The Gulab Archipelago

Gulabarch

The Gulab Archipelago

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.

Epilogue

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.

southallbus

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.

DraytonManor

Drayton Manor Grammar School in Hanwell, London Borough of Ealing

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.

Southall Skinheads

Southall Skinheads

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.

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 more 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.

newspapers

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).

Indus

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.

Rajasthan

The noble warriors of Rajasthan

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…”

Indus Valley elephant artifact circa 2,500 BC

Indus Valley elephant artifact circa 2,500 BC

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?

Site of ancient Indus Valley archeological digs

Site of ancient Indus Valley archeological digs

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 ate.

I felt better.

Surprisingly, I was still hungry.

“Now to eat these two gulab jaman, papu!”

gulabjaman-indian

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.

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 even more.

I knew how much he admired the Mahatma, and I knew that my words might rouse and provoke him.

Badger him.

salt

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 the 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…

IndianWorkers

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.

Good move!

ChessRajhasthan

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.

khrishna-radha

I was simple putty in his hands now. He was going to mould the situation into something.

“You see, 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.

Check!

Gandhi spinning wheel Web

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.

“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 imaginationThat 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.

ChessMate

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.

Checkmate!

Game, set and match to uncle Salim.

I entered the competition.

Entering the competition was the easy part. Trying to decide on a theme for a poem was the more difficult part.

My literary interests were limited to world-dominating armadillos. Surely, I could not write a poem about that?

armadillo

I asked Salim Uncle what he thought.

“Excellent, papu! Excellent topic, isn’t it? Anteaters. Kamal, kamal. Anteaters. Why not? Yes, yes, that is jolly good topic I tell you. Topping!”

My English teacher, Miss Sosaboska, published my poem in our school magazine, The Phoenix.

It began with a very clumsy and long title:

What would happen if the Armadillo took over the world ?…

 

The world would not be

complicated,

If

By the armadillo it was

dominated.

After all,

The ancient armadillo

Is as simple as the rain,

He’s an armour-plated

pillow,

With a microscopic brain.

A world taken over by

armadillows

Would be simple and plain.

He’s disinterested thoroughly

In what the world has

wrought,

And spends his time

in contemplative

Armadyllic thought.

 

Karim Ajania, Form 3A, age 13

Drayton Manor Grammar School, London, UK

The Phoenix (page 33)

“Kamal, kamal!”

Salim Uncle’s review was in.

He was standing at the kitchen table with a copy of my school yearbook, The Phoenix, in hand, turned to page 33 where my poem about the armadillo was published. He felt duty-bound to interpret and explain my poem to me, despite the fact that I was the one who had written it.

“Now you see papu, this armadillo is anteater isn’t it? It just eats ants, isn’t it?”

I nodded approvingly. So far so good.

“Now deeper question it is this one, you see: who is anteater and who is the ant? Can you answer me that?”

How would I know? I’m merely the person who wrote the poem. So I kept quiet and let him get on with it.

“I will to tell you! You see papu, armadillo it is a metafive.”

“‘Metafive’? Salim Uncle do you mean a ‘metaphor’?”

“Metafour? You are giving me twenty percent discount on metafive? No problem, we can call it metafour. Agreed.”

“What is the metaphor, Salim Uncle?”

“Metafour it is this: armadillo it is imagination and ants it is the tyr-ants. You see, papu?”

“No. Not really.”

“Let me to explain, papu. Now Ghandiji he said that ‘when I despair I remember that all through history the ways of Truth and Love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers but eventually they always fall’ isn’t it? Now, what  all Ghandiji meant? He meant that imagination from Truth and Love is the armadillo and the tyrants they are the ants. You see, even the word ‘tyrants’ ends with the word ‘ants’!”

Salim Uncle looked so pleased with himself for being such a wordsmith.

“So Salim Uncle, you are saying that the armadillo represents the power of the imagination and the ant represents the physical power of the bully, and over time the imagination triumphs over the bully?”

lord-vishnu

“Kamal, kamal, papu! Exactly right, you see? Now you see Lord Vishnu, he was like the armadillo. When he took his three steps over the earth and the universe then that tyrant Bali who was a giant, became to Lord Vishnu just like a little ant isn’t it? Word ‘giant’ also is to be ending with the word ‘ant’, you see? These all in life are ants only – giant, tyrant, dominant, important… you see? Same with this bully Grubs, you see? Now Grubs he is just an ant, he is not a giant or a tyrant. He is not dominant and he is not important. Just an ant.”

“But how can you say that uncle Salim? Grubs is out there terrorizing our community of Indians and Pakistanis! He is not a mere ant – he is a giant. A tyrant!”

“Yes, yes. That is correct. But we need to see Grubs from Time and Space, like Lord Vishnu. If you see him in small-small Time and Space, then he is very big-big, he is giant. He is tyrant. If you see him in big-big Time and Space, then he is just small-small, he is just a little ant. You need to make your imagination and your heart big-big, papu, and then Grubs will become small-small, he will become as nothing. You need to find the big power inside you.”

visnu2

“So, the imagination makes us bigger Salim Uncle? It makes us bigger because we see life from the broader scope of Time and Space? Like Lord Vishnu.”

“Correct, papu. The imagination makes us armadillos. And then giants like Grubs become tiny ants. In this life we need to decide, papu: do we want to be the armadillo or do we want to be the ant?”

At morning assembly a few days after my discussion on ‘ants’ with Salim Uncle, Drayton Manor’s Deputy Headmaster, Mr. Hides, read a scriptural selection from the King James Bible:

Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket,
And are counted as the small dust of the balance: 
Behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing.
All nations before him are as nothing;
And they are counted to him less than nothing.

– Isaiah 40, King James Bible

After assembly, I approached Miss Sosaboska in the assembly hall and asked her what “a drop of a bucket” meant within the context of Mr. Hides’ Bible scripture selection from Isaiah 40.

“Well,” she said thoughtfully, “From the perspective of the infinite realm of the Universe, the earthly affairs of men and nations are perceived as just a tiny and powerless drop in a bucket.”

“Do you mean a ‘tiny and powerless drop‘ just like a tiny ‘ant‘, Ma’am?” I ventured.

“Yes!” she affirmed, “Precisely so. Tiny and powerless like an ant.”

Well, I received the third prize in the poetry competition for my poem on the armadillo.

Graham Reading, who was always winning school prizes, inevitably won the first prize; Judith Moreland, an all-around artist: a poet, painter and musician, won the second prize.

My third prize gift was a brand new hard cover copy of a just published book by Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn entitled The Gulag Archipelago.

914223

I had never owned a brand new book that had been recently published. Normally, if I wanted to read a newly published book, I would have to submit my name in the queue for that particular book at the Hanwell Library on Cherington Road. To actually ‘own’ a copy of a recently published book was quite spiffy and swiftly upgraded my status amongst those English school friends of mine who were my fellow bookworms.

I walked around proudly with my newly minted copy of The Gulag Archipelago and more importantly, I devoured every page. I could not stop reading and re-reading it.

I was entranced by the revelations of Solzhenitsyn and his heart-wrenching accounts of those who had suffered in the gulag.

My English teacher, Miss Sosaboska told me why she had suggested Solzhenitsyn’s book to our headmaster, C.J. Everest, who then presented me with the book at the prize-giving.

Apparently, when we had studied George Orwell’s Animal Farm in class a few months ago, I had been asking Miss Sosaboska a lot of questions about the sequel of events. Orwell’s book was really an allegory of the events leading up to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

“What happened after 1917 in Russia?” I kept asking Miss Sosaboska.

MapGulag

Solzhenitsyn’s book answers a significant component of this question, since it documents and elucidates the forced labor camps (gulags) in the Soviet Union that were established for almost 40 years from 1918 to 1956.

Stalin's gulags in the Soviet Union

Stalin’s gulags in the Soviet Union

Solzhenitsyn described these labor camps as a secret and vast ‘chain of islands’ spread across the Soviet Union, hence the idea of an ‘archipelago’ of gulags.

Miss Sosaboska had always said that reading good books was nourishment for the soul.

