“… I vow to thee my country all earthly things aa-above
Entire and whole and perr-fect, the service of my love…”
Another tedious Assembly.
I try to watch the other children and see what they are doing. Sometimes I think of lunch. I had semolina pudding the other day. It tastes a bit like Indian khir. But the custard and jam tarts are best. Once, I was in the playground with Julian and Sebastian, and I asked them why we had custard every day.
“Well, it’s the rules, I expect…” Sebastian shrugged.
“I like custard with rhubarb,” Julian added, “and I love fish fingers. Yummy!”
“Have you chappies ever had bhajias?” I interrupted. “My uncle Salim knows the best bhajia place in Southall, Kwality Sweetmart it is called.”
“Badgers?” Julian was astonished.
“You mean to say you Indian people eat badgers?” Sebastian piped in horrified.
“Eeeww!” they both chimed in unison.
The school bell rang before I could explain things properly to both of them. And that is how I became known as Badgers.
Truth is, Sebastian and I were quite good friends. Back home, Altaf and I were friends and we would walk around our nursery school with our arms over each other’s shoulders. It was what friends did back home. So I did the same thing with Sebastian.
Only Sebastian got angry. “Stop doing that, you’re ruffling my hair!”
“Is Badgers badgering you again?” Julian sniggered.
In Miss Miller’s class we were learning about the Tudors. Once, when I was reading aloud in class, everybody started laughing, and Miss Miller had to tell them to be quiet. I started again, and the laughter started again.
After the class everyone pointed at me, shouting “two-doors, two-doors!!”
“His name’s not Two-doors it’s Badgers,” Sebastian cried out. He could not stop laughing also.
One day, my mother was picking me up from school and some of the boys said “Bye Badgers!”
“TTFN (tata for now) Badgers!”
My mother raised her eyebrows, surprised.
“I think it’s a term of endearment,” Miss Miller reassured her. “I think they call him Badgers because of that brave Mr. Badger in Wind in the Willows.”
My mother smiled. She was happy to hear that. But I was upset with Miss Miller. I didn’t know what endearment means, but I knew it had to be something about looking like a deer.
“Have you read Wind in the Willows, dear?” Miss Miller said to me.
Again!! Why do people always make fun of my ears?
I told my mother about the Two-doors thing in class as well and she got very angry with me.
“You need to speak better! You can’t speak like some Indian junglie who just came off a steamship from Bombay, isn’t it?”
“Why you are always making fun of the way the boy speaks? He is not English he is Indian,” my father defended me.
“The boy is going to a expensive school,” my mother countered. “He’s not at that Paki school that your brother Salim sends his sons. He is in a top class school. If he learns to speak English well, he can go on to Eton like my brother’s son Dilip.”
“Eton-beton,” my father wobbled his head, Indian-style. “Your family is just a bunch of snobs. You are no better than the Britishers. This boy is Indian,” he said proudly.
“What you want?” my mother shouted back. “You want the boy to grow up to be running bloomin’ newspaper shop like your brother Salim? ‘Packet of Woodbines’, ‘Daily Mirror’, ‘Sporting Life”, isn’t it?”
My dad went quiet. You see, he had married outside his community. He had married a Hindu woman. And my mother… well she had married below her class and her caste, because her family was high-caste Brahmins. So both families were angry about the marriage. Both families banned the marriage. It had been a big scandal back home in Nairobi. Nobody spoke to me about it, but once I had gone looking for my grandmother at Mrs. Kabirdin’s – the truth is I had smelled the aroma wafting next door of the delicious samosas she was cooking away – and then I overheard the two of them talking about it.
“Your son is foolish, he thought he could marry for love,” Mrs. Kabirdin admonished my grandmother. “There is no such thing as marrying for love. You marry a wife you can afford to keep. It is all about money. Your son’s wife is never going to be satisfied with a department store clerk, isn’t it? And on top of that she is a banyani! Rich banyani, but still a banyani. We should have found him a nice Khoja girl.”
