Sorrow flooded me until it rose up to my eyes and made them sting. Anita, the same skinny harpy who had just narrowly missed gouging out another girl’s eyes, was now whispering lover’s endearments into a fat pony’s ears. She needed me maybe more than I needed her. There is a fine line between love and pity and I had just stepped over it.
I decided there and then to heal myself, both in body and mind. It was time. I asked mama to bring in all my school books to prepare for the eleven-plus, I would grow my hair long and vaguely feminine, I would be nice to Pinky and Baby and seek out their company willingly, I would write letters to India and
introduce myself properly to that anonymous army of blood relatives, I would learn to knit, probably, and I would always always tell the truth.
I now knew I was not a bad girl, a mixed-up girl, a girl with no name or no place. The place in which I belonged was wherever I stood and there was nothing stopping me simply moving forward and claiming each resting place as home.
‘You wanted to hurt people, you mean!’ I yelled at him. ‘How could you say it, in front of me? My dad? To anyone? How can you believe that shit?’
Sam grabbed me by the wrists and I sucked in air and held it. ‘When I said them,’ he rasped, ‘I never meant you, Meena! It was all the others, not you!’
I put my face right up to his; I could smell the smoke on his breath. ‘You mean the others like the Bank Manager?’
Sam looked confused.
‘The man from the building site. The Indian man. I know you did it. I am the others, Sam. You did mean me.’