Heathrow airport, my parents. This is London. I am home.
That drive through the town of London was too good! I am getting used to white people now. This is just like in the James Bond film I saw at Twentieth Cinema in Nairobi. Red double decker buses and police bobbies with those funny helmets.
The school term here has already begun, but I could not make it on time because they sent me my visa too late. So now I will have to catch up. But today, my mother and I are going to go to the shops to buy my full uniform. I will be wearing a blazer for the first time.
My mother doesn’t dress like other Indian women. She dresses like white women. She wears long boots and jeans and things Indian women don’t wear back in Nairobi.
We live in a big room on top of a Victorian house. There are five floors. It is a huge tall house. Other people live on the other floors. My dad says that 100 years ago, the wealthy people lived upstairs and the servants lived downstairs. I don’t think Wanjiro would have liked living downstairs in a house like this. Wanjiro…
One time, Wanjiro took me for a walk.
It was early evening and still light but I could see the pale moon following us wherever we went. We went and sat with a group of Wanjiro’s old lady friends. They were Kikuyu women who lived in the shambas in Limuru, and they were waiting for the country bus to take them back upcountry. They came into Nairobi with a huge load of vegetables and fruits on their backs, cassava, mangos, jackfruit, selling them door-to-door. My grandmother always bought from them. These women were always smiling and laughing and Wanjiro loved sitting with them. They would give me some of the things left over from their huge leather baskets. I remember once they gave me an unripe green mango, with grooves cut into it with a knife, and filled with salt, sugar and pilipili manga (chilli powder). Delicious!
When we walked back, the moon was following us.
“Why is the moon following us?” I asked Wanjiro.
“He always follows us, and keeps us safe and watches over us,” she replied sighing happily.
“That’s not God,” I said, “I have seen God, and he does not look like that.”
“Really, what does He look like then?” she smiled amusedly at me.
“He’s a white man. We have a picture of him on our wall at home. His name is Aga Khan.”
There was a picture of the Aga Khan hanging in the wall of my parent’s bedroom in London too.
My dad was putting on his suit jacket and heading off to work. He worked in a department store and Saturday was a busy day for him. My mother and I were heading to the Abernathie’s shop.
The street was very clean and everyone walked around as if they were in a hurry to get to where they were going. Nobody strolled. There were no maskinis (street beggars) and no street children offering to find you a parking spot or clean your shoes. This was not Nagara Road. There did not seem to be any danger here of any kind of purse-snatchers either. People wore mostly black and grey and dark brown. There were no colours here.
Abernethie’s. Wow! It looked like a palace next to Chandaria’s. There was no incense, no colourful pictures and no haggling. It was all very clean, and very quiet.
How come there is no haggling? There must be haggling, isn’t it?
My uncle Puhndiji was the best family “haggler” (mother’s side) so he would take me to Mr Patel’s shop to buy school supplies for my first term. So Puhndiji Uncle, he selects all the school supplies he wants to buy for me and then the haggling it begins:
And Mr. Patel he says to Puhndiji Uncle: “But sir, please understand – these Parker fountain pens are imported from UK, finest premium kwality, too-good kwality I tell you… “
“Fine, you keep your UK-Bookay fancy-bancy pens, I will just go to Mr. Shah in Parklands and buy some biro pens. Then this poor boy’s teacher will fail him from school for not using a proper Parker pen, and you only are to blame because you are charging too much, isn’t it! Then what he will do? When he is older and fails from school he will have to get a job in Esso petrol station. And it will be your fault! What are these fancy New Stanley prices you are charging? Have you no shame? You used to be such a humble man, you know how many relatives I have recommended to your shop? Now I will have to tell them that you are becoming a too much big shot.
“Bah! I’m leaving! I don’t know why I come to Nagara Road anyway, you people in town are charging many-too-many shillings, isn’t it?”.
Then Puhndiji Uncle grabs my hand and he starts storming off and he is saying to me:
“Come on baba – we are leaving this shop and never coming back!”