My parents couldn’t live in Nairobi after I was born, because the gossip was too much, so they left me with my grandparents and they moved to England. But all that is done now. I am here with them. At last.
“And… have you heard what the boy has done?” my mother ranted on. “He might get suspended from the school? This boy of yours that you are so proud of…”
My dad looked at me. He never got angry with me. He was always kind. I knew I did not need to be afraid of him. He looked at me. I looked at him.
“The boy has received a warning from the Headmistress Sunderland for bothering another boy in the playground!” my mother revealed.
It was true. Miss Sunderland said I was not to bother Sebastian anymore. His parents had complained to her.
“It seems, young man, that you have been ruffling up young Sebastian’s hair and his blazer collar in the playground,” Miss Sunderland looked at me over the wire rims of her round spectacles.
“Yes,” I said meekly.
I did not know what ruffling meant, but I think it meant to be rough.
“And his parents are concerned so they have requested me to ensure that you do not do this anymore,” she added. “Are you sorry for your behavior?”
“Yes,” I acknowledged.
“Good,” she affirmed. “Now, while I have you here, I need to ask you which religion class you plan to attend. Religion is mandatory here at Chiswick and Bedford Park Preparatory. All the pupils in this school are either Roman Catholic or Church of England. Which one do you plan to attend?”
“Yes,” I shifted my weight from one foot to the other.
“Yes, what? Yes, Church of England? Or yes, the Catholic Church of Rome?”
Maybe if I say the Rome church they will to send me to Rome, isn’t it? I thought to myself. Better I stay here in England. I did not want to move countries again.
“Church of England!” I asserted.
“Good.” Miss Sunderland went back to the papers on her desk.
My mother told me to say ‘yes’ everytime Miss Sunderland addressed me or said anything to me. Just say “yes” and be polite.
“Well, what else is it that I can help you with?” she looked at me over her glasses again.
“Is it regarding the theft of the chalk box that took place last week?” she asked, knitting her eyebrows together suspiciously.
“I see. Tell me about the theft then.”
“Um… the theft,” I began nervously. “…yes, well, my grandfather said that you stole our words.”
“Me?” Miss Sunderland looked aghast. “I stole what?”
“Yes. I mean, not you, I mean you Britishers.”
“Really, and what is it that we stole?”
“Our Sanskrit words, jungle, shawl, saan-daahl, that’s sandal, those ones, you stole them… You stole the sandal from us.”
“Oh dear… what else did your grandfather say?” she removed her glasses.
“He said that when we don’t understand each other then wars start. We need to understand each other’s language, like when he said moja to our ayah, Wanjiro, well, that means socks in Khoji, but in Swahili moja means one, so Wanjiro thought he meant one sock, you see?”
“I see,” Miss Sunderland rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Well that’s very interesting. Now, I will go ahead and inform Miss Peters that you will be attending her Church of England class. That is your preference is it not?”
“Oh… And I am sorry about the sandal business,” she said with a half smile lurking around her lips.
“It’s fine. It’s no problem,” I informed her. “One time Gandhiji even lost his sandal, but then he just threw the other sandal out of the window.”
“Mahatma Gandhi threw his sandal out of the window?”
“How extraordinary. Why?”
“Yes. Because he was not greedy. Like me when I used to go with my grandmother to Mr. Patel’s shop on Nagara Road, well, he always offered me sweets but I refused and my grandfather said that I also was not greedy.”
“Well, it is important not to be greedy. Your grandfather sounds like a wonderful man,” she smiled.
“Yes. He died. Yesterday, he died. My dad is going to his funeral today. He is flying back to Nairobi on BOAC,” I told her.
“I am sorry,” she said sympathetically. “We can talk with Miss Peters and she can say a prayer for him.”
I like Jesus Christ. He reminds me a bit of Krishna.
We had to do these drawings in Miss Peters’ class of Jesus with his friends and all these sheep. And there were these sheep herders, and they had a sheep herding stick and it reminded me of the cow herding stick that Krishna’s Gopis had to look after all the cows in those pictures in Mr. Patel’s shop on Nagara Road.
