(Un)arranged Marriage, page 14
‘You don’t know anything about my life, Piara. Nothing.’
‘And I don’t want to . . .’
‘I live my life for me. Not you. Not our father. Not the family honour. Me!’
‘You were always selfish, even when you were a child. If our father . . .’
‘Yes, he would have made a man of me, wouldn’t he? Just like he did with the rest of you. Beat you every day to make you a real Jat.’
‘Maybe he didn’t beat you enough!’ shouted Uncle Piara as I opened the door, quickly realizing that they were arguing about me. Both of them looked up and I tried to smile, only my legs gave way and the thumping in my head made my ears pop. I saw them both run towards me as I fell sideways against the bare stone wall.
‘It’s called sunstroke, young man.’ I lay on a manjah in the darkness of one of the bedrooms with Uncle Jag sitting beside me. He had woken me with a glass of water and was holding the back of his hand flat against my sticky forehead.
‘Have I got a temperature?’ I asked him, my voice dry and cracked.
‘I hope so, Manjit,’ he smiled as he pulled his hand away. ‘Otherwise you’re dead.’
My head was still throbbing, only the ache was much duller than it had been earlier, concentrated in the back of my neck. I tried to get up and the effort made my head spin.
Uncle Jag pushed me back down and smiled again. ‘Keep still, Manjit. Now is not the time to start walking around. Sunstroke can be a very serious thing.’
‘Can I ask you a favour?’ I tried to smile too but couldn’t manage more than a little grimace before my neck began to ache.
‘Yes you can, Manjit.’
‘Will you call me Manny?’
‘Yeah. I hate being called Manjit.’
He smiled some more then got up and walked over to a cupboard set into an alcove in the wall. Opening it he took out a packet of paracetamol and then brought two of the pills over to me. ‘Sure, I’ll call you Manny but you’ve got to do me a favour too.’
‘What?’ I asked, taking the pills from him and waiting for him to pass me the glass of water on the floor by my manjah.
‘Don’t call me Uncle-Ji. In fact don’t call me Uncle either. Just Jag will do. I’m not your father.’
‘But you are my elder,’ I replied, lifting my head so that I could swallow the pills with a drink of water as my uncle held the glass to my mouth.
‘All that tradition about elders and youngsters. It’s all so stupid. To say “ji” is to show me respect, regardless of whether I’ve earned it. Or whether I’m worthy of it. People shouldn’t automatically deserve respect just because they have lived longer than someone else. People are born to deserve respect. All people. It doesn’t matter if they are one or one hundred years old.’
I thought about what he was saying for a while and then shut my eyes to try to rest. The muscles all over my body ached and I remembered the deep cuts that I had on my knees. I reached down to feel them and found that they had been bandaged.
‘I did that earlier, after you passed out,’ said Uncle Jag, gesturing towards my knees with his hand. I opened my eyes and looked over at him remembering too the fight that he had been having with my eldest uncle.
‘What were you two fighting about?’ I asked.
‘I thought so; I can only remember bits of it.’
‘Get yourself some more rest and I’ll fill you in on the rest later. Maybe tomorrow.’
‘OK,’ I croaked as my eyes began to feel heavy and the dull ache in the base of my neck started to get stronger. ‘Uncle?’
‘Jag. Not uncle,’ he said, getting up and walking towards the door.
‘Jag. Thank you.’ I was falling asleep as I said it, the effects of my sunstroke obviously still strong. I think that I heard him say ‘you’re welcome’ as he shut the door behind him.
‘WHAT DO YOU do then?’
We were sitting out on the veranda, Uncle Jag and me, a couple of days after I had passed out with sunstroke. Midmorning, the house was deserted and, as it had rained for the whole of the previous day, the air was now a lot cooler with clouds low in the sky.
Uncle Gurvinder had taken his family to a religious service at his in-laws’ village and everyone else was either away or out in the fields doing some chore or other. It was a Saturday, I think. I can’t be sure because living in Adumpur had caused me to lose track of the days. It wasn’t like being in Leicester where you could turn on the TV and find out just from what was on what day of the week it was. Every day was pretty much the same and my family all did the same routine things each day.
The cool breeze came as such a welcome relief from all the heat of the previous weeks. We were drinking tea that had been brewed using the thick creamy milk of water buffalo cows. Uncle Jag had thrown in some spices and a lot of raw cane sugar, so raw that when you touched it your hands became sticky; the resulting taste and smell was like burning treacle with garam masala.
Uncle Jag was wearing a traditional Punjabi outfit and had let his beard grow out so that he looked surprisingly similar to my old man, back when my old man was thin and had hair and normal, non-yellowing eyes – like the pictures on his earliest passport that I had seen in his trunk.
‘What do you mean exactly when you say “do”?’ Jag replied, taking a sip of his tea.
‘You know, like work and stuff,’ I said, setting my cup down on the stone floor. My uncle looked out into the courtyard, like he needed to consider what I was asking really carefully before replying.
‘I do lots of things, I suppose,’ he replied after a moment.
‘OK. So your English, how come it’s so good compared to everyone else’s?’
‘Easy. I got myself an education and then went away rather than stay here and become a Jat.’