I had always felt this was a nice thing that teachers say to make us drudge through our homework by reading lots of assigned books. However, in reading The Gulag Archipelago I began to see both the wisdom of Miss Sosaboska, and the insight of Salim Uncle. The connection between reading about the suffering souls in the gulags and my own recent experience of being roughed up by Grubs took on a vital significance in my young mind.

womenbarracks_detail

Women’s Barracks in the Soviet Gulag

It dawned upon me how, in the gigantic sweep of Soviet history during those four decades after the Bolshevik Revolution (where an epic cruelty was deliberately practiced upon sensitive souls like Solzhenitsyn), my own little incident with Grubs seemed so trivial and somewhat trite. I mentioned this insight to Miss Sosaboska, who was the only teacher I had confided in about my being Paki-bashed by Grubs.

“Great literature, and great journalism can have that effect upon us,” Miss Sosaboska encouraged, “Somehow, we feel connected to the characters and through this connection we experience a wider sense of our place and purpose in the fabric of humanity. Your experience with Grubs, when connected to the local community within the London Borough of Ealing, seems to have a huge significance and suggests a mighty injustice. However, when, through your reading Solzhenitsyn’s book, you expand your sense of community to include the Russian people and their history, then the injustice you have experienced with Grubs takes on a completely new dimension. It is all about perspective.”

Prisoners

“So, would you say, Miss Sosaboska, that by connecting with the Russian people and their history through Solzhenitsyn’s book, I have expanded by sense of Time and Space – where Time includes the history of the gulags and Space includes the Soviet Union as well as the London Borough of Ealing?”

“Precisely. Great writing takes us out of ourselves. It transports us and, ideally, causes us to recognize that we are part of a wider sense of humanity. In the ideal sense, good books make us more universal thinkers and unite us with those whom we have never met but whose circumstances we can empathize with. When you read about the gulags, particularly the torture in these labor camps, it brings perspective to your own experience with Grubs. It allows you , for example, to feel compassion for those who have suffered human rights violations because you yourself have had a taste of what that feels like.”

gulagprison

“Is it also about a perspective of the size of the events?” I asked hesitantly. I was starting to realize Salim Uncle may have been on to something.

“In what way do you mean the ‘size of the events’?”

“Well, my uncle Salim has this theory that events and circumstances can grow in size and shrink in size depending upon how we perceive them. So, if I view being beaten up by Grubs within the London Borough of Ealing then the violence and prejudice of the event seems huge – it appears gigantic to me. However, when this violation by Grubs is compared to the experience of those who suffered in the gulags during forty years of Soviet history after the Bolshevik Revolution, my being roughed up by Grubs is something that shrinks in my perspective as relatively small and insignificant.”

barbedwire

“Yes, I see what you mean – and that is precisely the value of reading great literature and journalism. The reason your experience with Grubs becomes reduced in significance, the reason it shrinks in size, is because the experience of reading a magnificent book such as The Gulag Archipelago causes us to expand our sense of identity and family and think as world citizens. We empathize with the experiences of those who suffered in the gulags because we feel a kinship with them, because they are part of our extended family, our fellow world citizens. And as we grow and expand this size of our global identity, we see our own local experience from a less exaggerated perspective.”

“My uncle Salim says that expanding my sense of Time and Space through my imagination can transform my view of Grubs from a giant and a tyrant, to a tiny and a harmless ant.”

“I think that is absolutely correct. Moreover, I think that your reading The Gulag Archipelago is perhaps your first insight into how good writing can allow us to see ourselves in a different light, and to cause those events – such as your encounter with Grubs – to be reduced from gigantic and intimidating events, to rather tiny and incidental ones, once we see ourselves within the sweep of Time and Space. Yes, I think there is a lot of wisdom in your uncle Salim – is he the one that owns that newsagent shop over in Southall?”

“Yes, he is. Uncle Salim is not much of a reader, though. I don’t think he has read a book in his life.”

“Ah, but this uncle of yours is clearly a reader of character, a reader of humanity,” Miss Sosaboska considered thoughtfully, “an explorer of this adventure of life. Do you recall when we studied T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets in class recently:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

Although I lived in Southall and had access to the Southall Library, Hanwell Library on Cherington Road in neighboring Hanwell was my favorite library in the London Borough of Ealing. It was not as close to home, but it was close to my school, Drayton Manor Grammar School in Hanwell, which meant that I could visit the library on my way home from school.

hanwell-library

Hanwell Library, London Borough of Ealing

Increasingly, I also spent the weekends in the Hanwell Library, during the hours that I was not working in Salim Uncle’s shop.

I had discovered the great Russian authors!

It started with an interest in ‘dissident’ writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who were ‘banned’ in their own country because they spoke out against the totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union. This led me naturally toward contemporaries of Solzhenitsyn who were also considered dissident by the regime such as Joseph Brodsky, Sasha Sokolov and Sergie Dovlatov.

The head librarian at Hanwell Library was getting quite fed-up with me by now, as I pestered her for more and more obscure Russian authors. Since the library had the distinction of being an endowed Carnegie Library and thus had a reputation to uphold, the head librarian had no choice but to order the books I requested if they were unavailable on the library shelves.

Another reason I avoided the library in Southall and preferred Hanwell was because the Southall Library was populated by many of the customers who frequented Salim Uncle’s shop.

My uncle Salim was a local celebrity in Southall because of his good nature and good humor.

Much more than this however, was his quiet reputation for being a source of strength and support for those recent immigrants, particularly the Bangladeshis and the Somalis, who had been bullied and sometimes badly beaten by the local thugs and skinheads. Amongst the grateful immigrant population in Southall, my uncle Salim had an affectionate nickname:

They called my uncle the “Sadhu of Southall”.

spices

The upstairs kitchen above uncle Salim’s shop in Southall had become a safe house and safe heaven for so many immigrant refuges in the Southall area.

Since uncle Salim ran a thriving business and since he was generous to a fault with his money, he was busy making deals with all sorts of local institutions. He made a deal with the local karate and judo clubs to provide subsidized self-defense classes for young Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Kenyan, Somali, Ethiopian and Sudanese youth, as well as youth from several other immigrant nationalities. Uncle Salim wanted these youth to defend themselves against the growing violence inflicted by white supremacy groups that habitually roughed them up. Of course, uncle Salim paid for these karate and judo classes out of his own pocket.

Uncle Salim also made deals with the local polytechnics to pay for English language courses for many of the immigrant parents who spoke hardly any English. He set up scholarships for immigrant families who could not afford the English language classes.

All of this community service work that Salim Uncle had taken on was making it prohibitive for him to open the shop at 5am and close the shop at 9am.

He was actively searching for an employee to open the shop for him in the morning and manage the paperboys on their newspaper rounds.

burfee

“My goal now is this…” explained uncle Salim as he munched upon some colorful burfee:

“… That I have a morning manager, you see? Morning Manager. A bright young fellow who can to be opening the shop at five o’clock, who can to be be looking after all the paperboys and making sure they get the newspaper deliveries on time, and then managing the shop until after lunch at two o’clock. You see, papu? That way your Salim Uncle will just roll in after lunch like a motah sahib, and just to work from two o’clock to nine o’clock. Just seven hours, bhus! Khalas! Seven hour day, only. That is what is my goal now, you see?”

Being the nephew of the iconic celebrity which was the Sadhu of Southall, aka Sadhu Salim, was no easy matter.

I only had to walk down the streets of Southall on my way to school or on my way back from school, and shop keepers and street vendors would stop me in my tracks. They recognized me from working in my uncle’s shop.

shopkprs

As soon as the old Indian ladies recognized me they would stop me and say a prayer for my uncle Salim, for which I was somehow assumed to be the telepathic messenger. If they were Muslim, they would furtively and fastidiously fumble through their worry beads as they mumbled prayers in Arabic with their eyes closed. If they were Hindu, they would recite their Sanskrit benedictions and then paste a thick blob of saffron color upon my forehead to give me a third-eye  - which I would swiftly wipe off my head as soon as I was out of their sight.

The shopkeepers and food vendors were relentless in their voluminous generosity.

They would ply me with cans of ghee, boxes of burfee and bhajias and biscuits, and gobs of sticky and syrupy gulab jaman.

