My first impressions of London when I arrived there at age seven, were magical.
Until the day my mother took me to buy socks.
You see, until then, buying socks had always been fun. Growing up in Nairobi with my grandparents, my earliest memories included visiting the ‘Banyani’ Hindu shopkeepers, like Mr. Patel’s, on Nagara Road.
You didn’t go there unless you needed to buy something from them. Firstly, we had nothing in common with them. They were Hindu and we were Muslim, they were vegetarian and we were non-vegetarian, we had one God they had many gods. Nothing in common really except for thousands of years of history in Mother India. And secondly, Nagara Road was notorious for purse-snatchers and so my grandmother would ensure that she only carried enough money for our purchases and nothing more.
I always liked going to the banyani shops because I liked their gods better than ours.
Ours was a white man called the Aga Khan. We had photos of him in our house and there were photos of him in the houses of our friends and in their offices. Mr. Samji, the dentist, had one right over the chair where he drilled my teeth. “Pray to Hazir Imam” he would say standing over me menacingly, drill in hand, “and don’t eat so many sweets!”
I’m sure he got a secret thrill from watching me break into a cold sweat and shrink deeper into the chair the closer he came. “Sweets will cost you money in dental fees, isn’t?” he would add to my grandmother as she stood by watching me scream.
That’s another thing about the banyani shops on Nagara Road that I loved – the sweets!
They were free too. Even better.
I loved all the colourful pictures of the Hindu gods in Mr. Patel’s shop. And Mr. Patel always said the same thing, “this boy wants to be a Hindu.”
He was right, I did. All we had was the same black and white photo of the Aga Khan in our homes and dental offices. But these banyanis, they had so many gods in such beautiful colours, and pictures of them practically wallpapered Mr. Patel’s shop. And as soon as my grandmother and I walked in, he would say, “come little boy, help yourself to the sweets” and he would take the aluminum lid off the big thick glass jar of sweets (red, green, pink, gold, purple, black…red was my favorite, then black) and he would ask me to take a handful.
The first time my grandmother and I went there, I did just that. I dove in and grabbed as many sweets as I could with my hand. I threw a few back in because they were green and pink – I didn’t like green and pink ones. Then I went back in for the red and black ones and put the whole palmful of sweets into my pocket except for one black one, which I put straight into my mouth.
We were there that day to buy some shirts for school for me, some cooking pots, some cans of condensed milk, some boxes of desiccated coconut and some cufflinks for my grandfather. Mr. Patel sold all these things. When we left, I said to my grandmother, “Mr. Patel is a nice man! He gave me free sweets!”
But my grandmother wasn’t listening to me. She was too busy guarding her purse against the roaming purse snatchers. Her friend, Mrs. Kabirdin had recently gotten her purse snatched, and she had told my grandmother to be careful.
I tried again. “Mr. Patel is a nice man! He gave me free sweets!”
My grandmother looked at me wearily, her purse firmly clutched to her bosom with one hand, while her other gripped mine tightly.
“Mr. Patel is a businessman,” she said shrewdly. “He knows that if he gives you sweets for free, you will ask me to take you back there so he can get more business from us.”
Interesting. I never thought of that. He gives me free sweets, and of course, I will want my grandmother to go back there next time. Because there are other shops we could go to. Mr. Patel was not the only one selling socks and desiccated coconut.
I thought about it all week. I thought and thought and thought and the next time my grandmother took me to Mr. Patel’s I had a new plan. I would boldly refuse the sweets.
No thank you, Mr. Patel!
The following week we went back to Mr. Patel’s.
“Come little boy, help yourself to some sweets,” Mr. Patel enticed.
Ah, this was the moment I had been waiting for. Now, I know I said before that I was going to refuse, but just then, I thought of an even better plan. I started to act very shy, and I pretended to be embarrassed.
“What, the boy is being shy? It’s alright young fellow, take some sweets,” he held the lid of the jar open. But I stood my ground.
Even grandmother got tired of waiting. “Take some sweets, we have a lot of shopping to get on with…” she tugged my arm.
I refused, but not boldly, just quietly.
I shrugged my shoulders and stood meekly, doing nothing. And I continued doing the same thing right up until the time I left Nairobi and moved to London.
Mr. Patel and my grandmother would both grow tired and impatient, and every time Mr. Patel would grab a fistful of sweets, “come here baba,” he would say, “just put these in your pocket.”