‘So you left here then?’
‘Yes. I left to go to Delhi, to university although I did go to school in the village and then to a college in Chandigarh.’
‘And what about Uncle Piara and Uncle Gurvinder? Did they go to school?’
Jag thought about this for a moment and smiled. ‘Piara and Gurvinder are chips off the old block or whatever the correct term is. Education won’t help to run the farm, so what use is it to them?’ He smiled again, only I think that this time it was more for his own benefit than for mine.
‘Well, I suppose if they wanted to be farmers . . .’
‘But that’s just it. Education can help them with the farming. I can help them. I’ve got a first-class degree in Agricultural Engineering and Systems – and a Doctorate in Chemical Engineering. The Punjab doesn’t supply a quarter of India’s wheat and nearly a third of its dairy products without the benefits of education.’
I had been in India for weeks and it was only now by talking to Uncle Jag that I had learnt anything about the place. I decided to press him some more, now that he was on a roll.
‘You said that you could help them. How come you don’t?’
‘They don’t ask me to and they don’t want my help. I’ve offered it before.’
‘Yeah, you sent them some money or something,’ I said.
He looked surprised that I knew and raised his eyebrows. ‘More than once, Manny. And they just give it back to me. God knows, I’ve got enough of it. It didn’t come easy, though. I was stuck out in the field when your grandad died and it took me three weeks to get the telegram. I didn’t even make his funeral.’
I remembered what Aunt Harpal had said about my uncle being uncaring and selfish. The look of hurt on his face as he spoke about his father was anything but. I was going to press him but I decided it was a sensitive subject and left it alone.
‘What you mean, you’re loaded – I mean, rich?’
‘Relatively I am, I suppose. I’ve just got a lot of disposable income. I work for the Agricultural department
‘That sounds important,’ I said, realizing that he had answered my next question about where he lived.
‘It’s on a contract basis. I work for six months or a year on a project and then I do something else.’
‘Like travel and things.’ He picked up his bag again and started to rummage in it.
‘Just things, Manny. I’ll tell you some other time.’ He looked as though he meant it too, like I had pushed him too far, only I still had loads more to ask, thanks to my naturally inquisitive mind, with which I used to drive Mr Cooke, My old teacher at school, Mental. Always following a question with a question.
‘So you moved to Australia after you got all your degrees and stuff?’ I waited for him to reply but all he did was pull a packet of cigarettes from his bag.
‘Do you smoke?’
‘Er . . . No, Uncle-ji – I mean, Jag. No, I . . . Er . . . don’t.’
‘It’s OK, Manny. Mohan told me.’
‘Did he?’ I replied, feeling a little let down by Mohan who had promised not to tell anyone.
‘It’s all right, Manny. I’m going to have one anyway and if you can forget all your little hang-ups about what you can and can’t do in front of your family, feel free to have one too. I’ve got four hundred more in my suitcase. I shouldn’t really encourage you – I wish I didn’t smoke, actually, for my health. But you are old enough to make your own choices.’
I couldn’t believe it. I was still nervous about taking a cigarette but I took one, lit it, and did something that I never thought I’d ever do. Sat with an older member of my family and smoked.
‘So you moved to Australia after your degree?’ I asked again after a while.
‘No. I got a job with the Agriculture Ministry in Delhi and then moved to Mumbai. After that I went to work for a big oil company in Saudi and then Kuwait.’
‘Yes, only the company was too interested in ruining and polluting the land, so I left and went to China for a year. After China I went with a British company to New Zealand and then travelled to Fiji. Oh and Japan in-between.’
‘Wow, you’ve been everywhere, man. That’s so wicked.’ I was impressed.
‘Wicked?’ This time it was my uncle’s turn to look confused.
‘Yeah, You know – wicked, As in great. Wonderful.’
‘Ah, I see. Bad meaning good. Very American street style,’ he laughed.
‘Have you been there too?’ I asked.
‘No, not yet. But I’m going there soon. I’m going to be in London too, later in the year, for a conference on the environment.’
‘So where do you live now?’
‘Australia. In Sydney and in Canberra, although I have to travel all over with work.’
‘That’s wicked . . . I mean, great,’ I replied.
‘No, what is wicked is that I’ve spent the last hour telling you all about what I do, and you’ve escaped without telling me a single thing about your own life.’ He poured both of us some more tea from a steel thermos on the floor. ‘Tell me everything. And don’t feel like I’m going to disapprove of anything that you say. I’ve got a very open mind.’
I took a deep breath – and told him everything about Leicester and school and Ady and Lisa. All the stuff about how my dad and Harry hit me all the time, or threatened it. All the emotional blackmail stuff with my mum. And arranged marriages.
And how to cheat out of them.
The rest of the family were back by the early evening and Uncle Jag had gone off with Mohan to attend to some business in the village. I had spent the whole afternoon chatting to Jag about how desperate I was to get out of Adumpur, if only I could find my passport and get a ticket back to England. Uncle Jag had encouraged me to speak about what I thought and felt and it had been just like having a real conversation with Ady back in Leicester. I was in a much better mood now – especially after Uncle Jag had then promised to help me escape back to England.