“Now you take these gulabs to your Salim Uncle young man. These are fresh gulab you see – too fresh, I tell you! Now you take these to Sadhu Salim, yes? Your Salim Uncle he loves gulab, I know because he always eats gulab when he come to Kwality Sweetmart!”

The Indian grocers would give me a bag of basmati rice for my uncle Salim and his wife.

rice

In the early days of my uncle Salim’s fame, on my way to school, things seemed manageable.

I could stuff the cans of ghee, and the biscuits and the burfees in to my school satchel and nobody was the wiser. I would snack on some of the perishable foods at lunchtime and then bring the remaining supplies – together with further supplies that I was forced to accept on my way back home – to uncle Salim’s shop. He and his wife were accustomed to even more gifts whenever they went out onto the streets of Southall.

Our larder was full of all sorts of goodies which we never had to pay for. As the larder at home began to overflow, so did my school satchel and my blazer and trouser pockets.

It had gotten to such a frenzied level of gift giving on my way to school, that I now would arrive to school with a satchel full as well as additional bags full of foodstuffs.

 shopkeeping

Inevitably, I was noticed by other students who saw me lugging bags of Indian sweets, English biscuits, cans of ghee and boxes of dessicated coconut. Since there was always a racist contingent at the school, someone slanderously accused me of selling foodstuffs at the school and thereby profiteering. Inevitably, I was reported and I ended up in the headmaster’s office.

C.J. Everest (whom we called ‘beaky’) was the classic headmaster of the Old School.

He had studied History at Oxford University and he was a lanky fellow with a thin mustache and eyeglasses that made him a doppelganger of Peter O’Toole in Goodbye Mr. Chips. Everest summoned me to the headmaster’s office and requested that I bring all my various bags of foodstuffs along with me. When I entered his office with all my various bags, Headmaster Everest requested that I unload the contents of the bags on to a table next to his desk which he cleared of papers for this purpose.

I dutifully plonked down boxes of biscuits, jars of ghee and other foodstuffs onto the table he had cleared away for me.

Mr. Everest then eyed the display suspiciously, his hands clasped behind his back, occasionally stooping to inspect a particular food item with concerned curiosity.

Indian Grocery Ghee

“Ghee?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And what, Ajania, is this ‘ghee’ – what does it do?”

“Um… well, ghee is clarified butter, sir. It’s used in cooking, sir?”

“Cooking, eh?…”

“Yes, sir.”

“Clarified butter, eh…”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, let me venture to clarify something for you, young man: Drayton Manor Grammar School is not a shop, it is a school. Is that a clarification you can comprehend, Ajania?”

“Eh… Yes, sir. Absolutely, sir. Not a shop but a school, sir.”

“Good. That’s a good start.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“What, pray tell are these orangy-sticky-roundy-curly things?”

“They are called jalebi, sir.”

“Jalebi?”

“Yes, sir. You eat them, sir.”

“Well, I certainly don’t!”

“No, sir. Not you. I meant we Indians… eh, we Indians eat them, sir.”

jelebi

“You are here to receive a classical education. Aut disce aut discede, eh?”

Ipsa scientia potestas est, sir.”

“Precisely! Now let’s not have any more hawking of your wares during school hours, shall we?”

“No, sir. No… eh, ‘hawking’,” I replied.

“No hawking. This is a school, not a shop. This is a grammar school, not a school of trade. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir. It is clear.”

“Good. I knew you would see reason.”

“Yes, I most certainly do, sir.”

“Good man! We shall put this wayward foible of your down to a learning experience. Experientia docet.”

He slightly unstiffened his stiff and lanky frame. He relaxed a bit. He restrained a smile. I could feel some humor coming along…

“I mean, the boys are well fed here wouldn’t you say? We serve some excellent school lunches here – they are not lacking for decent food are they, Ajania?’

“No, sir, they are not lacking for food.”

“I mean…” (oh, here it comes…), “I mean to say… this isn’t exactly a gulag is it now?”

I forced a smile and a chuckle.

He approved. And he continued…

“I mean to say, if this was a gulag, I could well imagine your need to smuggle foodstuffs in, what?”

“Indeed, sir.”

“By the way Ajania, how is your reading of The Gulag Archipelago coming along?”

“Oh, it is absolutely first-rate, sir. I am so grateful you presented it to me at the poetry prize-giving, sir.”

“Well, truth be told it was your English teacher, Miss Sosaboska who recommended it. First Russian author you’ve read I imagine, what?’

“Yes, Solzhenitsyn is the first, sir, but his work has compelled me to read more of the Russian authors, sir.”

“Really? Who, for example?”

“Eh, well…”

I hesitated. I was concerned about mentioning the dissident authors I had grown fond of such as Brodsky, Sokolov and Dovlatov. I knew he was a bit Old School and would likely frown at me reading from a list of banned authors.

From the corner of my eye, when I first entered his office, I had scanned the headmaster’s bookshelves. I knew the answer Headmaster Everest wanted to hear and so I lied:

“Eh, well… Tolstoy, of course, sir. Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky… eh, Turgenev…”

“Turgenev! Fathers and Sons?”

“Eh… yes, of course, sir. Fathers and Sons. A classic.”

“A classic indeed! As it happens, I have a copy right here on my bookshelf.”

turgenev fathers and sons (2)

As I exited the office of Headmaster Everest, I found Miss Sosaboska waiting in the corridor.

She had heard that I been reported to the headmaster for profiteering by selling foodstuffs to my fellow students. I explained to her the misunderstanding and I also explained how I had obtained the foodstuffs in the first place.

She seemed baffled:

“I simply do not understand. Can you not just let the shopkeepers and food vendors know that you can’t take all their gifts to school with you because it will get you in trouble with the headmaster?”

“Miss Sosaboska, it is all about my uncle’s good karma,” I ventured, “In Indian culture it is considered an insult to refuse gifts or hospitality. If I said ‘no’ to the gifts I was given on behalf of the good karmic works of my uncle Salim, I would be equally in trouble with my uncle Salim. Karmic circles must be completed in our philosophy, and rewarding his good karma with gifts and hospitality completes the circle.”

“That uncle Salim of yours must be a real saint,” sighed Miss Sosaboska.

“He is,” I said, “In fact that is what they call him now – Saint Salim, the Sadhu of Southall, or just Sadhu Salim… It’s become contagious throughout Southall. He’s a celebrity!”

“And a most deserving one too!” exclaimed Miss Sosaboska, “I wish there were more people like him in this world. You know, I have an idea…”

Here idea was remarkably simple:

Every morning, I would meet her in the parking lot of the school and present her with the bags of foodstuffs that had been gifted to me that morning. She would then store the bags in the staff room until the school bell rang for end of day, whereupon she would give the bags back to me to take home.

“Miss Sosaboska,” I encouraged, “You are welcome to help yourself to all the biscuits and sweetmeats you wish – we can’t possibly eat all that at home. In fact, if you ask me what the staff like to eat, I can request that from the shop keepers – they will be delighted to oblige!”

huntleypalmers

“Well,” began Miss Sosaboska quite gleefully, “I am rather partial to Huntley and Palmers – they truly are the perfect dunking biscuit! They will go rather well with the staff room teachers’ elevensies, I can tell you! McVities Digestives are also quite nice…”

From that day on, the shopkeepers of Southall that I passed by on my way to school had Huntley and Palmers as well as McVities Digestive biscuits ready for me to take to Miss Sosaboska for the staff room teatime at 11am every morning.

Huntleys

When I explained this to development to my uncle Salim he marveled and bobbed his head to and fro as only Indians know how to do.

“Kamal, kamal, papu!”, he smiled, “You see the good karma of Southall is reaching that posh school of yours in Hanwell, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Salim Uncle,” I acknowledged.

“Now what lesson this is? I will tell you,” he explained seriously, “That from the village of Southall to the village of Hanwell there is peace-offerings and goodwill. Now you see, that is power. That power of good karma will one day make all the racism and skinheads just disappear. You see? So you keep to delivering Huntley-Palmer biscuits. What all she calls them, your teacher?”

“Eh… ‘dunking’ biscuits, Salim Uncle.”

