(Un)arranged Marriage, page 2
‘Look at him,’ he’d say after a couple of drinks. ‘Who does he think he is, with his degree and his gorah language? Better than me? I am still a Jat Punjabi, not bloody English like him. When the goreh kick us out I will have land to go back to. What will he have? Never done a day’s hard work with his computers and his desk. How will that help him in India?’
I always wondered why I’d ended up in such a traditional Punjabi family and not one of the more liberal ones. Eky was so lucky. My whole family life – it just seemed so claustrophobic, so unnatural. I couldn’t imagine having to live like that. But then I didn’t have to imagine, I would be going through it soon enough and I was far from happy. As far as I could tell my new room was going to be the size of a broom cupboard, an afterthought, stuck next to the bathroom. I imagined myself stuck in there for years, locked away like a modern-day man in an iron mask (without the mask of course) as my family expanded mercilessly around me. They would remember me years later and discover me emaciated and unable to remember how to speak properly . . .
I got a bit like that sometimes, my mind raced off into the fantastical depths of my imagination, uncontrolled by reason or logic. Maybe I was just overreacting to it all. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. But then I found out that Ranjit and Jas were expecting a little squealer and my whole world started to cave in.
I sat in my room one night, thankful that Harry was at football practice with the Bhangra and Bacardi posse, which was what I called his mates, writing out a plan of my life: a time scale that detailed the way I saw my life going over the next year. May right through to April – the month in which Harry was to get married and Ranjit’s squealer would be gurgling through its fourth month on the planet.
MAY HELL ON EVINGTON DRIVE
JULY SCHOOL HOLS BEGIN – POSSIBLE REDEMPTION?
SEPT YEAR 9 AT SCHOOL
NEED MORE EXCUSES FOR SKIVING
DEC THE SQUEALER ARRIVES
HELL ALL OVER AGAIN
APRIL THE END IS NIGH
HARRY GETS MARRIED
BANISHED TO MY NEW CELL
I sat on my bed and read it over. April next year. My life as I knew it would be over at the age of fourteen and a half – shut into my new room, a broom cupboard, as my family took over. Ranjit and Jas with their kid. Harry and his wife, who was going to need a highly underdeveloped sense of smell to be able to put up with his various odours. My mum, bragging to all my aunty-jis about her grandson or granddaughter (a boy, of course, being the most preferable). And my old man, pissed and violent as usual. Seven people in one house that had been specially revamped. Seven. Oh, and me too.
As I sat there and despaired for my privacy I heard Harry’s heavy feet pounding the stairs. I shoved my timetable under the duvet just as the bedroom door flew open under my brother’s shoulder charge. He seemed to be approaching seventeen as an overweight ape, complete with fur and fleas.
‘What you doin’?’ he smirked as he landed on his groaning bed with all the grace of a blue whale performing a belly-flop. I shrugged my shoulders at him.
‘Nothing.’ I looked at the duvet and then back at him.
‘Nothing? You been up here for ages, Mummy-ji says, an’ you’re doing nothing?’
‘Yeah,’ I replied defensively. I didn’t want him to find my timetable because he’d never stop having a go at me if he did. He looked at me and started to laugh to himself. Actually, it was more like a giggle.
‘Bet I know what you been doing. Trying to tell me you been doing nothing, you little wanker.’ He turned to the cassette player on our shared dresser, put in a bhangra cassette and pressed PLAY.
‘Frequent use of profanity is the sign of an inferior intellect,’ I told him, repeating something Mr Cooke, my favourite teacher, had said to me after I had used the f-word once.
‘Stop talking like you something special, you poofter. Speak normal. What you think you are, some kind of gorah or something? Anyone would think you was white, innit.’