He had told me to leave it with him, that he would think up a plan of action for me. It had felt so good to talk to someone who didn’t think that leaving me in India against my will was anything other than a cruel and illegal thing to do, and I began to believe that my life was my own again. It felt wicked.
We ate at around seven that evening by which time the cooling breeze of the earlier part of the day had given way to a warm and sticky night. We were coming into late summer and the temperature had cooled down quite a lot, although it was still as high as during a good English summer. We were eating saag, a vegetable dish made with spinach along with thick yellow roti that was made using corn flour. Aunt Pritam made the food and had thrown fresh green chillies into the saag which meant that I needed to drink water with almost every mouthful. Inderjit sat on the floor opposite, his legs crossed and his steel tray of food sitting in his lap. As I ate he kept on smiling and winking at me, fanning his hand in front of his mouth, joking at my expense. Jasbir had finished eating and was busy teasing his older brothers’ daughters whilst his parents sat on the floor next to Uncle Piara and Aunt Pritam. Lal and his wife sat behind me, with Onkar and his wife, Balbir – and behind them Rana’s wife Sukbir fed her two kids, Ranjit and Harjit whilst chatting to Jaswant, cousin Avtar’s wife. It still felt strange to me, after all my time in India, to sit down to eat with so many people. It was like double the number of people I ate with back at home and I had thought that just my immediate family was big enough.
In one sense, I suppose, it was all right having so many people around all the time, especially for the kids. Different people to play with. But at the same time I found it rather claustrophobic – all these people, every day, And all with the same ideas. Traditional people who couldn’t see my point of view, or wouldn’t. It did my head in. It meant that all I was doing was going through the motions, you know, having the same conversation ten times a day. That was what made Uncle Jag so special. Made him stand out from the rest. And just as I was thinking all of this, he walked into the yard with a big smile on his face and a bag full of sugar cane stalks which he handed out to the kids as a dessert. I waited until he had got himself some food and then, leaving my own dishes where they were, I went over to where he sat on the veranda.
‘Did you think about what we were saying before?’ I asked, as he dipped a piece of roti into his saag.
‘Don’t worry, Manny, it’s all under control,’ he said before putting the roti into his mouth with a smile.
‘And it’ll be cool with them?’ I nodded in the direction of Uncle Piara.
Jag chewed on his food a little more, swallowed and then drank some water. He smiled at me and then looked over at his brother. ‘Manny, this is about what you want, not what they expect of you. I’ll help you, I said I would. You let me worry about what they think. OK?’
‘Good, now go and get me a bottle of beer please and, after I’ve finished eating, we’ll go up on to the roof and I’ll tell you my plan.’
I nodded, grinning like The Joker in Batman. What had he planned since our conversation earlier in the day? Whatever it was, one thing was for sure. I was ready to get the hell out of Adumpur and out of India. Back home to Leicester to find my cheat and step on up to the next level.
THE PLAN TOOK just over a week to put into place. Getting hold of my passport without my older uncles finding out should have been the hardest part but Inderjit decided, unwittingly, to make it the easiest, letting its location slip over a bottle of beer. I don’t think that he was supposed to tell me, judging by the look on his face when he did. He looked just like a kid caught with his hands in the sweet jar, and I had to tell him five or six times that I wouldn’t go blabbing to his old man. I told him that I just wanted to know where it was. It’s not like I’m going anywhere, is it? I told him.
I told Uncle Jag, who sneaked it from its hiding place amongst the important papers that Uncle Piara kept in a locked chest in his bedroom – under his bed. I didn’t feel bad either. The sodding thing was mine after all. I was in a wicked mood. Now that we had my passport, it was just a case of us getting the hell out of Adumpur, without my family noticing that we were gone.
Later on I dozed off until the sound of Mohan clanking around in the yard made me sit up.
Mohan was covered in dust, his old clothes soaked through with sweat. Behind him, in a pile shaped like a pyramid over a metre high, were a load of steel pipes – part, I guessed, of the irrigation system involved in the tube wells that were all over the land my family owned. I couldn’t be sure though, because what I knew about farming you could fit on the back of a twenty-pence piece! I jumped off the hammock, pulled a cigarette from my pocket and offered it to him.
‘No thanks.’ He eyed the cigarette in my hand and then pulled out a paper package of biri from his own pocket. ‘I can’t let myself become used to your foreign biri. How will I afford to buy them when you are gone?’
‘I’ll send you some,’ I replied, smiling and catching the matchbox Mohan threw at me after lighting up. ‘Has Uncle Jag told you what we are going to do?’ I continued, wiping sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand.
‘He has told me, Manny-ji. I am the one who has made all the arrangements.’ He shook his head from side to side, taking a long drag on his biri before walking up and placing his hand on my shoulder. ‘I am happy for you, now that you are going home soon. Happy but sad too, Manny-ji. You are a good friend to an old monkey like me.’
‘I’m going to miss you, too, Mohan. You’ve been really kind to me, More than most of my family. And you have to stop calling me “ji”. I’m not better than you just because I was born into a different caste.’
‘If I do not call you “ji”, will you do me a favour when you get back to England?’
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