(Un)arranged Marriage, page 10
The shutters across each window were pulled tight to stop the sunlight from getting in although every now and then flies would buzz through the tiny gaps that the shutters left. I guessed that the flies were like bluebottles or horseflies, only they were massive and the noise they made sounded to me like a swarm of wasps.
‘They are nothing, Man,’ laughed Harry. ‘Wait till you see the wasps, innit. They’re massive, guy. Good two inches long and that.’
My uncle asked the old man why we were speaking in English and he began one of his lectures about us all thinking we were English now. If only he had stayed here, he told my uncle, they’d be good Punjabi men by now. I watched my uncle’s reaction, hoping that he might disagree with the old man, but all he did was laugh at what he had said and nod his head.
‘They ain’t gonna be two inches long, Harry. You’re just exaggerating.’ I decided that I would continue speaking in English, just to get on their nerves.
‘’Course they are. You ain’t seen them before. Two inches long.’
‘Yeah, like you’re kn . . .’ I began, before Jas cut me off.
‘Stop it you two, we aren’t at home now. This is supposed to be a holiday.’
‘Yeah,’ piped up Ranjit, ‘you two better cool it or I’ll deal with you.’
Harry went off to join Baljit in the room next door and, just after he had left, a flying insect about an inch and a half long buzzed in through the screen door that he had left open. Its body was in two sections, coloured bright green and orange, and it had a tail which curved into a stinging point, about another half an inch. A two-inch wasp.
‘Least now you know he weren’t telling lies, innit,’ laughed Ranjit as he removed his shoe. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get the little chamarr.’
By about six in the evening the whole family was back at the house and the light had begun to fade into dusk. I couldn’t believe how quickly the darkness was coming on. It was changing right in front of my eyes. The manjeh had been taken out onto the open veranda that ran along the front of the house, separating it from the courtyard beyond. It was lovely and warm, not hot like it had been in the day, but really comfortable with a light breeze coming in across the courtyard. Above our heads three powerful bulbs lit up the area, attracting huge moths that made the sparrows in England look puny. Man, they were big and hairy. A bit like Harry, really. Most of the family were gathered around the veranda, the older males drinking beer and whisky and talking about boring stuff like the price of land.
The women, including my mum, were gathered around an open kitchen area at one end of the veranda, next to the entrance to an indoor kitchen. They had started an open, barbecue-style fire and were beginning to cook in pots that were so old they were burnt and blackened. The air was full of the smell of frying onions and garam masala, coriander and cardamoms. Earlier in the day my uncle had butchered a couple of chickens and filleted them. Jas, wanting to make a good impression by the look of things, told everyone about how English people had gone crazy over balti dishes, only for my uncle to suggest that she made one. I wasn’t even sure that I was going to eat it, not when the chickens had been killed specially for that purpose. The shock of being so close to the actual butchering had made me feel bad.
‘Don’t worry,’ laughed Harry. ‘We’ll soon make a real man of you, innit. Just wait, you chamarr.’
I looked around to make sure that no-one old was watching and then gave him the finger. Tosser.
My family were of the ‘Jat’ caste – the farmers of the Punjab – and like most other Jat families they hired a family of Chamarr, a lower servant-caste. I didn’t really feel comfortable with the fact that we had servants because of everything I had learned from Mr Cooke at school with Ady about slavery and indentured workers. I didn’t think that it was right that they were seen as lower than us simply because of who their parents were. It was just another one of those crappy ancient traditions. This particular family had apparently worked for our family for nearly three generations.
The mother of the servant family, Naseebo, usually made all the meals, and she looked a little bit lost when Jas took over the cooking. She sat and helped Jas, handing her the spices and chopping onions and garlic, but I could tell that she was a little bit put out by it. I think Jas noticed too, because she tried to make up for it by asking Naseebo and her family to stay for the meal, only to be told by my Aunt Pritam, that they always did that anyway. Jas went a bit red over Aunt Pritam’s remark and for about five minutes there was a strange silence that took hold. Even the men stopped talking. Finally Uncle Piara called me over to him and that got everyone going again. He handed me a bottle of beer called Cobra, and told me to have a drink. I looked at my old man who just nodded at me and then spoke up.
‘Drink it, drink it. You are a man now, Manjit, not a boy. There’s no problem.’
‘You can’t sit with the women all night, they’ll send you crazy,’ laughed Uncle Piara.
As I took a little swig of the bitter-tasting beer, my cousins watched me, before two of the youngest ones who were about my age – Inderjit and Jasbir – asked Uncle Piara if they could have some too. He looked at them for ages before my old man replied for him.
‘You too,’ he said, laughing. ‘Go on. Piara won’t say anything. I’m the elder here.’
At that all of them burst into laughter, leaving me trying to work out what had been so funny.