I looked at him and screwed up my face. I hated the way my brothers spoke. Every sentence ended with ‘innit’ or ‘wicked, guy’. They sounded like idiots. I was never going to end up like them, stupid and proud of it. No way. And whenever I showed the slightest inkling of brains, all they did was call me a coconut or some other such thing. ‘Man, you’re just a racist, Harry,’ I replied, getting up to leave as the music began to irritate me.
‘No, I ain’t. I’m just proud to be Punjabi. At least I ain’t ashamed, innit, of what I am and that. You always trying to be white, that’s your problem.’
I glared at him, feeling this sudden urge to go and kick him in the head, the racist wanker. Instead I stormed out after calling him ‘daddy’s little robot’. I closed the door just as the trainer he’d picked up and thrown at my head hit it with a loud thwack!
One of the blessings of being part of such a big family, probably the only one at that, was that there were only so many seats in our car, a Vauxhall Cavalier complete with tinted windows and Sikh symbols in the rear window. Whenever one of my many cousins was getting married – and I’m talking a minimum of four every summer – my dad would pack the whole family into the Cavalier for the journey. When I was younger I’d have to sit on a knee or be squashed between my brothers and I would moan all the way about cramp and stuff. Now I was thirteen I was too big for that and ended up staying at home – not unsupervized of course. We had a nosy neighbour – another aunti-ji – who would keep an eye on me in between her shifts as the neighbourhood gossip. Most Punjabi weddings are three-day events and my parents usually went to the last two days, normally Saturday and Sunday which meant that I got one night to myself, every now and then, where I was left on my own to do the things that I wanted to do for a change – a really big thing for me.
Now you probably think that I used to go mad and invite all my friends round to the kind of party that you see the kids on Neighbours having. Well, sorry to disappoint, but I never did. My dad would have murdered me and that, believe me, is only a small exaggeration. No long lectures about trust. No getting grounded for two weeks. Just a straight beating, no questions asked. My reward was a simple one. I could watch Match of the Day without having to read the subtitles on teletext and without my stupid brothers farting and belching through it, drinking Carling Black Label like it was pop. And without having to watch my old man staggering around the room, ready to pass out, swearing in Punjabi at anything and everything.
If the football season was over I’d get out my 100 years of Liverpool FC video and watch that, hoping that the following season we’d beat Man Utd for a change. After that I could turn off the lock on the Sky TV system and watch all the programmes that I wasn’t supposed to watch – all the stuff that I wasn’t even supposed to know about, like the porno on the Dutch and German channels and the horror films that always made me laugh more than they ever scared me. What I actually watched didn’t matter. All that did matter was that I made the choices, just like the kids in Lord of the Flies, a book by William Golding that we’d read at school. I had the conch so I was in control.
Anyway, one Saturday in May, right at the start of my Schedule of Doom, my old man was getting everything together for yet another wedding trip, this time up to Glasgow. I was sitting in the lounge watching kids’ TV and eating Frosties without milk, straight from the box. My dad walked in and belched twice. The sound echoed around the room like heavy thunder. I was so used to him doing it that all I did was pull a face and then carry on watching telly.
‘Manjit,’ he began, pointing to the cereal box. ‘Getting bloody bowl for them.’
‘Yes, Daddy-ji.’ I always made sure that I was extra polite to him the morning after a real bender and using ‘ji’ after ‘Dad’ indicated respect for your elders and that was just what was required when he began one of his mega-hangovers. I went and got a bowl from the kitchen, but still didn’t add any milk. On my return to the living room, my old man was sitting on the sofa, pickin
‘You don’t want to come to your brother’s wedding?’ he asked, as I sat down and started watching TV again.
Through a mouthful of cereal I replied that he wasn’t really my brother so it didn’t really matter if I went or not. Bad move.
‘You young people,’ he said in Punjabi, ‘what do you know? Brother, cousin, it’s all the same to us. We are Punjabis, Manjit. Punjabis. Not bloody goreh . . .’
Here we go again, I thought to myself, as he began one of his tried and tested lectures about saving Punjabi culture from the grips of the white man and his filth, about being careful not to become too white for your own family.