Mr. Patel had once asked me about my uncle Sanjay, my mother’s eldest brother. He was a rich man, and he had a big-big house in Muthaiga.
“So, I saw your uncle Sanjay is in the East African Standard again isn’t it? He is a big shot! He is friends with all those big-shot African ministers.”
Like my father’s father, my mother’s father also came from Gujarat, from a village called Jamnaghar. I called him Bapa, and my dad’s father Bapu or Bapuji.
Bapa came from Jamnaghar to Africa to make his fortune. He started with one little dukka in the African bush.
Back in Jamnaghar, Bapa had been so poor that he worked as an assistant to a dhobi, a man who washes other people’s clothes. And while he was washing clothes he dreamed of going to Africa and making a new life and making his fortune.
“He started with one little shop in the African bush,” my mother told me as she tucked me into bed.
She was smiling. I did not see her smile so much unless she talked about people making money.
“And look what he did, he built an empire in Kenya. And look at my brother Sanjay, he is one of the most important industrialists in Kenya. And look at Dilip, he is at Eton, and that boy will be going to Oxford, you mark my words…”
“And look at our bills and the school fees,” I heard my father’s raised voice. “We can’t afford to send this boy to this fancy school with his fancy blazer and tie and winter uniform and spring uniform and mittens and what-not. Why can’t we just send him to the school that Salim sends his boys…”
“Never!” my mother shouted back. “He is going to go to Eton like Dilip.”
“Then why don’t you ask your rich brother Sanjay to pay the boy’s school fees if it is so important to you? You won’t because you are too-too proud, isn’t it. Too-too proud!” my father said, exasperated.
My mother used to make us tea and crumpets because she wanted to be like the Britishers. And she had bought this expensive marmalade, Chivers Olde English and Devonshire clotted cream and she served tea in bone china cups with Royal Crest. Sometimes she bought Dundee marmalade. She kept the teacups safe in a glass cupboard.
My dad didn’t like crumpets, but he ate them. And he didn’t like the bone china cups either. He liked the tea and bhajias at Kwality Sweetmart. Every month, when my mother went to the hairdressers near Turnham Green station, my dad would phone Salim uncle and he and I would sneak off to Southall for tea and bhajias. It was our little mischief. My grandfather used to say that a little bit of mischief is good. It shows that we are human beings and not trying to be saints.
‘Lord Krishna also he was a mischief-maker little bit you see?’ I remembered him telling me. I mean to say he was the butter thief isn’t it? But Krishna was a blue blood. So his mischief was always a sweet mischief, not harmful, only sweet. He wanted to show his mother the universe and he did it with sweetness also. And Lord Vishnu I mean to say he comes to the meeting with Bali as just little dwarf isn’t it? Now that also is little bit mischief.
When I visited my mother’s family in Muthaiga, a topping posh place in Nairobi, Wanjiro would always make sure I wore my best clothes, a white shirt, and a tie, and shorts and long socks and polished shoes. They were different from my father’s family. We always had lunch at a big table and then afterwards, tea in bone china cups was served on the verandah.
One time, their ayah Njeri took me for a little walk and we went near the fence of the Muthaiga Country Club. She let me peek through the fence and I saw all these white men playing cricket and the women wearing big floppy hats like at the Norfolk Hotel.
Sometimes, I would sit on the verandah with Bapa and he would tell me stories about his young days when he first came to Africa and started his dukka. But he always ended up napping in his chair.
And I would sit and watch him sleep. Sometimes Njeri would bring me a fresh pot of Earl Grey English tea. Bapa often smiled in his sleep, and I would try to imagine his dream. I would shut my eyes and try to catch his dream in my mind. And sometimes, I would see things I had never seen, like a steamship, and a small-small village in Jamnaghar, and a small dukka in the African bush, all the things he told me about.
But mostly, I saw the chaiwalla.
