Downstairs was England.
Upstairs was India.
In English, I said “uncle Salim.”
In Gujarati, I said “Salim Uncle.”
Downstairs, it was shepherd’s pie and treacle tart with runny yellow custard. Upstairs, it was spicy samosas and sweet gulab jamun in a glistening sticky syrup.
The seven Badgers Stories occurred when I was about seven years old.
It was now seven years later and I was now almost fourteen years old.
I was temporarily living with the family of my uncle Salim above his newsagent’s shop in Southall and going to a grammar school in neighboring Hanwell called Drayton Manor Grammar School.
My parents had split up and my father had arranged for me to stay with Salim Uncle while he and my mother muddled through their parting of ways. My dad felt that Salim Uncle’s home was a safe sanctuary so that I was not caught in the crossfire of my parent’s differences.
The innocence of childhood seemed a dim and distant light in the thick fog of the present. The best I could do was try to recapture that innocence now and then through sketching and drawing or by writing poetry.
This was not an innocent time.
In the late 1970′s racial tensions in London had come to a reckoning.
This was a terrible time for Indian immigrants in London – and all over the UK. There was the exodus of Indians who were fleeing the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin who had, in 1973, expelled the Asians out of Uganda. There was also the rise of the National Front and the anti-Indian immigration campaign of a Member of Parliament named Enoch Powell.
Worst of all, on the school level for Indian teenagers like me, there were the Southall Skinheads and the Hanwell Bootboys who had no other profession than Paki-bashing.
I got badly Paki-bashed several times as did so many of my Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi friends in Southall. One or two got stabbed and several ended up in hospital.
The racism was so intense and so filled the air it was palpable – an acrimonious atmosphere of intense anger and animosity.
My dad’s old Vauxhall Viva would repeatedly be vandalized, the sides of his car scratched with “Paki Go Home” and the windshield just pummeled until it shattered.
He had to park his car on the street because he did not have a garage and would spend a small fortune getting it repaired. Before my parents split up we would go to a Lyon’s Tea House in Ealing for tea and scones. Southall Skinheads would be standing outside the doorway at Lyons chanting: “Enoch! Enoch!”
In the midst of this thick fog of cultural ignorance and the brutal, brazen and barbaric assault of all that I held dear of my beloved Indian culture, it took all of me to cling threadbare to those magical moments in Mr. Patel’s shop on Ngara Road in Nairobi.
It was perhaps not ironic that the world of the Indian shopkeeper was a place of solace and sanctuary within our collective culture, dispersed diaspora and merchant mindset. For just as with Mr. Patel’s shop on Ngara Road, I found a place of peace in uncle Salim’s shop in Southall.
Downstairs was the steady shopkeeper activity of buying and selling newspapers as well as chocolates, crisps and cigarettes; while upstairs was the home away from Mother India.
Downstairs was England.
Upstairs was India.
In English, I said “uncle Salim.”
In Gujarati, I said “Salim Uncle.”
Downstairs it was shepherd’s pie and treacle tart with runny yellow custard.
Upstairs it was samosas and it was gulab jamun in a glistening sticky syrup.
As soon as one climbed up the dark and narrow staircase to the upper section of the shop building, one was assaulted by the aroma of Indian incense and bubbling Indian curries cooking in the upstairs kitchen. Of chatter and gossip in lilting and lyrical Indian sing-song voices and of Bollywood music blasting boisterously from a scratchy vinyl record player.
This was the India in England that the violent skinheads never knew.
They never knew the warmth and the tradition of Indian hospitality. They never could imagine that if they had come up those stairs to uncle Salim’s residence above his newsagent’s shop, his wife and his sisters would have made the skinhead a nice hot cup of chai and invited him to dine on delicious ‘fresh’ homemade samosas.
“Fresh, fresh! Hot and fresh!” as Uncle Salim’s wife would exclaim when the sizzling samosas were ready; she would display them proudly on a long slender platter.
Then she would drizzle them with ambhli (tamarind sauce) and slide them on to my plate.
Every weekday, when I would return home from school at about four o’clock, Salim Uncle’s wife would have “fresh, fresh” samosas ready for me with piping hot chai and an effervescent enthusiasm about the fact that I was getting a grammar school education.
She and my uncle Salim had fought hard to prevent me from attending the local comprehensive school in Southall. Instead they got me an interview at the prestigious grammar school in neighboring Hanwell.
I passed the interview.
For me, it was a mixed blessing: I was the only Indian boy in the entire population of Drayton Manor Grammar School. Meantime, all my Indian friends were at the local comprehensive school in Southall and I missed them desperately.
For my uncle Salim and his wife however, this was the realization of the immigrant dream: to always upgrade your circumstances, to strive to reach higher and achieve more. My getting into a grammar school was, for them, part of that greater Indian immigrant force of nature of which I represented a small but necessary increment.
After school and chai and samosas, I would retire to my tiny bedroom above Salim Uncle’s shop to do my homework. Uncle Salim would be busy downstairs in the shop, serving customers. He was a hardworking Indian immigrant who never complained about the long hours he kept.