And I would… humbly. So Mr. Patel thought I was a very polite boy, not a greedy boy. And grandmother thought that I was refusing free sweets because Mr. Patel wanted our business.
But none of them knew the truth.
Shall I tell you truth?
Well, you see Mr. Patel’s palm was about three times bigger than mine. I was only 6 years old. Mr. Patel was about 200 years old. When he handed me the sweets I would fill both my pockets and still the sweets would spill out because there were so many. After we would leave the shop to go back home, I would pick out the green and pink ones – which I did not like anyway – and hand them to the beggar boys sitting on Nagara Road and they would smile at me, and my grandmother would say, “That was a very kind thing for you to do.”
Grandmother didn’t feel safe until we finally got out of Nagara Road. We would take different streets depending on what she had to do next. Sometimes we stayed on Nagara Road because she had to go to the sari shop. Sometimes we went to City Market and bought woven baskets. Once, we walked passed the Norfolk Hotel and grandmother began hurrying me along. I knew why.
She was scared of white people. Terrified.
When she and grandfather left Gujarat and took the steamship from Bombay to Mombasa to emigrate to the Royal Protectorate of British East Africa the ship’s officer was a white man with a big yellow beard and a navy blue uniform with shiny brass buttons and he had told grandmother brusquely that she was in the wrong cabin. It was an honest mistake, but since then she had been scared of white people. I am not scared of them. I don’t mind white people, actually.
At the Norfolk Hotel the women wore hats. And the children got to eat cake with their tea and their lemonade. The children my age got their own individual portion of cake.
“When I go to London to live with my parents, I am going to have lemonade and cake,” I said to my grandmother as we walked by. “No, wait! Fanta and cake! How come you never give me cake?” I looked up at her.
“You get cake on your birthday every year. Cake is expensive. We have to buy it from the European bakery next to New Stanley – we don’t have money like white people.” she replied.
It was not until I spent my first month in London, when it was very, very cold, that I started to miss all my grandmother’s baking. She did not bake European cakes. But she baked Indian sweetmeats with pistachio and saffron colours of dark green and bright orange, and she baked chapattis and parathas stuffed with chickpeas and potatoes and she always baked sweet cassava… ahhh – it was so cold here and the central heating smelled like old socks…
It was a beautiful sunny day. Nagara Road was bursting with colour. The African women were wearing bright coloured khambas with kitenge patterns and the Indian women were showing off their bright saris of red, green, pink, gold, purple… but not black. Grandmother was in a good mood. And Mr. Patel was in a good mood as always. As usual, as soon as he saw us enter the shop, he grabbed a fistful of sweets and came over to me as I was admiring Ganesh’s picture with his big elephant nose covered in golden bangles and stuffed my pockets with sweets.
Today was a day to buy socks. My socks had been darned and re-darned many times over by our ayah Wanjiro, but now the day had come to buy new ones.
“Mama (that’s what she called my grandmother), sasa wewe na taka kununua soksi ingene.” Time to buy me new socks, Wanjiro requested my grandmother.
Wanjiro called them “soksi”.
African people did not have a word for socks, because they never wore socks if they could help it. But instead of socks, they called them soksi because they needed to keep their mouth open at the end of the word otherwise their spirit would get trapped inside their bodies… or that’s what Wanjiro told me. That’s why they added a vowel at the end of a word so they can open their mouth and set the spirit free. That’s why towel was taula, and glass was gilasi and desk was deski and coat was koti and soda was… soda was soda. That last one was fine.
One day, my grandmother was over having tea and samosas and a good juicy gossip with Mrs. Kabirdin, our next door neighbour and only grandfather was home. He was reading the East African Standard dressed in his three-piece dark blue suit even though he retired in 1954 and this was 1966.
“In 1954, I sold the shop in Mwanza and retired to Nairobi,” he always told me as if it was the first time he was saying it.
Anyway, Wanjiro showed up with the worn out socks and explained to my grandfather that the socks were ready to be replaced by new ones.
Now this was a lazy afternoon, my grandmother was away, grandfather was bored, and so he was in the mood to have little stick-about. So he turns to me and says in Khoji, “Nuvah moja khapetha tokeh?” You need new socks do you?