“Dunking?”

“Yes, that’s because the teachers dunk them in their tea – they dip them in their tea.”

“Dunking, eh? Kamal, kamal these Britishers!”

Biscuit_tins_VA_2490

The Hanwell Library was my sanctuary.

Few, if any of uncle Salim’s customers lived in the vicinity and so it was unlikely I would bump into any of them in Hanwell itself, let alone the local library in Hanwell.

I had by now, become so immersed and intrigued in the place and era that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn inhabited in the Soviet Union that I devoured any book I could find related to the subject. Anyone who might take an interest in what I was reading – as was evidenced by the pile of books accumulating next to me as I sat in the Hanwell Library – would likely be repulsed in my interest in the Soviet gulags.

I am not certain why the subject interested me.

I would imagine that it had to do with my educating myself about the extent of man’s cruelty to mankind. If being beaten up by Grubs for the color of my skin had been an occasion in which childhood innocence was finally lost, then reading about these atrocities was far more than that. The sadness of it engulfed me and this was no longer about a loss of innocence but a very dark night of the soul.

The more I read the more I began to despair. The more my soul entered the blackest night where there was not a spec of light.

In the hands of Stalin, Mao and Hitler – just three men, three tyrants – were the blood and the deaths and the brutal murders, of well over 50 million souls.

Many of these died in labor camps and concentration camps.

The intensity of the Russian poets in the era of Solzhenitsyn was arresting and painful and irresistibly honest.

Bleeding and haunting words like these, from Boris Pasternak’s poem, A Sultrier Dawn, kept me up at night:

I pleaded with them-
Don’t torment me!
I can’t sleep.
But – it was drizzling; dragging feet,
The clouds marched down the dusty street
Like recruits from the village in the morning.
They dragged themselves along
An hour or an age,
Like prisoners of war,
Or like the dying wheeze:
‘Nurse please,
Some water.’

– Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)

c19750

Whenever it was too much for me, pouring through the stories of the horror in gulag in the Hanwell Library, I resorted to daydreaming.

I daydreamed about my childhood in Kenya.

It was the one place that I could go in my mind that was unsullied and unadulterated. That was truly magical and innocent. I would remember Mr. Patel’s shop on Nagara Road in downtown Nairobi.

nairobi-streets

“You are from Nairobi, isn’t it? I know your uncle Salim. He is Sadhu of Southall, isn’t it?”

This voice that had interrupted my pleasant daydream in the library came from Mr. Shah.

Mr. Shah was a customer of my uncle Salim’s shop in Southall. It seemed that I had not fully escaped the thankful cheerleaders of my uncle Salim who now seemed to be the unofficial Mayor of Southall. I recalled Mr. Shah’s kindly and wrinkled face from the times he would come into the shop with his grandchildren. He would buy them their favorite Cadbury’s chocolates and then, while they ate the chocolates, he would chat with uncle Salim. Since Mr. Shah was also from Nairobi, he and my uncle would reminisce about the good old days in Kenya.

For Salim Uncle and me, there was nothing more sacred, more magical and more innocent and pure, than our joyful memories of life in Kenya before we emigrated to England.

Kenya held a sacred sanctuary of memories deep within all of us.

Mr. Shah had a neatly groomed white beard and always dressed the same way: a white Nehru cap upon his head, and head-to-toe in immaculately clean white Indian kurta pajamas. He looked like he lived in another ear and belonged to another world, a world that no longer needed him. He had a twinkle in his eyes beneath which was a deep and dark sadness. There was, I thought, always more to him than met the eye.

He looked at me eagerly as I sat in the library.

He whispered carefully in my ear as there were others quietly reading on the same long table at which I sat.

“Come along, young fellow!” encouraged the kindly and elderly Mr. Shah, “Let us go out in the fresh air and find us a nice cup of chai and a biscuit – you are to be looking too gloomy reading all these heavy books, isn’t it?”

That was certainly a welcome suggestion. There was only so much one can digest of torture and torment within the gory gulags of the Soviet Union. A cup of tea and a biscuit it was!

We found a local teashop and ordered tea and McVities Chocolate Digestive biscuits.

chocolate-butter-mcvities-digestive-biscuits

“You have been reading about the gulags in Russia, isn’t it?” he asked, as he saw my own personal copy of The Gulag Archipelago which had been presented to me by my headmaster, C.J. Everest, at the poetry prize-giving.

I nodded. I could feel he had something to tell me so I said as little as possible.

I just listened to him and watched his intent expression.

Mr. Shah remained quiet for a long time.

We both sat there without talking. We sipped tea. We ate biscuits. We sipped tea again.

He had difficulty averting his eyes from the copy of Solzhenitsyn’s book which sat next to me as I sipped my tea. The book had a grip on him. He looked like he was about to burst.

“I have read it,” said Mr. Shah when he finally spoke, “The Gulag Archipelago – yes, I have read it. I have a copy also.”

“Did you enjoy it?” I asked, just to break the silence once more.

It was a stupid question. I realized that as soon as I asked it. How can one possibly ‘enjoy’ reading about gulags?

“No,” he replied quietly.

Mr. Shah was far away. He fell quiet again.

I decided to remain quiet as well lest I blurt out yet another stupid statement.

We sipped our tea. We ate our biscuits. We sipped our tea again.

The silence was palpable, particularly as we were one of the few customers at the tea shop.

The other single customers were sitting alone at three other tables. One was reading a newspaper. An elderly lady was staring wistfully out of the window while she drank her tea.

A man who I recognized as a school teacher at Drayton Manor Grammar School was and correcting and marking student papers. He had a red ballpoint pen.

He was sipping tea and munching on toast.

toast-tea

Mr. Shah’s voice crackled as he finally spoke. He looked me intently in eye.

“We had them also in Kenya,” he began, “Gulags. In Kenya. Britishers made gulags in Kenya.”

Once he began, he could not stop.

He tried to restrain himself at first but then it all came bursting out in every bloody and cruel detail. Mr. Shah said he had not spoken about this to anyone for all these many years. Not even his wife, and not even his sons. He said that when he saw that I was reading The Gulag Archipelago it was clear to him that I was curious about such things. Why else would I have purchased such an expensive hard cover book?

He said he was an old man and did not know how many years he had left to live.

He said he had to unburden his soul and tell someone of the new generation what he knew and what he had seen with his own eyes. Like so many early Indian immigrant settlers, pioneers who came to British East Africa from British India to begin a new life, Mr. Shah opened a shop in the hinterland and sold all sorts of supplies to the local people, some of them English officers in the British Colonial army.

He sold sundry items, canned foodstuffs, paraffin and ghee and umbrellas; basically any kind of stock he could get his hands on which he could then resell in this remote part of Kenya.

He was a poor immigrant from the western Indian state of Rajasthan, who had left his wife and children in village India during he early 1950′s, while he sought his fortune in British East Africa, so that he could provide better for his family. He tithed most of his profits from his shop back to his family, and lived frugally, his only adornment being a worn photograph of his wife and children in a frayed wooden frame encased by cracked glass.

It was a meagre existence but not an unusual one for an Indian immigrant in his time.

One fine day, Mr. Shah’s fortunes changed forever. It was as if he had won the lottery.

Two young British army officers drove over to him and disembarked. They asked to see his immigration papers. He presented his papers to them, they took a cursory glance at the papers, approved their validity and gave them back to Mr. Shah. He was all clear. Next, they asked him to close the folded steel shutter of his shop entrance and shut the shop down for an hour.

arab-boy

The officers then escorted Mr. Shah to a local Arab ‘dukka’ – an improvised outdoor kiosk with makeshift old benches and chairs where men sit around and drink tea or soft drinks and smoke cigarettes and play cards while listening to music from a squeaky old transistor radio. The British officers ordered themselves and Mr. Shah some tea.

One of the sons of the Arab dukka owner served the men tea and then hid out of sight, presumably, thought Mr. Shah, because the boy was intimidated by the British officers. Out of the corner of his eye, Mr. Shah how scared the young Arab boy looked as he observed the white colonial officers in their starched khaki uniforms. It made Mr. Shah uncomfortable.

Mr. Shah looked at me gravely before he continued. He took a sip of his tea.