He would open the shop at 5am because that is when the paperboys came to collect and distribute papers to his customers in the neighborhood.
I was one of the paperboys who was greeted by uncle Salim’s sunny disposition in the early mornings. He was cheery even when it was dark and bitterly cold in the winter. He made cups of hot tea for us boys and would distribute them with his absurd and silly jokes which would make us all groan. Then he would unpack and sort the newspapers and give us each a batch to take out into the dark world. Aside from a short lunch break, during which uncle Salim’s wife would stand in for him and serve the shop customers, uncle Salim kept working throughout the day until he finally closed the shop at 9am.
He used to say to my dad:
“The only difference between you and me is that you work 9 to 5 and I work 5 to 9.”
On one occasion, as I walked home from school, I was confronted and assaulted by the notorious Grubs, who was a leader of the Hanwell Bootboys and a staunch supporter of the rising National Front, as expressed by his Neo-Nazi attire which included a large badge emblazoned upon his denim jean jacket with a big black Hakenkreuz (swastika).
In another age, perhaps a more enlightened age, Grubs and I might have discussed, over tea and samosas, how the symbol of the swastika was in fact originally from my own ancient Indian culture. The swastika badge that Grubs and his fellow Hanwell Bootboys wore, was in fact a modification (and perversion) of a Sanskrit symbol that goes as far back as the Indus Valley Civilization, to the dawn of civilization and peaceful agrarian societies.
Moreover, Grubs’ hero, Adolph Hitler, had been interested in preserving the pure Aryan race.
Ironically, I was closer to that particular ideal than Grubs himself, since my family came from the warrior state of Rajasthan, and had nothing but Aryan blood flowing through their veins.
In another age, Grubs and I might have dispelled the irony of his warped ideology, diffused the thick fog of ignorance in the air and even let in a glimpse of enlightened sunlight; but in this particular desperate dark moment it was all about violence for the sake of violence and I ended up a pain-ridden sack of twitching and groveling flesh and bones on the pavement.
“You don’t understand,” I had so wanted to explain to Grubs, “My people come from an ancient civilization and made advances in arithmetic, architecture, engineering, painting, sculpture…”
Grubs had left.
He had left and he had no knowledge of who he had hurt and the culture he had violated.
He had not violated just me, he had violated my ancestors. Had Grubs not heard of the ancient sunken city in the Indus Valley where the Harrapa and Mohenjo-Daro archeology digs had unearthed artifacts dating back thousands of years? Had Grubs not heard that there was ancient Dravidian Sanskrit literature from this period that people still find enriching today?
Apparently, Grubs did not know what he was violating. I had to come to terms with that.
I finally picked myself and dusted myself off and made my way back to the safe sanctuary of Salim Uncle’s shop in Southall.
As soon as I walked into the shop and he witnessed the state I was in, uncle Salim called up to his wife and asked her to take over the shop counter while he tended to me and my wounds. After some basic first-aid and a slew of his abysmal jokes, Salim Uncle sat me down at the kitchen table and poured us both a large mug of chai and shoved a platter of slightly warm samosas in front of me. “Eat, papu! Eat! You will to feel better.”
I felt better.
Surprisingly, I was still hungry.
“Now to eat these two gulab jaman, papu!”
I ate the gulabs.
Uncle Salim sat with me and we were both silent for a long time.
We both knew what each other was thinking. We both knew that my aching physical wounds would heal in a week at most, but that the mental shock of being pummeled with skinhead punches because of the color of my skin was a wound that may take substantially longer to heal. We both knew that I was angry. We both had no idea how to begin the conversation that we had to have. We both felt ashamed. The incident weighed upon us heavily.
We both felt uncomfortable in each other’s presence.
We both looked around the room in order to avoid too much eye contact.
There was a bubbling aloo mahtur (potato and pea) curry in a large pot on the stove. There was a pile of uneaten samosas on a white platter on the table. Some tamarind sauce in a small bowl next to the samosa platter. The teal and turquoise tarpaulin tablecloth spread unevenly on the kitchen table had hosted hundreds of Indian meals. That big stain on the dull green wall above the stove was still there, as was the crack in the ceiling that meandered into the socket that held the ceiling fan.
Salim Uncle called the ceiling fan his “poor man’s pankhawalla”.
There was the faded old photo print in a cheap frame of the face of Mahatma Gandhi.
I stared at it for a long moment. Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw that Salim Uncle was also starting to stare at the faded portrait of Gandhi. It was a desperate stare from both of us. A search for a place to start the dialogue. It’s as if we expected Gandhiji to speak to us in response to the recent Paki-bashing.
Gandhi’s portrait seemed like a good place to start. To break the ice. Suddenly, it came to me; the anger and the shame spoke out as I stared at Gandhi’s gentle and faded face.
“I don’t believe in nonviolence!” I exclaimed, looking startled Salim Uncle straight in the eye.
“Nonviolence is for cowards,” I taunted. “I believe in fighting back!” I added, in order to goad Salim Uncle.