In Khoji, the word for socks is “moja”. But in Swahili, the word for the number one, is also “moja.” Potentially confusing – add that fact to the mischievous twinkle in my grandfather’s eye and we have the recipe for a storm in a teacup…
So grandfather turns to Wanjiro, “watoto na taka moja,” the boy needs new socks, he says. He deliberately uses the Indian word for socks, rather than the African word for socks. Naturally, Wanjiro thinks that he’s saying I need just one new sock.
“Apana moja (one) soksi– mbeli (two) soksi,” not just one new sock, he needs two new socks, she tells him.
But grandfather was enjoying being obtuse and after this went on for several minutes, Wanjiro got fed up and scuffled off bewildered and beffuddled.
“Mimi ta sema mama,” I will talk with madame, Wanjiro says with an exhausted breath to my grandfather.
My grandfather smiled at me. “You see,” he says triumphantly, “this is how wars begin, because people are speaking a different language. We need to understand each other in this world, otherwise we end up with just one sock, not two.”
“Why do we need to wear socks in this heat, why can’t we wear just sandals?” I asked him.
“Ah, sandals, now that is an interesting word,” he said.
“Do you know what language sandal comes from?”
“British,” I ventured.
“British is not a language. English is a language,” he corrected me.
“English,” I repeated dutifully.
“No, not English…”
Oh God, here we go… I was hoping to go out and play with my friend Prakash but it looked like grandfather had some old story in mind. I waited. He waited.
“Sanskrit!” he put his newspaper away. That meant he meant business. “People steal words from each other. Jungle, shawl, sand-haal, or ‘sandal’ as you pronounce it.”
“Sandal is Sanskrit?” I asked, wide-eyed.
“Oh yes,” he replied, “let me tell you a story about sandals. True story,” he added, “it happened to Gandhiji himself” – he said a quick prayer in Gandhi’s honour.
“One day, Gandhi was travelling on a train…” grandfather began.
“To Bombay?” I interrupted.
“Never mind where, he was just traveling isn’t it? So, then, it is a very hot day, so Gandhi says, ‘let me take some air and lean outside the window and sit on the window ledge with my feet in the breeze.’ But then, something happens, what happens?” he asks.
It’s not really a question. He doesn’t expect me to answer. He just sits and waits. When this happens I usually hope that he has forgotten the story, but he almost never does.
I thought it was time for his nap? But he seems wide awake and energized today.
“What happens is one of his sandals gets loose and dislodged – it falls out of the window.”
“Now what?” grandfather asks me.
He pauses and he waits, and I wait. Bo-ring…
“Now, he quickly takes his other sandal and he throws it away.”
But… why? I thought this Gandhi fellow was supposed to be smart. Why would he throw it away?
“You are thinking why, isn’t it?” my grandfather wiggles his finger at me. “Let me tell you why. Gandhiji says, ‘if somebody finds my sandal, he only has one, and I only have one. That is no use to him or to me. But this way, he will find two of them near each other and then they will be of use to him.’ You see he was thinking of the other, always thinking of the other, that is the secret. Not to be selfish. Not to be greedy.”
“I’m not greedy,” I piped up enthusiastically. “When Mr. Patel at Chandaria’s offers me sweets I always refuse.”
“That is very good, very, very good,” my grandfather praised. “If you are not greedy, you will receive double what you expect.”
“That’s exactly what happened to me Bapuji!” I cried excitedly. “Ever since I refused him, I ended up getting double than I expected. Before I could only fill one pocket, now I can fill two!”
“I know you are not a greedy boy. You know how I know?”
Boring… boring… I’m waiting…
“I know because your ma told me that when you leave Patel’s shop on Nagara Road, you start handing out sweets to the poor young African children on the street, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I do – green and pink ones,” I nodded with my best puppy dog eyes. (I did not tell him it was because I did not like the green and pink ones and was trying to get rid of them).
“You see that is exactly thinking like Ghandiji himself. Thinking of those other than your own self. Making a sacrifice for others.”
Suddenly, my grandmother swept into the room. “Dr. Samji has an African girlfriend!” she announced having just returned from her tea, gossip and samosa with old Mrs Kabirdin.
My grandfather looked surprised. “You mean black? African black?”
Just then, Wanjiro came back to ask about the socks again. She insisted to my grandmother that I require not just one new sock, but a pair of new socks. One sock is not sufficient she explained.