The speed of the Punjabi they were speaking in left me behind. Every so often I’d have to ask them to repeat something or say it more slowly. Occasionally I missed what they said altogether but I didn’t mind. I simply sat back on the manjah and drank my beer while everyone else talked, wondering for the first time since leaving England what Ady would be up to. Then, as the breeze picked up and the beer began to go to my head, I thought about Lisa and suddenly started feeling depressed. Alone and lonely, on a veranda surrounded by my family.
OVER THE FOLLOWING couple of weeks I slowly got to know all the members of my family. The oldest person was my old man’s aunt, my great aunt, who was close to being a hundred years old and looked like a bag full of bones. She was completely blind and heard very little so my Aunt Pritam took care of her. My grandparents were both dead and my great aunt was the only real elder left. Uncle Piara was married to Aunt Pritam and they had three sons and a daughter. Rana, the oldest son, was twenty-four and had been married for a few years. His wife was called Sukbir and they had two young sons, Ranjit and Harjit. After Rana came Jaspal, the only girl, who was twenty-two and married to a man called Jasbir. They had no children yet and lived in his parents’ village, which was twenty miles north of Adumpur. Lal, the next son, was nineteen and had been married for about a year. His wife, Rajvir, was heavily pregnant, although, as Jas told me, it was not acceptable to mention it in front of the family. I just laughed at her. I mean they all did it, and babies were born and that, but it was all kind of hush-hush. The youngest of Uncle Piara’s kids was Inderjit, who at sixteen was the same age as me. He was quite a laugh, Inderjit, and had promised to take me on a tour of the village.
After Piara came Uncle Gurvinder, who was married to Aunt Harpal. They also had four kids, three sons and a daughter, just like Uncle Piara. The oldest son was Avtar, who was twenty-two and married to a girl called Jaswant. They had three kids, two girls called Sukhjit and Manpreet, and a baby son, Gurpreet. Next came Jagwant, the only daughter, who was a year younger than Avtar and also married, to Parmjit. Neither she nor her husband had visited us yet and I didn’t really know much about her at all. After her, there was Onkar, who at eighteen, had only recently got married to a girl called Balbir. And finally there was Jasbir, who at fifteen was the youngest.
Taking it all in was very confusing because all my new-found cousins and their husbands and wives had to be added to the cousins that I had back in England, the children of my old man’s two eldest brothers, not to mention the youngest of my father’s brothers,
Inderjit didn’t look like he was sixteen years old. He was really skinny and had a bowl haircut that I wanted to laugh at. His trousers were about two sizes too big for him and he usually wore really bright shirts with horrible patterns on them, hand-me-downs from his brothers. His main jobs around the house seemed to be all the general dogsbody type of things. Milking the two cows that my family owned, which were kept out by the house we owned in the fields, feeding and cleaning the water buffalo and walking them out to the waterhole that we had passed by on the first day. He didn’t seem to mind any of the work though and was always happy and smiling. I went out into the fields with him during my third week in the village and we had quite a laugh. He kept on asking me questions about England and what it was like to live there. What were white people like and did we all live in mansions and stuff? I tried to explain things like shopping centres and football to him, only I don’t think he really knew what I was on about because my Punjabi was so bad. He’d just smile at me, jokingly, and call me gorah, white boy. His life had been so different from mine. I mean, Inderjit hadn’t even seen an aeroplane yet and he shook his head at me in disbelief when I tried to explain how big a jumbo jet was. I think he thought that I was taking the mickey and went a little funny. ‘You goreh think we’re all stupid,’ he told me as he sat on a steep bank side, looking out over one of our paddy fields.
Rice was one of the things that my family grew, alongside corn. It was mainly for selling although they kept some back for food. Punjabis, unlike the Indians further south, didn’t really eat rice on a daily basis. The main staple food in the Punjab has always been roti. My uncles also had a few fields in which they grew vegetables for the family. Inderjit took me to see the house out in the fields where a couple of migrant workers kept an eye on things for the family. He explained that the two men were from the south, an area he called U.P. which Ranjit, my brother, told me was Uttar Pradesh, a separate state to the Punjab.
The house itself, built next to a well, was quite shabby and run-down. The lower floor was all boarded up and some stone stairs ran up one side of it to a living area on the first floor. There were only two rooms up there and a little cubicle that was the washroom, only it had no door or ceiling. Both the rooms and the cubicle came out into an open area which also had an outdoor cooking area with a barbecue-style fireplace. There was no toilet at all. Even back at the house in the main village, the toilet was little more than a bowl that had been placed over a hole in the ground. During my first week in the village I’d had a really bad stomach and the only way to flush the loo was to pour a bucket of water down it, which I found really disgusting. My cousins didn’t even bother to use it; they went out into the fields to go to the loo, and then washed themselves using the little streams that ran through the fields for irrigation. It was a bit of a shock for me initially and Harry spent all his time laughing and taking the piss out of me when I headed for the loo.