‘. . . put their own mothers in homes. At least we look after our families,’ he continued. And then came the twist, stuck into the conversation like a knife, only casually. ‘We are Punjabis and proud of it. Good Jat Sikhs from a good family. Look at your brothers. Ranjit is a man now, working and married to a lovely girl and Bilhar will be doing the same. Sikh girls, beautiful and pure. What is wrong with them? Tell me?’
I stared straight at the telly, trying to look right into the picture like there was something hidden behind it.
‘And when you are Bilhar’s age, you will do just the same.’
His age? But he was only just seventeen. SEVENTEEN! That gave me four years. Four! The thought hit me like a brick. I hadn’t even had a girlfriend, never mind thinking about a wife. And I had all these things that I was going to do. I was going to be a top striker for Liverpool and score the winning goals in a league and cup double. I was going to be the first Asian pop star and write a bestseller, go out with supermodels and win an Oscar and stuff. Loads of stuff. Loads. None of which included getting married at seventeen to some girl who I didn’t know. I mean, what if she had a moustache like my Aunt Sukhjit? No way! I tuned back into my old man’s lecture.
‘. . . my duty will be done and I can return home to India with my pride and my honour.’
I was really staring hard at the TV screen now, trying to pretend that I had imagined it all. That my old man was not actually in the room but still asleep. Or maybe I was still asleep and this was just a horrible dream that I was having. My old man rose up from his seat and broke my thoughts. He looked straight at me.
‘Are you listening to me, Manjit?’
‘Yes, Daddy-ji,’ I replied, trying not to let him see my face. My mouth had started to get really dry and I could feel a cold sweat breaking on my forehead. I felt sick.
‘Good. I have a friend whose daughter is only a few months older than you. She will be coming here on a visitor’s visa and he needs to find her a husband so that she can stay in England. He is my good friend, Manjit, and I owe him a favour. But we will talk about this when the time is better. Not now.’ With that he walked out of the room and left me sitting there in shock.
There had to be a way of escaping. There had to be. I even considered praying at one point, until I realized that I had never prayed in the past and that God was likely to know that I was trying to pull a fast one. No, there had to be a way out, a cheat like you get on all those computer games, a way up to the next level without losing too many lives. There had to be one, because in this game I couldn’t just switch off the console and start again later. Man, this was deadly serious.
THE CHEAT KICKED in some time in July and I started to go a bit wild. I can remember waking up one morning, I think that it was a Friday, and feeling as though I’d had enough. The shock of what my old man had said that day in May, about marriage at seventeen, kept on playing in my head like some silly Hollywood trailer. I needed distractions to stop myself thinking about being tied down at seventeen. I spent more and more time out of the house with Ady. We made our own distractions – and some just came along by themselves.
The sun was shining through the window of my shared bedroom and Harry had already woken and opened it, probably to let out the smell of his own feet. The sky was a really deep blue and cloudless and I looked down into the garden at all the flowers and shrubs that bordered my old man’s lawn. I suppose that I should have been happy on a day like that but I had not been happy since my old man had outlined my future for me.
As I got up I stood on one of Harry’s upturned football boots, right on the studs and stumbled backwards onto my bed. I sat there swearing to myself and rubbing my sore foot, looking around at the bombsite that was my bedroom. Harry’s bed ran alongside mine, only a metre separating them. His bed was unmade as usual, the blue and yellow striped sheets badly needing a wash. It was covered in stained clothes and a few pairs of dirty off-white socks which stank. The metre-wide channel that ran between the two beds was a rubbish tip. Along with Harry’s muddy, upturned boots were his shin pads; Manchester United shirt and socks; various cassettes and empty cassette cases, all featuring the latest bhangra artists; a plate with a half-eaten pakora sitting on it; a couple of glasses; cast-iron weights attached to a dumbbell; some of his magazines – all football, computer games and semi-nude women; a couple of empty CD cases and a CD that looked like it had been dipped in acid; the alarm clock that we had both got from yet another aunti-ji for Christmas two years earlier; my Liverpool shirt and, wrapped up inside it, an empty can of Carling Black Label.