The two British officers explained to Mr. Shah that there were to be major economic developments in this remote region of Kenya where Mr. Shah owned a shop.

This was excellent news for Mr. Shah, they said, because he would be receiving a windfall of new business. The army was going to be transporting a lot of what they called ‘manpower’ and this new population of ‘manpower’ would need rations of food, and blankets and shirts and all sorts of new items that Mr. Shah might sell and profit from. The officers explained that they were going to provide all the clearances and permits for lorry loads of supplies to be delivered to Mr. Shah on a weekly basis so that he can sell these items to the new crop of ‘manpower’ that was being imported into the region.

Mr. Shah was overjoyed.

He envisioned his wife and children in Rajasthan finally having the money to board a steamship from Bombay, sail the Indian Ocean to Mombasa, where he would then await them. Then bring them back to his shop in the Kenyan hinterland with its thriving business.

And they would live happily ever after.

Mr. Shah was both surprised and delighted that life would turn out almost precisely as the two young British officers had promised it would.

Within days, lorry loads of supplies had arrived for Mr. Shah to stock in his shop and there was not room enough to stock it. The officers had arranged for some African laborers – who had arrived in their own lorry loads – to help build Mr. Shah a brand new extension to his shop. It was now three times the size and full of stock and thriving with a growing business.

Business was booming!

Most of all, for the very first time in his life he had a substantial amount of money accumulating in the local bank and substantial remittances being sent back to his family.

Truly, these two officers had been messengers of hope and blessing in his life, thought Mr. Shah, and that is precisely what he also relayed to his beloved wife and children back home in village India, in his native state of Rajasthan.

However, there was one caveat:

Since this was a secret army operation, since this was technically a ‘classified’ event, Mr. Shah could not write or talk about what he witnessed in front of his eyes: a growing compound being built, a fenced wall being erected, endless reams of barbed wire fencing and more and more African people crammed in dusty lorries like cattle, arriving every few days from all parts of Kenya and being ushered into this secretive compound.

These events were ‘classified’ explained the army officers and thus were subject to the ‘Official Secrets Act’ and therefore, would Mr. Shah mind signing a few documents in which we swore to never to divulge the events being unfolded before him? Well, Mr. Shah did not see any reason why he should not sign the documents and so he willingly signed away.

Mr. Shah was very excited at the prospect of his family joining him very soon.

Somehow, however, his family never made it over from Rajasthan to Kenya because their immigration papers got mysteriously misplaced.

Mr. Shah stayed on for several more years without his family. His family were well taken care of because his business was booming and he was selling all sorts of items to the growing Kenyan population behind the compound encased behind a barbed wire fence, armed guards with rifles and machetes, and guarded further by growling and barking dogs with big teeth and spiky metal dog collars around their necks.

One night, the curiosity of Mr. Shah got the better of him and he wandered over to the secretive compound about which he himself was sworn to secrecy by signing official documents to that effect. It was Christmas Day. He felt emboldened to venture over to the compound.

After all, the British officers – of which there were two dozen or more by now – were all drunk into a stupor. Many of the African guards were also drunk and several had simply passed out from too much food and drink.

Mr. Shah peered through the barbed wire of the compound. What he saw was unspeakable.

He looked at me and then his surroundings in the tea shop and then again at me.

It was as if he had forgotten where he was. So vivid were his recollections that he had transported himself back to another time: to a remote region of Kenya in the 1950′s.

“What did you see, Mr. Shah,” I asked him eagerly, “Please tell me.”

“I cannot,” he muttered, “I cannot. I cannot describe it to you, young man. It was unspeakable what I witnessed.”

KenyaCamp

“It was a gulag?”

“Yes,” he confirmed, “A gulag. A concentration camp. No different than the concentration camps that the Nazis built in Germany. No different than the harshest camps that Solzhenitsyn describes in The Gulag Archipelago.”

After my conversation with Mr. Shah, school lost all meaning for me.

All I could see before me were the images Mr. Shah had conveyed so vividly even though he hardly spoke about them.

KENYA / GEHEIM GENOOTSCHAP MAU MAU

School was a prison for the next two years.

Like any prisoner, I could not wait until my sentence was completed and I was released. The school leaving age at Drayton Manor Grammar School was 16 at the time, and I managed to endure every day just as any prisoner might. Trying my best to pass the time and tolerate the drudgery and the boredom. After my conversation with Mr. Shah, I had lost my tolerance for robotic and cold, soulless and sanitized facts and figures devoid of any sense of humanity. Of dead and tired and over-rehearsed and outdated school curriculum.

KenyaCCamp

I could not wait to leave school and work full-time in Salim Uncle’s shop.

Salim Uncle was very supportive of my decision to leave school at 16 and did not interfere in it.

Meantime, I found solace in my record player where I played songs like Pink Floyd’s The Wall:

We don’t need no education
We dont need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.

The Wall, Pink Floyd

When the final day arrived when I could leave school, I prepared a statement which I had rehearsed, and which was directed toward my headmaster, Mr. C. J. Everest.

He granted me an audience in his office for me to say my final farewell, not knowing what I had prepared for him and not being prepared for what I had prepared.

I entered his office and he asked me to be seated on the chair across from his desk while he sat at the opposite end.

He was such a hardworking headmaster, as was evidenced by the countering hills and mountains of paperwork piled neatly in different configurations upon his massive desk.

One day the entire Western world will grind to a halt, its apparatus clogged with forms, files and memoranda.

R.F. Delderfield, To Serve Them All My Days

Headmaster C. J. Everest and I faced each other.

I then glanced down at the handwritten paper I had in my hand.

The moment had arrived, and in the moment, I lacked the courage of my convictions.

He intimidated me with his impeccable manners.

We made some pleasant small-talk. His phone rang. He excused himself politely. He took the phone call. He nonchalantly waved me away to end the meeting and leave. As I looked back, making my way toward the door, he was deeply engrossed in his phone conversation.

I left his office.

That was that.

WilliamWykeham

William Wykeham (1324-1404), Bishop of Winchester, Chancellor of England, Founder of Winchester College, Founder of New College, Oxford University

It is by politeness, etiquette and charity that society is saved from falling into a heap of savagery.

William of Wykeham (1324-1404)

Outside the school, I sat quietly upon a bench and read the letter I had composed for him.

The letter I was too cowardly to read him face to face:

Dear Headmaster Everest,

I know how much you English people pride yourself upon your good manners.

You frequently say: “Manners Maketh Man”.

It is therefore extremely baffling to me why you have behaved with such atrocious bad manners in presenting me with a copy of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

It was bad manners enough, that your country, Britain, imposed a gulag on my country, Kenya, where tens of thousands of my countrymen were interned and tortured and subject to extreme cruelty and ruthless murder. If that is not bad manners enough, you then presented me with a book about gulags in order to add insult to injury.

Clearly, you had not done your homework, headmaster.

The only reason that we do not know as much about the gulags in Kenya as we do about the gulags in Russia is because Kenya did not have a brave and noble soul like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to expose the bad manners of the British. Or, perhaps Kenya did, but the British colonists either suppressed or sabotaged the Truth from being exposed.

May I suggest, sir, that instead of having school students storing sanitized facts about Tudors and Stuarts or Normans and Saxons, and mindlessly spewing sayings in Latin and Greek, that you might begin to educate yourself in a substantial way by learning about other cultures and the Truth about how your country played a devious and destructive part in their development?

I have learned absolutely nothing of value here at Drayton Manor Grammar School.

Nothing about humanity. Nothing about honesty.

It has been a complete and utter waste of time.

That was the letter I had planned to read my headmaster.

Moreover, my plan before I exited his office, was to return the copy of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Mr. Everest, which he had given me as a gift at the poetry prize-giving. That was going to be my statement of mild protest, to show him how I was rather miffed by the theme of Solzhenitsyn’s book. I then envisioned a bold exit from his office.

Once again, I was intimidated and did not go through with my plan.

I buckled.

I just scampered out of his office when his phone rang and he casually signaled me to leave.

I lost the moment.