My grandmother dismissed her and then shook her head at my grandfather and me, “I am getting concerned about that Wanjiro. What kind of person thinks that you need to buy just one new sock for the boy? Of course we need a new pair of socks. How can we just buy one?”
My grandfather knit his eyebrows concernedly and nodded, dutifully agreeing with my grandmother. A game plan and a goal was brewing in his mind.
“Ghandiji himself would have concurred,” my grandfather said to her.
She looked up to the heavens at the mention of Gandhi’s name and said a split-second prayer.
This was the ultimate endorsement for my grandmother – to have her actions compared to Ghandiji – and for my grandfather, it guaranteed him at least one – if not two – of the piping hot samosas that my grandmother was holding in a small plate in her hand. There was a small brass bowl of delicious tamarind sauce sitting next to the golden brown samosas. Those samosas had just arrived from Mrs Kabirdin’s kitchen and everyone knew she made the very best vegetable samosas around. They were prized cuisine in our neighborhood. Grandfather had been eyeing them discreetly ever since grandmother had entered the room.
“In fact, I was just telling this young chappie the old story of Ghandiji and the sandals – you remember the story, when he lost his sandal – it became dislodged on the train – and he threw his other sandal after it?” grandfather continued casually.
He was going for the double samosa prize now – no doubt about it.
“Oh, that is such a beautiful story,” replied my grandmother – with another quick prayer to the heavens… “you know this young boy is trying to be like Ghandiji – he gives away his sweets to the African beggar children you know?”
And there it finally is: It’s in the bag!
Four of Mrs Kabirdin’s delicious samasos in total – two for grandfather and two for me!
My grandfather glanced over at me and smiled knowingly – but not too much as to let grandmother notice him smiling.
He then uttered a few Sanskrit prayer words for Gandhi in order to secure the spoils of this successful afternoon. My grandmother handed my grandfather the entire plate of samosas as soon as she heard the Sanskrit prayer words. It was like giving alms to a Himalayan sadhu. As soon as grandmother left the room my grandfather gave me my cut of the samosa bounty.
Buying socks was one of my favorite things.
When you go to a Hindu bazaar shop to buy socks, they have a system. They don’t measure your feet they ask you to place your closed fist on the glass counter underneath which all the pairs of socks are on display.
Then, they take an approximate sized sock (Mr. Patel always chose the smaller sizes for me) and you wrap it around your fist. If it fits all the way around the wrist, it means the sock will fit the foot. This was Indian folk wisdom in action.
“Hmm… the boy is growing,” Mr. Patel nodded approvingly.
It seems my fist had grown slightly in size, so he upgraded the sock size accordingly. He then picked out a nice pair of dark blue socks for my big journey.
“London, eh?” he grinned widely. “London Bridge, Madame Two Swords, West Minister’s Abbey, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I replied shyly.
While my grandmother was inspecting the boxes of desiccated coconut, Mr. Patel leans over to me, “when your fist grows, you can hold more in it. But you can also hurt someone harder with it,” he whispers conspiratorially. “Just remember, your fist is for giving, not for hitting. Now, take one more fist of sweets for the aeroplane. It is your last batch of sweets from Chandaria’s.”
I saved the best ones, the black ones and the red ones, for the flight from Nairobi to London on BOAC (British Oversees Airline Company).
On the flight they also gave me sweets, little white sweets. I had never seen white sweets before. And they also had these tiny plastic salt and pepper shakers the size of little thimbles. There was English roast beef, and roasted potatoes and Yorkshire pudding and the best part: European cake for dessert, with a little umbrella on top. First thing, I took the little umbrella and put it in my pocket with the salt and pepper shakers. Then I ate the cake slowly. It was my favourite, a brown and white cake with marzipan and cream. I had never had my own portion of cake, I had only ever eaten from sharing big birthday cakes.
This was like the Norfolk Hotel, or like the cakes the Europeans bought outside New Stanley.
Before the stewardess took away my tray, she left me a sign that said “Wake Me For Meals”. Then she gave me a white pillow and a tartan blanket.
I had never flown on an aeroplane before. It was exciting. I was only seven. None of my friends had been on one. I mean, well – Altaf had almost flown to Mombasa once. But we didn’t end up flying. He took the RVP, Rift Valley Provincial car to Mombasa. But this was London! And it was quite far away.