I don’t know whether it was the beer can that had stained my favourite football top, or just the general state of the rest of the room, but suddenly I started to get angry. I jumped off the end of my bed and opened my side of the cupboard which was built into the wall opposite the door. I pulled out a pair of black Levis and an Adidas top and put them on. Then I found Harry’s favourite Man Utd shirt – an away strip from the previous season – and wrapped that around the beer can instead.
In my head John Motson screamed out, ‘Owen gets his HAT-TRICK!’ Scrunching the shirt up, I forced it under the bed with my good foot. ‘And Owen gets ANOTHER ONE!!!’ I put on a pair of black socks and my Nike Air Max before jumping onto Harry’s bed, kicking his clothes and things all over the place. ‘Surely he’s not going to get another. HE IS!! FIVE GOALS FOR OWEN!!’ Finally I got his half-eaten pakora, which was still covered in ketchup, and stuffed it into one of his empty cassette cases which I then put down on one of his pillows. On the cover some fat Punjabi bloke smiled out at me. Obviously enjoyed the snack, I thought to myself, as I jumped off Harry’s bed and headed for the bathroom with John Motson going mad in my head. ‘And Michael Owen has DESTROYED this Manchester United team . . .’
Throughout that summer break between Year 8 and Year 9 at school, I met up with Ady nearly every afternoon. I loved the fact that we always met down on Evington Road by St Philip’s Church before heading off to wherever we were going. It was like a summer tradition with us and it got me away from my family.
One afternoon we were walking up Evington Road towards Victoria Park to meet up with some of the other lads in our school football team for a bit of a practice session. I didn’t think that anyone was going to show up on that particular day because it was really hot but Ady told me that I was just being a pessimist.
I grinned at him. ‘At least you’re using that dictionary that your old man got you for Christmas.’
We walked up Evington Road past the Co-op and then stopped at an Asian-owned off-licence to buy a drink. The heat was mega but Ady still had a Chicago Bulls cap on his head, even though there was sweat trickling down the sides of his face.
‘Why don’t you take that off?’ I said, pointing at the cap.
‘Nah, dready,’ he replied, smiling. ‘Not till I gets me a haircut, sah.’
‘Yeah, but you’re sweatin’ all down your ugly face, man.’
‘Oh, I loves the salty taste of me own sweat, my dear.’
I laughed at his change in accent from Jamaican to country bumpkin. He was funny like that; he could switch accents in an instant.
We walked on up the road as all around us the hustle and bustle of cars, buses, customers and shopo
Ady broke my train of thought. ‘Bwoi, it’s getting to be like little Delhi round here, man.’
I just looked at him and grinned, suggesting that maybe the city council should change the name of the area as we passed by a pizza takeaway that included tandoori chicken, keema, and mutter paneer in its list of toppings – a clever thing to do in a mainly Asian neighbourhood, even though most of the shop’s customers were white students.
As I crossed over Beckingham Road, halfway up Evington Road, I realized why I loved this part of Leicester so much. On the one side there was Highfields, an area that loads of people called the ghetto. I suppose a few parts of it were dangerous but mostly it got a bad rep because loads of black and Asian people lived there and all the racists couldn’t handle that. There was this image of it as being full of drugs and prostitutes and gangs. Well, it had all of those things – but then so did lots of other areas of Leicester and if some of the people that slagged the place off ever actually bothered to go see for themselves, they would find big old houses, with huge cellars and attic rooms, named after Greek gods and stuff. I loved those old houses and the way the streets were so narrow, with the odd tree or shrub planted into the pavement. The streets were mostly quiet during the day too. Back when we were younger we played games like kerbball and knock-door-run around there.
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