Trying to resist my mother’s stern demand to eat chapatti was pointless; she always won. It didn’t matter if I told her I’d eaten fish and chips when I was out with my Gora friends. In fact, that made it worse.
“You need to eat vege-tables, Arjun. Make you strong. Grow up big, handsome boy.’ In her thick Indian accent, ‘boy’ became ‘buoy’. My mother insisted on feeding me in her own kitchen; my father too, although sometimes he would eat in the restaurant he owned across the street. When I wasn’t working there, I skulked around with friends from high school. We lurked in city parks during summer, eagerly inhaling the scent of parading girls wafting past our nostrils. In winter we trekked between houses. Usually, we ended up at Lynn McIntyre’s. Her divorced mother enjoyed our chatter; I enjoyed being close to Lynn, who reminded me of the dark-haired singer from The Human League.
“Gora’s eat too much fried food. Very bad.” My mother shook her head and sighed, “Oh aye.” Glancing up at the picture clock hanging in the kitchen, I saw from Guru Goban Singh’s all-knowing expression that he agreed with my mother.
I was about to point out how pakora was also fried until I met her ominous stare through oversized silver rim glasses. You just didn’t mess with my mother. A small, rounded woman with dyed black hair scraped into a bun who always wore a Salwar Kameez in pastel shades. Her chunky forearms, jangled with heavy gold bangles as she hung washing, slapped chapattis, carried food bags. Every day she wore a Kirpan on a sling under her clothing. A Kirpan is a small dagger, a religious symbol for Sikhs. Airport security forces her to remove it each time she returns to India. We still have a house there in my father’s village despite his having lived here since 1950. They took me back with them when I was nine: I despised it. After a long, bumpy journey from Delhi, I fell asleep downstairs on a manja – a hessian woven bed – during the afternoon downpour. My shoes were floating around the room when I opened my eyes. The first power cut of the day had stolen every light.
“Pa- Ji! Pa- Ji!” I yelped into the darkness, dis-orientated and useless. Sachin, my oldest brother waded through the almost knee-high water, unfased and carried me upstairs.
“What you crying about, you little baby,’ he sneered. The overpowering stench of rat’s urine and dead, damp air raided my nostrils. Pa-Ji, who made it his business to stay on our mother’s good side, ensured his total immersion into village life did not go unnoticed. One hand stretched out to help our mother with her bad knees, the other flat, awaiting every rupee and pound note she pushed into it.
Stray cats, dogs and farm animals littered the broken concrete road threading its way through the village, past the ‘new money’ decadent homes and further out beyond, to the fields. Barefoot children carried milk in metal jugs, flour sacks on heads, manure in baskets – its pungent smell became normal after a while. The Jats are farmers, the landowners and highest caste. My father enjoys that prestige quietly; he helps the community with an annual health fair and funded the first school. Sachin, a scheming, pompous serpent, slithers in his shadow. He plants himself firmly in every project my parents turn their hands to, his devious mind digging out what profits or riches might await him.
“Cala! Cala!” My mother’s incessant war-cry to eat: her bullying manner assured me she knew best – about everything.
Like a good boy, I ate whatever my mother put in front of me. I watched her slurp yoghurt, aloo gobi and dhal across the cheap vinyl table cover. Adjusting the silk, dupatta scarf draped around her neck, she wiped her dutiful hands purposefully, almost with disdain as though ridding them of some invisible disease. And then she clasped them in prayer, thanking the Gurus for the food provided. No doubt her prayers included saving my soul from the West of Scotland way of life. “Why you no come to the Gurdwara with me, Arjun? Very nice people there. Apna, henna?”
“Mum I know they’re nice at the temple, but I don’t want to go all the time like you.” I pushed back the chair and left the bowl, plate and empty glass of milk stacked beside the sink. In the living room the news was coming on as I sunk into the sofa.
“…..Argentine forces invade The British Falkland Islands…..” announced the BBC newsreader. I could hear my mother shuffling around in the kitchen, still.
Even in middle age, she seemed old: a regimented mother, she’d missed out on the benefit given to boys of formal schooling. Her lessons, provided by a gaggle of female relatives, were in how to fulfill a husband’s needs. An accomplished Sikh woman could be measured by the roundness of her chapattis and the number of male offspring she produced. With three sons to her credit, my mother’s pride knew no limits. As head of the family, my father allowed his wife a place beside him in the eyes of the community. Whilst the community was not watching, I realized my father’s affections lay in a different place.
I’d met the Gori woman he frequently invited into the restaurant when he knew my mother to be at home or the shop or Gurdwara. My father was a social, hard working man who believed in doing the right thing for people. I’d witnessed, in astonished silence, the blazing smile and sparkling eyes reserved for her alone: she was the right thing for him.
“Arjun.’ My mother’s bark. “Go with your Uncle to Cash and Carry. He is needing help with boxes.”
Once a week, after school, I’d go with my Uncle Amrit to help him load up his van. He owned a shop on the other side of the city, across the river. My sister worked there mostly.
“You been with a girl, Arjun?” Uncle Amrit teased. White teeth flashed against brown skin. A friendly, pleasant mask: aggression, like the bulk of an iceberg, submerged beneath. Leaning forward, he removed a bag-wrapped bottle from the van’s glove compartment as we queued in traffic on the bridge, taking a fast swig. I shot him a nervous, sideways glance. I knew he liked a good drink but this surprised me. “So I’ll take the silence as a no. Tsk Tsk. Young boy like you should know what it’s all about. Here.” Once more, the glove compartment was yanked open and he pulled out a video. “Watch a few of these and you’ll soon learn.”
