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The Lesson in Dhansak

Clip clap, splosh and flop as my 1950’s Clarks shoes hit the cobbled street trickling wet-grey with morning rain. We walk all three. I swing, attached like an appendage to my Father and Uncle, I am that flesh-link between older and younger brother.

Little brown monkey. That’s what they call me at school when innocent cruelty burgeons in the playground. But I don’t mind. I am rich with who I am and shine like gold with friendly smiles and playfulness as I remember my father’s advice.

“‘Water off a duck’s back.’ ‘Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.’  These are your daily mantras,” my father says to me.

Then he reads Rudyard Kipling and says, “If you had been a boy, I would have called you Kim.” He tells stories of his childhood and youth, shows photos with crinkly edges of a black and white Blue Train steaming through the Nilgiri Hills and one of him standing in front of the Taj Mahal. He looks young and eager, as if there are no sticks or stones …as yet.

He says how my Grandmother loves us all, but won’t leave her tea plantation and the orphans she has adopted and she must bring them up. Another two and that makes ten; ten children. A wondrously large number of brothers and sisters, all depicted in the black, white and greyness of colourless paper that arrives in folded blue aerogram envelopes. They are eagerly awaited fragile containers of news and anecdotes, that fall in gentle spirals like a shower of silver eucalyptus tree leaves over our family days.

My mind wanders into the mysterious labyrinths of a child’s thoughts and I hear the clip clap of cobbles talking to me from under my heels. Father and Uncle hold my hands tight as we walk up the incline of this narrow Bristol street. How old am I? Seven or eight? I can’t remember. Age is not important at this moment in my life. I only think of my Uncle’s wedding in a few days’ time and am excited at being a bridesmaid. I’m proud of my brand new white Clarks shoes and take care not to scuff them on the uneven cobbles.

We follow the immigrant families’ homes, up and along the row of shabby terraced houses. Silence and subdued sadness pervade, each house displaying the same drabness, the same conformity of stacked red bricks. Prison red. A reminder of the Home Country where rioters end in painful squalor. Doors are closed against the damp, windows sparkle in a clean effort to maintain dignity in this not so foreign country. An infinitesimally small number are draped in brightly coloured silks as a last defiance of identity. I am oblivious to this hidden pain of loss as I swing, little brown monkey.

We continue up the hill, towards Auntie-Ji’s shop where my Uncle will collect spices, vegetables and provisions for the wedding meal. Auntie-Ji is not really my Auntie, but my Uncle’s Aunt-by-future-marriage. Complicated in my child’s brain but she is family, that I know, part of that extended network of relations so essential to Anglo-Indian life in 1950’s Britain. I was about to discover my cultural difference and the reason behind my school friends’ jibes and chants.

Father explains carefully about adding ‘Ji’ when addressing my elders, in sign of respect. He says no shouting but a voice soft like wet mists on tea bushes.

“Your voice is a snake,” he explains, “she lies coiled under a tea bush and is quiet, or slips gently, rustling the undergrowth as she slides her way through the eucalyptus forests. But,” his voice becomes stern, “but, when the cobra rises to strike, her hiss and fangs will frighten and kill. The victim’s dying is painful, so remember the power of your voice when you talk to people.”

I will be the rustling cobra at this Anglo-Indian wedding where I will meet, greet and be presented to many from the Home Country. They are my family now, a large sprawling generation-filled mangrove tree, Indian roots spreading from their feet, crossing the oceans to where they had left and lost everything after Independence. Generations’ memories locked in crinkly-edged paper that comes with blue aerogram envelopes tainted by ink-stained fingerprints. Precious word-blue jewels defiled by lack of care and respect.

We enter Auntie-Ji’s shop. It is old and dark. The wooden floor is immaculately clean, apart from where some spices have taken a mind of their own and fallen to create ingrained bright stains. It is my first entrance into the closed, pungent world of my Parsi ancestors.

Jute sacks filled with rice and unfamiliar fruit and vegetables lie against the walls. The counter is laden with brown paper bags of spices and trays of pastries and sweets. 

My father approaches and introduces me to a sari-clad woman standing behind the high wooden edifice.

‘Auntie-Ji, here is my daughter.’

I curtsy. She laughs. The shop customers laugh. I smile. Father is proud. Warmth surges inside me at this welcome and acceptance, as if I belong here amongst the vibrant odours surrounding me like a warm olfactory pashmina.

The shop is a meeting hub for the community, where the best lassis in Bristol are served, or so the customers say. Gossip and memories of the Home Country are bandied about in spice-scented air.  The lilting sounds entwine themselves around those present, a softly clinging mist of emotions. Sari-clad women and some younger girls in western dress stand around, commiserating tut-tuts accompanying genuine sorrow at tragic events. Joyful laughs and tears flow when births and marriages are announced.

“Did you hear about Mrs Engineer’s son? He died in the riots when they took his business away.” The tut-tuts rise gently into the spice-filled air, mingling into a human masala, another ingredient in life’s cooking pot.

Old and older men are seated on chairs smoking beedis and drinking lassis. They are attired in unfashionable suits that have stood on Indian platforms and seen countless trains go by with clockwork precision. Some suits have slouched an eternity over Raj accountancy books, leaving their owners stooped, as old men are from carrying burdens all their lives. They are past employees of the great Empire, greasing and oiling the many cogs of the colonial giant’s economic machine.

Others wear traditional clothes, defiant in newfound cultural ownership, painful nostalgia hugging brown skins that shed Waziristani or Burmese sweat and blood. Ex-British Indian Army soldiers, like my Father, but too old and discarded when the Service disbanded. Betrayal’s bitterness hangs around them as moustaches twirl between nicotined fingers and the painful stabs of old wounds are constant reminders.

Watch my performance of “The Lesson in Dhansak” as a live lit production for the stage at Nightingale Theatre in 2013. I developed the show with producer Stuart Silver as part of Incubate, a live lit residency for Black and ethnic minority writers, run by Writing Our Legacy.