Then Mrs. Patel makes sharp squinty eyes at Mr. Patel and Mr. Patel looks worried and he comes running after Puhndiji Uncle.
They settle on a price.
Then Mrs. Patel brings us all ice-cold Fanta, and Mr. Patel and Puhndiji Uncle, they both drink and cool down, and then they start gossiping like old friends.
So that is haggling.
Another time also, I remembered listening to Mrs. D’Souza, the Goan lady haggling with Mr. Patel over a big barrel of ghee.
“Mr. Patel, have you no idea how absurd you are for squabbling over a mere three shillings. I can quite conveniently buy the ghee somewhere else if I wish.”
Goans always used big-big words because most of them were teachers anyway.
“Yes, but Mrs. De Souza,” Mr. Patel replied, “this is the finest premium quality Indian imported ghee.”
“Mr. Patel, with all due respect, a cow is a cow and milk is milk and ghee is ghee.”
At this point, Mrs. Patel happened to come out of the back of the shop. The Patels, like many shopkeeper families, lived above the shop, and Mrs. Patel had just cooked lunch for her husband and had come by to mind the shop so he could go in and have his lunch.
“A cow is a cow?” Mrs. Patel looked upset.
“Yes, Mrs Patel, a cow is just so – a cow,” Mrs. D’Souza snorted.
Mrs. Patel drew herself up to her full 4feet 10 inches and puffed her chest out like a peacock. “Mrs. De Souza, a cow is the most sacred of animals, and Lord Krishna himself, the butter thief in his youth, would not allow us to sell anything but the finest premium quality imported ghee in this business establishment.”
Back at Abernathie’s in London…
“Young man, I understand you wish to buy some socks,” the tall, polite English gentleman standing behind the counter said looking down at me. Instinctively, I clenched my fist and stretched out my arm and put it on the counter. The startled Englishman looked disapprovingly at my mother.
My mother’s eyes were on fire with rage. “We’re not in the jungle anymore,” she scolded me in Khoji. “This is England. People are sophisticated here. They don’t give their fists out to get measured for socks. Don’t be such a junglie! How dare you embarrass me like that?”
My mother’s words rang in my ears. Well, actually, just one of the words. Jungle. The thing is, my mother seemed to think that the jungle was not a very good place. But that is not what Mr. Patel taught me, and that is not what my grandfather taught me. I was always told that the jungle was a magical place.
Grandfather always said that the English stole good words from us. They stole Sanskrit words like sandal, and shawl and jungle.
Jungle was a good word, it was a place where Mowgli lived. And one time, Mr. Patel told me the story of where the elephants go to die… they walk for hours alone and go to die deep in the jungle. And greedy men go there to steal the ivory, but the jungle animals protect the ivory, because they are the tombstones of the elephants, so they do not let the greedy men steal the ivory.
And then another time, Mr. Patel told me about when Krishna and Arjuna were in the Kandhava Jungle and they met a woodsman by the Yamuna River and how the woodsman turned out to be a trickster and he was actually Agni, the Lord of Fire. So many tales Mr. Patel had told me about Krishna – and Vishnu even – which did take place in the jungle.
But this was not Mr. Patel’s shop in Nagara, this was Abernethie’s in Chiswick, and it was very different.
I mean, for one thing, there were no sweets. And they didn’t sell desiccated coconut here, or even ghee. Just clothes, socks, shirts, shorts, trousers, coats and mainly in dark colours, blue and grey and brown. No bright colors. People don’t wear bright colors here, and they don’t talk loudly. They wear dark colours and they talk softly. Like at funerals.
I’ve just learned a new word:
The English salesman let me try my new dark blue mittens, which I need for school because it is very cold at the moment.
When we left Abernethie’s my mother began to feel bad about getting angry with me. As we were walking, we walked past a tea shop, Lyon’s Tea Shop where people were sitting and drinking tea and eating cake just like at the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi.
“Let’s go in and have some tea and cake. I think they have marzipan cake here!” she suggested.
So I got to have cake! This was my third piece if you count the two I had on the BOAC flight from Nairobi to London. It was nice and warm in the tea shop, and the people outside the window looked very cold.