I knew why. There is one simple reason I did not read the letter out loud to him:

It would have been very bad manners.

manners

The one quality that English grammar schools taught you well was how to be extremely well-mannered. ”Manners maketh man,” Headmaster Everest would announce frequently at the end of morning assembly. He was fond of this quote by William of Wykeham, which is the motto of Winchester College and New College, Oxford. Headmaster Everest was always well-mannered.

MIT

A decade after I left school at sixteen, I was a graduate student studying for a Master of Science degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Remember this, I beseech you, all you boys who are getting into the upper forms. Now is the time in all your lives, probably, when you may have more wide influence for good or evil on the society you live in than you ever can have again.

Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s Schooldays

I had traveled to India while working on my thesis on the Himalayan Sadhu.

train

While traveling in India, I stayed in small village communities, lush green tea plantations and splendorous hill stations along the Himalayan foothills.

Darjeeling_tea_hills

It appeared that both uncle Salim and I had finally received what we had coveted.

For me, that was to have the opportunity to learn and study in a place that was dynamic and innovative and forward thinking.

For uncle Salim, it was to realize his dream of having what he called his ‘morning manager’, so that he could show up at the shop after lunch at 2pm and then work in the shop until closing time at 9pm. I called him in Southall, London, from a remote Indian village on the banks of the Ganges River and he delighted to tell me about his more relaxed schedule.

ganga_river

“I tell you, papu,” he enthused, “This morning manager Mr. Burbidge, he is too good, I tell you! Too good.”

“You know, Salim Uncle, I am writing my thesis about the sadhu! Do they still call you the Sadhu of Southall?”

“Still, still they call me that, papu,” he laughed, “Maybe you should be writing your MIT thesis on this Southall sadhu isn’t it?”

I promised him that after I finished with my thesis and graduated I would come and visit him in London.

“Are you drinking chai from the chaiwalla’s mud cup, papu?”

“Yes, uncle Salim. I’m drinking chai from the chaiwalla’s mud cup!”

The mud cup of the chaiwalla was made by firing earth in a brick kiln in village India. You could faintly taste the earth in the cup.

chaicup

“Good, good. You see papu, that mud is earth of Mother India, isn’t it? Good for the soul!”

“Yes, uncle Salim.”

“Not like the Britishers’ tea, isn’t it?” continued uncle Salim, “I mean to say, those posh Britishers drink from bone china cups!”

“Yes…” I agreed.

bonechina

“Bone china, it has no soul, isn’t it? Only dead bones, you see?” he explained.

“I know,” I acknowledged.

“And those tea cozies! Kamal, kamal…”

I laughed.

cozy

“What all they are doing? Dressing up the teapot in a woolen sweater, isn’t it? As if teapot is a human being! Now papu, you are to be eating good paratha for your breakfast?”

“Excellent paratha, Salim uncle – topping!”

I added that last word because I knew he was fond of it.

“Topping, yes!” he enthused, “Paratha for breakfast! Not like the Britishers’ toast, eh?”

paratha

“No. Much better than the Britishers’ toast, Salim uncle.”

“You see, papu, your morning paratha it is made from wheat fields of Mother India.”

“Yes,” I agreed.

“People from villages work in hot sun to harvest wheat so you can eat paratha, no?”

“Yes,” I agreed again.

He was mentally transporting himself to India and living vicariously through my travels in India.

farming

“Also the milk in the chai is from sacred cow of village India so it has special taste, no?”

“Very special, Salim uncle. The milk in the chai is delicious!”

sacred-cow

“And chai you are drinking comes from hardworking women who harvest tea, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Salim uncle.”

TeaPlantations

“Nothing like piping hot chai and piping hot paratha, isn’t it!”

“Yes!” I agreed.

“Now one thing I do not understand, papu, maybe you can explain it to me,” began uncle Salim with a mischievous tone in his voice; he was enjoying himself: “Now you see these Britishers, they to have tea cozy to keep the tea hot and then they have toast rack to keep the toast cold, isn’t it? Now what all kind of logic that is? Can you explain this to me, papu?”

“I can’t explain it, Salim uncle,” I replied, “I understand the tea cozy but not the toast rack.”

Marisa

“Why you are not writing thesis on Britishers’ toast rack? It is big mystery, isn’t it?” he teased.

I laughed.

“So what is the name of this thesis you are writing on the sadhu?” asked Salim Uncle.

For Whom The World Stops: The Himalayan Sadhu in a World of Constant Motion,” I replied.

“Kamal, kamal,” he laughed and then he added: “But papu, please to tell me one thing; why you are going all the way to Himalayas when you have already seen the Everest, isn’t it?’

He was referring to my former headmaster at Drayton Manor Grammar School, C.J. Everest.

He laughed at his own joke until the laughter trailed off and he become quietly contemplative.

“You know papu,” he began thoughtfully, “Every morning when I drink my Indian chai, I remember the tea plantations of Darjeeling and Assam; how those hard working women in the villages wake up early and pick the tea leaves for our morning time chai. Then I feel peace, papu. I feel I am at one with Mother India. That is my morning meditation. Also, now I have my morning manager Mr. Burbidge to open up shop I can do longer morning meditation.”

assam-tea

India is the country, fields, fields, hills, jungle, hills and more fields. How can the mind take a hold of such a country? Generations of invaders have tried, but they remain in exile. India is not a promise, only an appeal.

E. M. Forster, A Passage to India

I was happy to hear that Salim Uncle was having time to relax more and focus on his community service work thanks to this new found morning manager, Mr. Burbidge.

I told my uncle Salim that I would keep my promise to come and visit him in London one day.

I also told him that traveling through India was spiritually cleansing for the soul.

He understood:

“Mother India, papu,” he said quietly, “that is the source of our love and our learning. It will cleanse your soul to connect with the simple life and the good people. Wash away your pain and your shame from those Britisher skinheads in the waters of the Mother Ganges, papu. Cleanse your soul. Forgive the Hanwell Bootboys. Then, you will see all things to become new. No more good or bad, just peace. From good or bad we learn lessons. What says Upanishads? ‘Learning and Teaching’. ‘Teaching and Learning’. What says Shakespeare about good or bad?”

It was his favorite quote from William Shakespeare. I recited it for him:

“‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’” I replied.

Bath

There is nothing either good or bad
but thinking makes it so.
– William Shakespeare

Several years passed until I finally had a chance to visit Salim Uncle in Southall.

He insisted I stay in my old room where I used to live with him and his wife when I attended Drayton Manor Grammar School.

To celebrate our reunion, he took me to Kwality Sweetmart which he insisted served the best gulab jaman in Southall. We sat down in the overcrowded Indian sweet vendor shop and each dug into our sweet, soggy and syrupy gulab jaman.

‘You know Salim uncle,” I ventured, “I figured out something about you – you’re a trickster!”

He smiled at me mischievously and he winked.

“Yes,” he finally admitted.

I knew it!

In his book about tricksters entitled Trickster Makes This World, the author Lewis Hyde writes:

“In India, when the god Krishna is a baby, he is known for stealing butter, then lying about what he’s done.

Whenever his mother leaves the house she tells her son to stay out of the larder where the butter urns are stored. Later she always finds him sitting on the larder floor, the white butter smeared over his dark and smiling face. “I didn’t steal the butter, Ma,” he says when she scolds him, sometimes adding, “besides, doesn’t everything in the house belong to us?”

In the Hindu stories, Krishna has come to earth to remind the human race that everything belongs to god. His mother does not know that yet, but her child’s mundane lies point her toward the higher truth.

All tricksters do this:

They lie in a way that upsets our very sense of what is true and what is false, and therefore help us reimagine this world.”

Tricksters

That is precisely what Salim Uncle did to me: he tricked me into re-imagining this world.

It happened this way:

After I left school at 16, I was sitting gloomily one morning at the kitchen table when Salim Uncle comes up to join me for a cup of tea. He asks me a question:

“Now, papu – what is the book that you won for a prize that time, you remember some years ago, the one you got for writing the poem on the anteater, isn’t it?”

“Yes, of course I remember Salim Uncle, it was called The Gulag Archipelago.

“The Gulab Archipelago? You mean to say it is a whole book about an archipelago of gulab jaman? Kamal, kamal! You mean to say there are all these gulabs swimming in the sea of syrup like little-little islands, isn’t it?”