The well itself was really deep – so deep that I couldn’t actually see the water in it. I asked Inderjit if it was dry one day and he laughed at me. He picked up a rock about the size of a tennis ball and threw it down the well shaft. I listened out for a splashing sound which seemed to take ages. When the rock did find the water, the sound was so distant that I wondered what the whole point of the well actually was.
‘It must take ages for you to draw the water out,’ I said to Inderjit, then felt really stupid when he replied.
‘You idiot. We don’t use that well any more. Everyone has tube wells now, with motors that pump the water out. We do know something, Manjit.’
I tried to laugh off my mistake, to make it seem as though I was only joking and that all along I actually knew how they really got their water, only it didn’t work. Inderjit was nowhere near as green as I thought he was. And as if to prove it to me, he pulled out a packet of what looked like little spliffs, rolled in brown paper and tied with string.
‘Do you smoke?’ he asked me, winking.
‘Drugs?’ I asked, my eyeballs nearly jumping out of my head.
Inderjit shook his head and started laughing again. ‘No, no. Not drugs, although we can get those here too. Biri.’
‘What’s a biri?’ I asked as he took one out of the thin paper packaging. It looked just like a mini-spliff, about the length of my little finger. Inderjit put it to his lips and pretended to smoke it. In his best English he tried to tell me that it was a cigarette, only the Indian version.
I replied back to him in Punjabi because his English made my grasp of the mother tongue seem A-level standard. ‘You smoke these?’ I said, pointing at the biri.
He looked around to make sure none of my family were about before nodding at me. ‘Don’t tell anyone.’
Now it was my turn to laugh at him. I’d hardly smoked a fag since the one in the airport, wanting to make sure that my supply lasted as long as possible. To tell you the truth I didn’t even want to smoke because of the heat. I spent most of the day dehydrated and drinking loads of Campa Cola and a home-made lemonade that my dad called skanjvi. I hadn’t managed to pluck up the courage to find a shop in the village that sold cigarettes either, even though my dad had given me a load of bank notes, about a thousand rupees’ worth, which worked out to about fifteen quid, max. I just assumed that the shopkeeper would know the family and grass me up. I had brought one of my B&H with me though, hoping to find a quiet spot in the fields where I wouldn’t get seen. I fished it out of the breast pocket of my short-sleeved shirt and handed it to Inderjit.
‘This is what I smoke. English cigarettes.’
‘You try one of mine and I’ll smoke this,’ he said to me, smiling. I looked at the biri in his hands and thought, what the hell.
‘All right, but if I don’t like it, I’m having that one back.’
‘OK,’ Inderjit said, smiling, as he pulled out a box of matches from the same pocket in which he was hiding his cigarettes. I panicked, wondering who might see us, and he saw me do it. ‘It’s OK, bhai-ji (brother), no-one ever comes out here except me or Jasbir.’
I wondered whether Jasbir, Uncle Gurvinder’s youngest son, smoked too. ‘Does Jasbir . . .?’ I began, before Inderjit cut me off by nodding and then handing me the sweet-smelling cigarette that he had just lit. It tasted really harsh and I started coughing as soon as I’d had a drag on it. I coughed for about a minute before giving it back to Inderjit and taking back my own cigarette.
‘It’s good, isn’t it?’ he laughed. I didn’t know about that but it was quite a relief to find that I might have a couple of accomplices for my holiday adventure.
A few days after Inderjit first introduced me to the strange smell and strong taste of a biri, I found myself out of normal fags. I was sitting on a manjah that I had pulled out on to the veranda and was watching my cousin Avtar’s daughters messing about in the courtyard. The older one, Sukhjit, was only three but really clever with it. She had a stick in her hands and was using it to guide her two-year-old sister, Manpreet, as I’d seen Inderjit g
I picked up a bottle of cola that had gone warm in the mid-morning sun and took a swig. It felt strange to be drinking it so early in the day but by about ten the heat started to become unbearable, And that was every day. As I watched the kids play, I noticed that my old man wasn’t around. Ranjit and Harry had taken their wives and our mum shopping in Jullundur earlier that morning, and I wondered if my old man might have gone to join them. Every morning so far I had seen him sitting around talking to Uncle Gurvinder about building a new house for the family. Apparently my dad, along with his brothers, had been saving up the money to build something like the house that I liked so much across on the other side of the village – only bigger. The feeling that I got from listening to them was that they were only doing it because the other families in the village, the ones that were rich, were doing it. And, in comparison to, say Naseebo’s family, we were rich. I didn’t really care though. The house as it was seemed OK but it needed a proper toilet and more than one shower room. And a TV that worked would be nice too. The one in the living room on the first floor was so old that the blokes from the Antiques Roadshow would have probably fought over it if it had worked. I liked the idea of having a holiday here because, so far, it had been kind of cool, but living here permanently? Nah, I was already missing McDonald’s, going into town, even Evington Road – the shops. I’m a city boy through and through – I need the urban jungle, as all those bad boy rappers like to call it. Living in a village just wasn’t my thing at all.
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