That chaiwalla was always in my dreams, even when I went back home to my other grandparents’ house. The chaiwalla sold tea at the train station in India. I had never been to India, only in my dreams.
“… I vow to thee my country all earthly things above
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love…”
We are singing this hymn again. Today is going to be an extra long Assembly because one of the old teachers is retiring, so Miss Sunderland is going to give a speech and then all the other teachers are going to speak too. Boring. What to do?
What to do, what to think about? What to dream about?
I know! I will think about last Sunday, when my mother went to the hairdresser and dad and I sneaked off to Southall to have tea and bhajias with Salim uncle. That’s when I told Salim uncle about my nickname.
“Badgers! Kamal, kamal… you asked them if they liked eating bhajias and they thought you meant badgers,” Salim uncle snickered delightedly. “Kamal… wawa… those Britishers I tell you! That is almost as good as my friend Pak lunch!”
“And then you know what,” I added, “my teacher Miss Miller started to make fun of my ears and called me a deer, some kind of ‘end deer’ or something, and my mother just smiled, she was happy.”
“Your teacher is just like that English woman on the plane isn’t it?” Salim uncle ruffled my head affectionately. “Listen here Papu, if someone insults you, even if it is your teacher you have to stand up for yourself. You can’t let these people talk to you like that. Calling you a deer – what nonsense that is!”
“Salim shut up and drink your chai, bhaiya,” my father told him. “This boy is in enough trouble as it is with that fancy-pants school of his.”
“How can you let the boy sing God Save the Queen?” Salim uncle questioned belligerently. “Those jewels that the queen wears on her crown, they are mine I tell you! Mine!!”
“Salim, please shut up and drink your tea,” my father said. “Don’t start all that about the Queen…“
“You gave the queen her jewels for her crown Salim uncle?” I asked, my eyes wide with amazement.
“Papu those jewels belong to Mother India,” he explained to me. “Those Britishers stole our jewels, isn’t it? And that Queen Victoria she put the stolen jewels on her head. They belong to us. And you are going to send this boy to Eton,” he turned to my father. “Don’t you know about the playing fields of Eton?”
“Salim, shut up. You don’t understand this country. The boy has to go to a good school to succeed.”
“I understand it better than you do brother,” Salim said. “The people that come into my shop, they are the real British people, the plumbers, minicab drivers, construction workers… they hate the monarchy as much as I do. You are becoming an elitist, bhaiya. You never were like this…”
“… And her ways, are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace…”
Thank goodness the hymn is over. Now Miss Sunderland is going to talk about the teacher that is retiring. This is going to be a long, long speech.
You know what I wish?
I wish they served tea at morning Assembly!
Imagine! Imagine if there was a chaiwalla and he came and he served tea to us in those earthenware cups, the village mud cups that my Bapa told me about that he used to drink from on the trains in India? I wish there was a chaiwalla here in London.
Now that is a good dream to have.
But now again I am thinking of Bapa and what he said about the theft of the Sanskrit words by the Britishers. Why they stole our words?
And even Miss Peters, she is understanding that the Britishers left Kenya like scrambled eggs. How we can unscramble now?
And now Salim Uncle is saying that Queen Victoria, she did take our best jewels from India and put it on her head. Why she did that?
Too many questions in my head and now I am so, so tired and now look – another hymn!! How many hymns these white people sing?
And they all sound the same. Just like their food. Their food it all tastes the same also. Next month Salim Uncle is taking me to Kwality Sweetmart and then after we go and see Bollywood movie!! Now that is what I call singing!!
Why we can’t sing Bollywood movie songs in Assembly at Chiswick and Bedford Park Preparatory? Why not? And also have a chaiwalla. Maybe even samosas like the one Mrs Kabirdin used to make back home. No, it is not possible to have samosas like that in Assembly you know why?
Because nobody in the whole world can make samosas like Mrs. Kabirdin.
Oh no! It is the same hymn again… Again!
“I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.”