The Gulab Archipelago

The Gulab Archipelago

“No, no! That is not what it means, it means…”

“… so you mean you are to be fantasizing about a sea of syrup and then swimming from one gulab island to another gulab island, isn’t it? An archipelago of gulabs? Kamal, kamal!”

It was pointless.

All of a sudden the absurdist vision being presented by Salim Uncle of a syrupy sea populated by an archipelago of gulab jaman over flooded my mind and I began to laugh so hard and laugh uncontrollably. It was too ridiculously funny and I laughed and I laughed until all the sadness and all the despair that I had felt after reading The Gulag Archipelago poured out of me in tears of joyous laughter.

I felt cleansed and purified; a heavy dark cloud lifted from me once the laughter subsided.

My dark night of the soul had been spent and a bright new day had dawned.

Now, all these years later, I asked Salim Uncle the question I had always wondered about.

“So, you knew what a gulag meant didn’t you, Salim Uncle?” I asked him, “you knew that it meant a labor camp or even a concentration camp, a death camp?”

“Yes, papu, of course I knew,” he sighed, gravely.

“Then why did you trick me? Why did you deliberately pretend to misunderstand and pretend to think gulag meant gulab jaman?”

He explained to me that he had to break the mesmerism of my despair. That for centuries in Indian culture, tricksters play a vital role in turning our reality upside down so that we see everything from a new viewpoint and re-imagine our place in the Universe.

Patta

That Lord Krishna, the butter thief, had been a trickster. That Lord Vishnu, appearing as the incarnation of a dwarf to the demon Baali, was a trickster.

Tricksters were part of the spiritual fabric of Indian culture and Indian mythology.

“You see papu, I had to break through that dark cloud you were in after reading this Russian gulab book, isn’t it? Now, tonight we have early night and then tomorrow we get up 5am because I want you to meet my morning manager, Mr. Burbidge, then I take you Heathrow Airport, isn’t it? Now this Burbidge I tell you, he is too good worker. Topping chap!”

That night I thought to myself how deserving my uncle Salim was to be recognized as the Sadhu of Southall. There was not a touch of cynicism or negativity in his being. He was always seeing the good in anyone. I felt that my education was incomplete until I learned more lessons from this humble shopkeeper who was the salt of the earth.

Just as Salim Uncle had been a mentor and a beacon of light to me, I knew that he himself had a dear friend, a venerable and wise elderly Sikh gentleman, who had been a mentor and a guide to uncle Salim for many years. Salim Uncle addressed this elderly gentleman simply as “Mr. Singh”. Mr. Singh often visited the Southall shop of uncle Salim. Sometimes, he would come by on a Sunday morning to pick up Salim Uncle and take him for the morning prayers and the langar (feasting) at the local Sikh temple, or gurdwar, in Southall. Uncle Salim would rely upon me to man the shop for him whenever he went to the Sikh temple with Mr. Singh.

Sikhpainting

Salim Uncle had Hindu friends as well, with whom he often attended the local Hindu temples. He also attended the prayers at Friday mosque with his Muslim friends.

Uncle Salim awoke me just before 5am with a large, piping hot mug of tea.

I had a flight out that morning and Salim Uncle – thanks to his new morning manager Mr. Burbidge – was free to take me to the airport since he did not have to work in his shop.

“Now papu,” he began, while we walked to the kitchen table to drink our tea together, “What all we have learned from Ghandiji and from Lord Vishnu? Tell me what all we learned?”

“Um, well,” I ventured somewhat sleepily, “Gandhiji said ‘when I despair I remember that all through history the ways of Truth and Love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers but eventually they always fall’.”

“Good, good,” said the Sadhu of Southall approvingly. “So lesson is what? Power is where?”

“Eh… in Truth and Love.”

“Good, good,” said the Sadhu of Southall once more, “Now, Vishnu what all he did to Baali?

“Vishnu conquered Baali through a perspective of Time and Space – through imagination.”

“Good, good,” said Salim Uncle, “So you see now these are four things you must to remember, isn’t it? Truth and Love and then also Time and Space. Four things.”

“Yes,” I acknowledged, “I understand. Four things.”

“Now final question it is this,” said uncle Salim: “What happens to Baali when Vishnu conquers him? What happens to the tyrants after they fall, like Ghandiji says they must always to fall?”

“They just disappear, don’t they?”

“No, no! How they can just disappear, isn’t it? They cannot to just to disappear. Only the bad inside them disappears. Then they become new people. Good people. Like Lord Ashoka.”

He was referring to the conversion of the warrior Lord Ashoka who, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, has an epiphany and transforms his character and devotes himself to good works.

Conversion of St. Paul Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Conversione di San Paolo by Caravaggio (1601)

What was my uncle Salim on about?

Why all these questions?

“Come, come, papu,” beckoned Uncle Salim, “Let us to go downstairs to shop now and meet Mr. Burbidge. You must to meet Graham, isn’t. My morning manager.”

As soon as I arrived at the bottom of the stairwell, I felt the familiar atmosphere of paperboys sorting the newspapers. I could smell the fresh newsprint and saw the darkened smudges on the fingers of the paperboys as they sorted and counted through the newspaper stacks. There were mugs of hot tea everywhere with the steamy puffs swirling up in the air in the cold early morning air of the unheated shop.

As I entered the shop from the stairwell I saw the back of a large man conducting the paperboys in a methodical and organized fashion.

This man, I assumed, was my uncle Salim’s beloved new morning manager, Mr. Burbidge.

My uncle Salim tapped the man on the shoulder and said:

“Graham, I want you to say hello to my nephew.”

I put out my hand to Graham Burbidge as he put out his hand to mine and we shook hands. He had a firm and strong handshake.

Graham Burbidge looked at me with a faint recognition but then had to turn away distractedly as one of the paperboys was calling his attention. Then, he went back to work.

That was that.

It was just a momentary instance but I recognized Graham Burbidge in that split second when our eyes met: Graham Burbidge’s nickname used to be Grubs.

He had been the skinhead leader of the Hanwell Bootboys, the one who had severely Paki-bashed me all those years ago.

I could still hear the muffled thud of his punches on my face. I could still recall reeling and falling into a heap on the pavement and him inflicting one last hard kick into my stomach as I doubled over writhing on the ground. The last time I saw Grubs, I was on the pavement peering at him from a half open black eye as he towered above me, sneering and spitting.

The last thing I recalled about Grubs were his heavy skinhead bootboy boots, which were planted just inches from my battered face on the ground.

boots

The sight of Grubs’ skinhead boots on the ground still haunted me.

Now standing in the shop next Grubs, next to Graham Burbidge the morning manager, I at last understood why my uncle Salim had wanted me to meet Grubs again.

Now, finally, it made sense to me why earlier this morning he kept reminding me of the ‘four things’: Truth and Love, Time and Space.

Now it became clear why he insisted that tyrants don’t just ‘disappear’, but that it is only the ‘bad’, the evil in them that disappears, and the ‘good’ remains.

Now at last it became clear to me why Salim Uncle was referring to the ruthless warrior Lord Ashoka, who, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, has an epiphany and transforms his character and then devotes himself to good works.

I had advanced degrees from MIT and Harvard, but here in Salim Uncle’s shop in Southall was something that none of the erudite and educated could ever teach me.

Here, in Salim Uncle’s shop in Southall was my finishing school.

Here, in the presence of the Sadhu of Southall, was the most distinguished graduation ceremony I could ever conceive. Here at last, within the colorless formica walls and fluorescent light of the Academy of the Sadhu of Southallamongst the newspapers and Cadbury’s chocolates and boiled sweets and cough drops and throat lozenges, was a lesson in humanity, a Humanities Course, that I could not ever learn in any of the finest universities in the world.

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
– William Shakespeare

British_Airways_Super_VC-10

On the drive to the airport that same morning Salim Uncle explained to me how he had first encountered Grubs long after I had left for America.

He had gone one Sunday, while his wife tended to the shop, to gurdwar with his friend, Mr. Singh. The Sikh temples have a tradition of langar, a volunteer serving of free freshly cooked food from a kitchen adjoining the gurdwara to all visitors regardless of race or creed.