An involuntary tickle surged through me when I saw the barely dressed, white girl on the cover with juicy, red lips. Instinctively, I wanted to hide it and shoved it under my anorak. “Don’t tell Pen-ji,” I pleaded. I’d die if my sister knew.
“Course not,” my Uncle grinned, stealing another drink. “Ah – you’ll like that, son.” His bearded smile goaded me: assured in his own good looks; he was king of his world.
In the restaurant as summer slipped over the city with couples out to play and drunks spilling from crowded pubs, Uncle Amrit began to bring guests. Ladies of the night he called them. As I cleared tables, I’d watch him pour them drink after drink, their gravel-rough voices getting louder and their tight skirts getting shorter. And then he’d shoot me a wink, his arms draped around their laughing necks as he escorted them outside, into his van. I felt a pang of envy.
Outside the chippy, against peeling adverts and a huge poster for An Officer and A Gentleman playing at the Odeon, a group of us huddled close against the nipping wind. I leaned into Lynn McIntyre’s face. Bubble bath freshness mixed with a sprinkling of malt vinegar and love.
“You smell nice. Maybe you and I could go to that film together,” I said, pinching a chip from the bag she held cupped in both hands. “I save my tips from the restaurant so I can pay for us.” I watched her cheeks, already pink in the strong wind grow a shade darker.
“Aye, that’d be great,” she smiled and I glimpsed a rush of happiness, reflected in her eyes. “You smell of spices.” I shrugged. “No, no, it’s not bad,” she urged, her sugary voice laced with apology. She pressed her nose against my sweatshirt and sniffed. “It’s sweet.”
“Like you,” I murmured, feeling drawn in by the magic allure of her pop star eyes and milk bottle pale skin.
“Arjun! Arjun! Come and help bring your Uncle inside.” I switched off the latest video with lightning speed, feeling sure my mother might see the bulge in my trousers. Any sexual thoughts faded fast as I saw my sister struggling with Uncle Amrit at our door. Drunk, flapping loosely like a flag in the wind, he cursed randomly in a slurred voice. Brown, watery eyes bulged.
“Mum, I don’t know where it is.” My sister’s voice, a high-pitched defensive whine, pierced my ears. “I left him with all the takings, in a big white envelope. I watched him put it into the van. There was three thousand in it. All he had to do was drive it over here.” The women shouted at him and me and one another. A symphony of Punjabi reached a crescendo amid the floral wallpaper hallway.
“Where is it?” Our mother rattled Amrit’s arm. “Make chai,” she ordered my sister. “Need to sober him up. Find out what happened to the cash.”
My mother waddled towards the kitchen, muttering ‘wah-he guru’ prayers under her breath as I bore the majority of Uncle Amrit’s dead weight. He was tall, slim and usually couldn’t stand still for a minute, noticeably agitated, always eager to be some other place. That often happened to be anywhere away from Pen-ji.
They were only a few years into their marriage but already had three young kids. The families had been satisfied with the match.
“I don’t know the family very well,” my father told his brother-in-law when they searched for a young husband. “He is the oldest of four sons and they say he works hard.” How could they have known then how Amrit’s allegiance and true love would turn out to be to drink, gambling and women of a questionable back-ground?
“Where have you been to this time? You should be at home with me and the kids,” my sister frequently complained. But whenever she did, Amrit’s smiling face became twisted and ugly.
An unbuttoned shirt, the gold Khanda flaunted like a medallion against dark chest hair. Foul, vodka breath infused with spice-thick air in the tenement kitchen.
“Who are you to tell me what to do?” A bowl of uneaten Saag collided with a wall, its creamy, green contents splattering angrily. I heard my sister tell our mother how she raised her voice that time, but never did again. A vain woman, she found it difficult turning up at the nursery with a purple-bruised eye.
Romance and happy endings escaped her. Pen-ji was twelve years older than me. I’d been the late addition to the family, the other three already in high school.
“And Mum still fed you herself until you were five,” Sachin relished telling me in his polite, nasal voice whenever our living room was full of weekend visitors. Bastard. He knew I was too shy and afraid to dare speak back to him. He, the mighty oldest son, the one our mother doted over even more than she doted over me.
One of our Aunties who lived downstairs in the tenement block grasped my cheeks between her finger and thumb.
“Never mind him – you’re a big boy now and going to make a fine husband for a lucky girl.” So long as she didn’t plant a kiss on me with those painted pink lips. And that was just it. I didn’t look at Indian girls at all; Gori girls interested me.
Marrying an Indian girl was the last thing on my mind. I was a dark skinned Punjabi with a Scottish accent, thinking white boy thoughts. Being like my friends was what I wanted most.
“Your Uncle and I have started looking for a good Jat girl,” Auntie announced, biting into another piece of colourful Barfi. “We can bring photographs for you to choose soon.”
Soon: I’m only fifteen, I thought. But this was my world and I knew my mother and the entire family would make it their mission to find me a Punjabi wife. I’d seen it happen around me, my entire life. Tradition, far-reaching, all the way from India, ensuring the culture and values survived. What chance did I have?
“Present for your birthday, Arjun.” I failed to hide a suspicious smile and cautiously followed a cocksure Uncle Amrit outside the restaurant. An abandoned city street basked in the orange glow of evening. “It’s in the van.”