I knew how much he admired the Mahatma, and I knew that my words might rouse and provoke him.
I could sense a mild indignation kindling in his eyes until that indignation diffused into a warm and graceful glow in his face. He had not a hint of hypocrisy or appeasement in his tone when he responded quietly, thoughtfully:
“Me also, papu. I also believe in fighting back.”
He said it as if he meant it.
He gave me a few moments to take it in and I thought about his unexpected response. I had counted upon him standing up for satyagraha, the nonviolent philosophy of his beloved Mahatma Gandhi, and yet, his words indicated the exact opposite.
He was an advocate for fighting back, just like I was.
How could this be?
I thought he admired Ghandiji’s Salt March…
I thought he admired Ghandiji standing up for the exploited workers toiling in the hot sun…
What’s my uncle up to?
This Salim Uncle was not a very educated man in terms of formal schooling. He had dropped out of school when he was 14 to work in his father’s shop. Yet he was the shrewdest man I had ever met and although he appeared bumbling and muddled at times, he always knew how to play his chess pieces.
His deliberate bumbling hid his sneaky shrewdness.
Salim Uncle was a master strategist.
I thought about it some more. Yes, I see something already – Salim Uncle’s first chess move:
By not challenging my provocation that I believed in fighting back; by actually agreeing with me, he effectively neutralized my provocation and removed the sting from it.
But has he not incriminated himself as someone who endorses fighting back and therefore endorses physical violence? That is not my Salim Uncle, that is not the man that engages in peaceful meditation every morning before opening his shop doors at 5am. It is contrary to everything he stands for.
What’s he up to?
I could see him watching me thinking. He knew I was trying to figure it out.
He was so shrewd. He knew that the more time I spent figuring it out the more time was allowed for my hot anger to dissipate and cool off.
Salim Uncle was using this passage of time to prepare me for something. He had a plan up his sleeve, didn’t he? So, that’s what he’s up to? He’s got a plan, he’s got a strategy. That must be it! I can tell from the way he is looking at me. He knows already where this is all going. My hot anger had melted in the presence of the cooling and sage-like serenity of his patient, pleasing countenance.
I finally found a smile.
He smiled back.
Another good chess move from my uncle Salim. He had got me to relax and thus be receptive to whatever he was preparing me for. Before he played his next move, I had to play mine. It as my turn to play and I had to make the next chess move.
So, I asked the question:
“What shall I do, Salim Uncle?”
I could sense my vulnerability to this master chess player. The gods were with him.
I was simple putty in his hands now. He was going to mould the situation into something.
“Papu,” he began languorously, as if he had not a care in the world, “fighting back is a good thing …”
He paused so long I thought he had finished. Perhaps he had.
Alright, what’s the catch here? This cannot be the Salim Uncle I know.
“… of course,” continued Salim Uncle very nonchalantly, ‘It is how you fight back, isn’t it?”
Ah, there’s the rub.
There is the nuance.
There is the small print that gets him back firmly into the good graces of Mahatma Gandhi.
Now he knew he had me hanging on his every word. He relished the mounting moral authority that the Mahatma’s life example gave him. He took his time. I waited.
“Now, you see papu, look at Lord Vishnu: he was not a coward, isn’t it? Lord Vishnu you see, when he was to be fighting the Big-Big Bully Baali, he did fight him back, isn’t it? But how he did fight? With his imagination, you see?”
There was no point fighting this - Salim Uncle was now firmly in the driver’s seat. He had a destination in mind for me and I may as well learn what it is. Or, simply let him drive me there.
“Also, you see, Gandhiji same thing, isn’t it?” he continued, “Ghandiji he did also to fight back with his imagination - Salt March, Spinning Wheel, Lancashire Cotton, you see? Imagination. Just like Lord Vishnu. Truth is simple, only… Like Ghandiji’s Spinning Wheel. Simple, you see?”
“What is your plan, Salim Uncle? What do you want me to do?”
“You need to fight back with your imagination, papu. That is how you fight back against The Grubs, and the skinheads and racists, isn’t it? Fight you must, but how you fight? With imagination. That is how.”
“What is your plan, Salim Uncle? I know you must have a plan in mind.”
“You remember that poetry competition at the school? That one you told me about last week? You need to enter this competition and you need to use your imagination and write a good poem, isn’t it? That is how you fight back the skinheads. Imagination.”
For the life of me I could not conceive what entering the poetry competition at Drayton Manor Grammar School had to do with fighting back Grubs, or the Hanwell Bootboys, or racism.
Yet it was practically impossible to say ‘no’ to the affable, good-natured, disarmingly charming Salim Uncle. He could see that I had yielded. All he needed now was confirmation.
He had outwitted me. He was about to checkmate me.
His eyes twinkled mischievously as he spoke.
“Now papu, you will to enter poetry competition, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” I had yielded. It was the confirmation he had coveted.
“Good, good. Too good!” he exclaimed gleefully, rubbing his hands.
Game, set and match to uncle Salim.
I entered the competition.