Once, when it was a very cold evening back in Nairobi, Wanjiro took me out to where askari made his fire. In the housing compound where we lived, there was a night watchman, the Maasai askari, and he guarded the gate where people drove in and out. At night, askari always made a fire because his job was outdoors and so he needed to stay warm. So Wanjiro and I would sit with askari. I never knew his name, we just called him askari.
Anyway, it was always fun because people would always stop by for a chat. Some of the Kikuyu vegetable ladies who had missed the early upcountry bus, would wait near the fire, and some of the ayahs who were leaving for the evening – because not all of them lived in or near the homes where they worked, would also stop by. There would always be music playing from askari’s radio. Malaika was my and everybody’s favourite, and the ayahs would all sing it together:
“Malaika, nakupenda Malaika…”
“…God Save our Queen… Send her vict-o-rious… Happy and gl-o-rious…”
Here in London, school starts every day with Assembly, which is horridly boring. We have to sing these hymns before the headmistress gives a long speech with big words, after which we all have to sing “God Save the Queen,” before being dismissed.
There was only one other Indian boy in the whole school. He was two standards ahead of me. His name was Harry. My dad said his real name must be “Hurree,” like that Hurree Jamset Ramsingh fellow in the Billy Bunter books. But he was not Sikh, because his father did not wear a turban. I asked him once in the playground if he was Hindu, and he said to me quietly that he was a Parsee. That makes sense. Parsees and Goans, they always go to good schools and they always speak the best English.
Chiswick and Bedford Park Preparatory School had a very small playground.
Actually the school itself was just another very big old Victorian house with a small garden.
They called it a garden but there was no grass, only concrete. But it was so small that we played football with a tennis ball. We also played marbles, and a game called tally-ho, where two teams hopped on one leg, folded their arms and attacked each other trying to make those on the other team fall over.
There were no black people here.
I had not met a black person since I arrived in London. I saw one once, but my dad said he was not African black, but from somewhere in western India. Our family is originally from the eastern part, from a state called Gujarat.
How come they have black people in the west of India?
Last Sunday night, we visited my uncle in Southall, which is a place where all the Indians in England live. He has a newsagent’s shop and so he sells newspapers, chocolates, cigarettes and comics.
“So what chocolate you want? Bounty, Topic, Mars, Aero – we have many, too many,” my uncle Salim said to me the second I walked in with my dad.
“Topic,” I replied. It was my favourite.
A little while later a Sikh boy walked in. He had a hanky turban, a white handkerchief that wrapped his hair in a round shape on top of his head. Back home we sometimes called them “training turbans.” But usually, it was a hanky turban. He was about Hurree’s age and he was trying to buy a comic. Salim uncle recognized him and called him over. “Tell my nephew here what they call you at school.”
The boy hesitates.
“Go on,” Salim uncle urges.
The boy clearly doesn’t want to tell.
“Go on, bhaiya! Tell my nephew what they call your hanky turban!”
“Pak lunch,” the boy whispers ashamedly.
My uncle starts to laugh loudly, but the poor Sikh boy is so embarrassed, he leaves the shop. Salim uncle is still laughing and bobbling his head.
“Kamal, kamal!” Salim uncle says to my father. “Those British kids are kamal (that means amazing)! I mean Pak means Paki (as in Pakistani) and Pak also means packed up – and then lunch! Pak lunch! …Kamal! I tell you!”
Salim uncle starts to tell another joke, “… so there were three brothers, Sadrudin, Kamrudin and Badrudin and Sadrudin was going to…” but a customer walks in and interrupts him.
“Do you have a copy of the Mirror, mate? Oh, there it is… yeah…ta gov…”
We waited until it was time for Salim uncle to close up shop.
“Time for chai and bhajias!” he said, sliding down the metal door of his shop. He clicked the padlock and locked it. “Time for a nice cuppa, mates!” he tried to imitate an English accent. “Let us go to the best bhajia place in Southall – Kwality Sweetmart.”