After dinner, it got dark and people began to go to sleep. The old English lady next to me, started to fall asleep. She was dressed just like those old ladies at the Norfolk Hotel. She kept smiling all the time and calling me a deer, so I did not like her. I mean she was nice, she even reminded me of my grandmother, but she had no right to tease me.
I mean, sometimes my friends tease me, but I can tease them back. Altaf always calls me gazelle because of my ears and then I call him hedgehog because his hair sticks up like a hedgehog. But this lady, I can’t tease her back, isn’t it? I mean to say, I agree, my ears are a little big for my head, and especially when Hajambhai (that’s my barber in Parklands), cuts my hair really short, then my ears stick out a lot and even my grandmother calls me “superkhun.” ‘Khun’ means ear in Khoji, but ‘khund’ means sugar, so I pretend she means sugar.
Now everyone is sleeping. Some people are reading with this small light from the ceiling but most are just sleeping. And I am wide wide awake. I have a sign around my neck that says BOAC and then my name, and my parents’ names and a few other things which I can’t understand. They use a lot of big words in England.
I have already looked around the aeroplane a few times, and now I am really bored. What to do?
Most of the people on this plane are white. I have never seen so many white people before in one place. Some people are walking to the end of the plane and waiting in line. That must be where the “loo” is. My teacher Mrs. Firoz said that English people call the toilet the “loo.” I wonder what is at the other end of the plane? Nobody is going there. Maybe I will go and see…
Cake!!! Fanta! Vimto! Coco Cola!
This must be the kitchen side of the plane. Look at all that cake. I’m getting hungry for more cake again. And maybe some Fanta as well. I wonder how this works? Grandfather said the food on the plane is free and you don’t have to pay. But how do I get the food? Shall I just take it? No, I think you are supposed to let the stewardess give it to you.
Wait! There is my stewardess! She was sitting in a corner seat fast asleep.
Oh, well… I will just have to wait.
That cake looked really good. Wait! I just remembered something! She gave me a sign, that stewardess – before she left. It says: “Wake Me For Meals”!
That means I can wake her if I need a meal, even if she is sleeping.
“Excuse me… um, excuse me please… excuse me…” I whispered.
She didn’t move.
What is it those British people say in the movie films? Like in that Born Free one with Elsa the lioness? Or no! That one – with pilots – Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines! Oh yes…“I say! I say, look here! I say, now look here!”
She is fast asleep. I will try again.
“I say, tally-ho, what? Jolly hockey sticks, isn’t it? Now look here! I say, old girl!”
Still she is sleeping! That is not fair, isn’t it? She gave me cardboard it says I need to wake her.
“What-ho old sport, this is not cricket, what? I say, look here… Sticky wicket, isn’t it?”
Finally, she opened her eyes.
She looked at me in a startled way and quickly sat up. “Oh! Hello luv, what is it?”
“You said I have to wake you for my meals, so I was wondering if I can have some cake and some Fanta orange, please?” I asserted.
“Of course you can luv! Why don’t you go back to your seat and I’ll bring it right over.”
This is the life! I settled back into my seat. Fanta, Cake, this is my second piece. I’m going to save the marzipan till the end. Oh no! The old lady is awake again.
“Hello deer, you seem to be enjoying that cake. It looks yummy!”
“It’s going to be a long flight deer, so you might as well dig in… what is it? What’s the matter deer… what is it… why are you crying?” she asked concerned.
“What’s the matter luv?” the stewardess rushed over.
“I have no idea what happened,” the old lady said. “One moment he was happily enjoying his cake and the next he burst into tears.”
“Why don’t you come back with me luv,” the stewardess urged, “we can get you cleaned up. You’ve got cake and tears smudging all over your face.”
This lady is really kind, this stewardess – but that other one!
“Luv, what is it? Do you miss your family in Kenya already?” the stewardess wiped the tears off my face.
“No. They would never let me eat two pieces of European cake,” I hiccupped, “Samosas, two pieces is fine. Cake, no. Also – have you tried Mrs. Kabirdin’s samasos? I tell you – first-class too-good samaso and chutney – better even than my grandmother’s – but please to not tell grandmother because…”
“…Why are you still crying? What is the matter?’
“It’s that lady in the seat next to me… she keeps teasing me about my big ears!” I confessed.
“Yes, she keeps calling me deer!!”