Since the food was free to all, it was not unusual to see those residents of Southall that were unemployed and on the dole to come over to the langar and have a freshly cooked meal. Ironically, some of these visitors included skinheads who were on the dole, and who needed a decent meal which they could not otherwise afford. So enlightened was this tradition of langar at the Sikh temple, that it did not discriminate against any visitors and all were graciously offered a beautifully prepared meal as a gift of goodwill and a peace-offering. This courtesy was even extended to those, such as the white supremacist skinheads, who, in their spare time, beat up Asians, including Sikhs.

sikhlangar

As open minded as progressive as Salim Uncle was, he had difficulty seeing the skinheads feasting on delicious food provided by the generous hospitality of the Sikh community.

As Salim Uncle explained it to me as he drove me to Heathrow Airport, he and Mr. Singh were sitting upon a bench in the large courtyard outside the Sikh temple and discussing this idea of offering hospitality and graciousness to those, such as these white supremacist skinheads, who were considered adversaries and tyrants by the Asian community in Southall.

“But Mr. Singh!” protested Salim Uncle exasperatedly as they both sat on the bench outside the temple, “Why to let these scoundrel skinheads to eat here bhai? This is not correct, isn’t?’

Mr. Singh sat silently for a long time before he responded in a calm voice to Salim Uncle:

“Let me tell you a story, Salim Bhai, of when I was just a nine year old boy.”

When Mr. Singh was just nine years old, he witnessed his parents and his three siblings massacred and murdered before his eyes in one of the bloodiest episodes in the British Indian Imperial history: the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, also known as the Massacre of Amritsar.

Peaceful, non-violent protestors of the British Raj, followers of Ghandi’s satyagraha movement of non-cooperation against British Imperialism, gathered for discussions out in the open air Jallianwala Bagh garden in Amristar.

British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his brutal army of fifty mercenary Gurkhas and Indian and British troops to fire at the thickest part of the gathering of peaceful Sikhs in Jallianwala Bagh garden and then point their guns at the exits from which the bloodied crowd tried to escape the relentless gunfire directed toward innocent men, women and children.

massacre

General Dyer’s troops firing at innocent civilians, Amritsar, India, 1919

About 1,000 innocent and unarmed Sikhs were brutally murdered in just ten minutes by General Dyer’s thugs. Hundred of others were severely injured, including the nine year old Mr. Singh who had a bullet wound in his arm.

The initial response from the British House of Lords was to heap accolades of praise and good cheer for General Reginald E. H. Dyer.

The Golden Temple at Amritsar, India

The Golden Temple at Amritsar, India

“I have tried to hate,” sighed Mr Singh softly, “Salim Bhai, hatred and revenge poison the soul. And they come to no good, bhai. There is only one path forward in this life …”

“Truth and Love,” suggested Salim Uncle.

“Truth and Love,” confirmed Mr. Singh.

They sat quietly again, and then Mr. Singh spoke quietly once more.

“Salim Bhai, we must rewrite our own history,” began Mr. Singh, “Always to remember please the saying of Guru Nanak…”.

Mr. Singh then recited to Salim Uncle a saying by the founder of Sikhism:

“Burn worldly love, 
rub the ashes and make ink of it, 
make the heart the pen, 
the intellect the writer, 
write that which has no end or limit.” 

– Guru Nanak (1469-1538)

Homage to Guru Nanak, Indian miniature painting

Homage to Guru Nanak, Indian miniature painting

As they sat there quietly outside the Sikh temple in Southall, watching the visitors help themselves to the feast of the langar; visitors of all races and creeds, suddenly Salim Uncle recognized a skinhead in the queue of visitors helping themselves to the food.

It was Grubs!

I had pointed out Grubs to Salim Uncle many years ago when I was a teenager and so he recognized Grubs immediately when he saw him in the line-up in the langar.

Salim Uncle explained the presence of Grubs to Mr. Singh. Salim Uncle explained who Grubs was – how he had Paki-bashed his nephew. Once again, Mr. Singh sat silently for a long time before he responded in a calm and quiet voice to Salim Uncle:

“You know, Salim Bhai, I am a very old man. I have many years to think about these Britishers and this is what I have been asking myself: Why these Britishers came to India and stayed for 300 years? Why they visited us for 300 years and ate our food and drank our tea?”

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

“I don’t know,” replied my uncle Salim.

“Why,” continued Mr. Singh, “Why they visited us for 300 years and ate our food and drank our tea? Why this young man Grubs is visiting this gurdwara and why is he being with us Asians and eating our food and drinking our tea?”

“I don’t know,” replied my uncle Salim, “Do you know why?”

“Yes, I think so,” replied Mr. Singh, “I think they come to visit us because deep down they wish to learn a lesson from us. They want us to teach them a lesson. That is what I think. You see, we are their teachers. They are our students. We need to teach them a lesson.”

“I see,” replied my uncle Salim.

soldierRaj

“This life, Salim Bhai, it is a classroom. Remember the Upanishads: learning and teaching, teaching and learning; that is the circle of life eternal, isn’t it?”

What is needed in this classroom of Life?
Teaching and Learning.
Learning and Teaching.
Taittiriya Upanishad, 7th Century BC

“Yes,” replied my uncle Salim.

PM12681777@British Raj The life

“So, now Salim Bhai, tell me now, young man, what lesson do we know, what is the only lesson we know? When we shut down our shop for very last day of this lifetime, when we do our final accounting of all the selling and buying and the debits and the credits; after all has been balanced in our books, what lesson do we take with us into Eternity? What is the only possession that we do not leave behind upon this earth because it cannot perish, because it is imperishable and cannot decay nor can it ever die no matter what tried to destroy the lesson or to bury the lesson? What is the Eternal Lesson that is indestructible and imperishable ?”

TheUpanishads

“Truth and Love,” replied my uncle Salim.

“Truth and Love,” repeated Mr. Singh with a smile, “So now, Salim Bhai, today is your good fortune, because today you can go and practice the meaning of Truth and Love with this young man, Grubs. Stand up now, Salim Bhai, stand tall, and go and introduce yourself to Mr. Grubs. Sit down and share the feast of langar with Mr. Grubs in this holy garden of the gurdwara. Practice peace and Mr. Grubs will learn the lesson of Truth and Love. This Mr. Grubs has come to this holy gurdwara to digest more than food and drink for his stomach. He has come to digest nourishment for his soul. His soul is parched, Salim Bhai, and you are blessed to know the lessons of Life. So share with him. Do not be stingy. Break bread with Mr. Grubs.”

Salim uncle nodded to Mr. Singh, he stood up, walked over to Grubs and introduced himself.

He and Grubs sat down on a nearby bench and shared a Punjabi meal together and drank some milky, sugary tea together. They talked, they joked, they laughed. They talked.

Mr. Singh looked on from a distance.

Mr. Singh said later that day to Salim Uncle that the sight of ‘Salim Bhai and Mr. Grubs’ dining together brought peace to his heart and hope to his soul.

It made him happy.

From the time of that Sunday langar at the gurdwara in Southall, ’Salim Bhai and Mr. Grubs’ became better and better friends.

Eventually, Salim Uncle got Grubs a job as a paperboy at his shop. Grubs worked hard, was always on time and on task and worked his way up the ranks. He also helped Uncle Salim out in the shop after the newspaper deliveries were done. Gradually, Grubs worked his way up the ranks and became the trusted morning manager of Salim Uncle, which enabled my uncle to focus more on his community service activities as the unofficial mayor of the Asian community in Southall, or, as he was affectionately known, the Sadhu of Southall.

Coming back to Southall after all these years, meeting with my uncle Salim and his morning manager Graham Burbidge, I realized that the ‘innocence’ I thought I had lost from those magical childhood days in Mr. Patel’s shop on Ngara Road were neither lost, nor adulterated.

Innocence does not disappear or become lost or sullied.

Innocence, even the pure innocence of childhood, evolves, matures into another word.

A deeper word. A word that is more reliable and enduring than innocence can ever be:

Wisdom.

Dad, aged 7, just before he went off to school in England

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Elliot