(Un)arranged Marriage, page 4
Ady and I went up to Sarah’s bedroom, which was just about big enough for her bed and desk, never mind three people. We sat on the bed and she went to get us some Coke. Her room was covered in posters of boy bands and on her desk was a radio tuned to Radio One. I felt kind of stupid sitting there because she was Ady’s girl and I was in the way. Ady didn’t seem too bothered though. He was lying back, his head against the wall, covering Robbie Williams’s face.
‘You sure that you want me to be in here?’ I asked him.
‘Yeah. Why not, man? Ain’t like me an’ her’s gonna get busy or anything. Not with her sister in the house anyway.’
That reassured me for a while, and when Sarah came back with the drinks we just sat and chatted. Me and Ady took turns to laugh at her tape collection. It was bad. No rap or ragga or anything. Just boy bands and other girlie stuff like 1200 Dance Anthems Part Six or something. I didn’t feel like a gooseberry because I was involved in the laughs. But then Maxine shouted up that she was going into town and I heard the door slam shut. Ady looked at me, as if to say go away, and I tried to think of a way to leave them alone. Three was now a crowd.
Then Sarah chirped up, ‘Me mum’s just had cable. We’ve got MTV and everything.’
‘Can I go and watch it then, Sarah?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, if you want. It’s already switched on. Just use the remote that’s covered in plastic to flick channels.’ I got up off the bed and left the room, feeling well embarrassed, and heard what they said about me as I went downstairs.
‘You think he’ll mind?’ Sarah was asking Ady.
Ady laughed. ‘Nah, ’course he won’t.’
‘’Bout time he got a girlfriend, innit?’
‘Yeah,’ replied Ady, ‘only I don’t think he’s got the nerve to ask anyone out – if you get me drift.’
‘You on about Lisa again? I’ll talk to her. She isn’t seeing anyone either and I think they’d be good together. I’ll have to put a word in.’
‘So what did you and her get up to, then?’ We were walking back towards my house. Ady wasn’t saying anything. He just had this huge grin on his face. ‘Go on Ady, man, tell me what happened.’ I realized that I was begging for the information and felt stupid. ‘Don’t tell me then. Probably nothing anyway.’
‘Nah, man!’ My trick had worked quick time. Ady was on the defensive. ‘We did nuff tings, man. Nuff!’
I just laughed at him as he tried to convince me that they had had sex.
‘I’m tellin’ you, Manny, it were wicked. We did it an’ everything, man.’
‘I don’t believe you, Ady. You’re just like a politician. Too lie.’ I was speaking in my pretend black accent and I knew it was winding Ady right up.
‘Nuh bother talk like fool, bwoi,’ he replied, mimicking my mimic, ‘me know seh yuh tink you is black.’
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like you really did it with her.’
‘All right, all right, man. Me never really score the goal.’
‘See? Yuh too lie, man.’
Ady grinned a wide grin at me. ‘Me done hit the woodwork though!’
I got home well past six and my old man went crazy at me. ‘We’ve been worried about you, out with that bloody kalah all the time. I have had to send your brother out to look for you.’ That kind of thing.
Once my dad had finished ranting on I went up to my room to do some reading. Harry was out somewhere, so my evening was quite peaceful. I even got to play my music for a change, rather than listen to all that bhangra and soul rubbish that Harry liked. It was almost heaven.
Unfortunately, Harry had to come back, putting an immediate stop to my peaceful night. He walked in, his heavy feet pounding the floorboards, and threw his jacket at my head. I said nothing as I threw it back at him. He grunted to himself and pulled my cassette out of the tape player.
‘Watch what you do with that. It ain’t mine,’ I said.
‘What is it – bloody black man’s music?’
‘You’re an arsehole, man.’ I couldn’t understand how he could be such a racist. He’d probably never even made friends with anyone non-Asian in his whole life.
‘Don’t answer back, Manjit. I’m older than you, innit.’
‘Very funny. You think you’re so cleverer than me, innit, like you’re white or something?’
‘At least I can speak English properly.’ I was amazed at the way Harry spoke. It’s not like we’d had a different education or anything. He was just too thick to learn anything.
‘Go on speaking English, innit. See where it gets you. I ain’t interested in gorah stuff.’
‘Nah, ’course not. Wouldn’t understand it even if you were.’
‘Coconut, man. That’s you, man. Coconut.’ Harry looked at the tape in his hands. ‘And this black rubbish . . .’ He started pulling the tape ribbon out of the casing.
I jumped up to stop him, but he just held me off. I was well angry. The tape wasn’t even mine. It was Ady’s. ‘Leave it alone!’ I was jumping into him, trying to get to the tape.
He finished destroying it and then threw it on the floor. ‘There, have it, you poofter.’
My brain went haywire. One second I was looking at the tape, lying on the flowery carpet, the next I was picking up the tape player and trying to smash it against Harry’s head. I missed Harry and hit the wall with it. The casing on the back fell off and some of the buttons flew into the air. I didn’t see the bedroom door open. I didn’t see Ranjit come in either. I swore at Harry and then Ranjit dragged me out of the room.
‘Easy, Manny. Easy. Calm down.’
‘That fat . . .’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll sort him out. But you still shouldn’t try to hit him. We are brothers, us three. Punjabis, innit. We ain’t supposed to fight each other.’
‘If he’s what being Punjabi is all about – man, I don’t want it.’
‘Don’t be stupid, Manjit. How can you stop being what you are?’
‘Yeah, yeah.’ I pushed Ranjit’s arms away and headed downstairs to make myself a sandwich.
‘I CAN’T BELIEVE it took us so long to talk to each other properly.’
Lisa looked across the table at me. We were having a coffee in an Italian bar in town, on what must have been our tenth date. Ady and Sarah had been good to their word, introducing me to Lisa the week after I overheard them discussing my love life in Sarah’s bedroom. We hit it off straight away when Sarah introduced us, because Lisa had been holding a copy of the same book that I was reading. Our first conversation was all about books that we’d both read and ones which we wanted to recommend to each other. I also found out that she was a mad keen Liverpool fan thanks to her mum who was from that city. Well, after that it was plain sailing.
‘I wouldn’t have known what to say anyway,’ I replied, tapping my cup. Lisa smiled and pushed my hand away from the cup.
‘That’s so annoying. What’s the matter, do I make you nervous?’
‘No,’ I replied, really quickly before looking away.
‘Is something wrong?’ She looked concerned.
I started tapping my cup again and sighed. ‘It’s just this thing about not being able to have you over to my house because of my old man.’
‘Manny, I told you the other day, it’s not a problem. My parents would have no problem with you coming over to mine. Sarah and Ady practically live there.’
‘What do they do – your mum and dad?’
‘Mum’s a teacher at a school out in Loughborough and Dad lectures at the university.’
‘It’s a mix of sociology and cultural studies – really interesting stuff.’
‘I love all that kind of thing.’
‘Well you should meet my dad. He can talk for hours. I’m sure he’d love it if you were interested.’
‘I’d like that.’ I looked away again, hoping she wouldn’t ask me about my par
I went on about my mum and the way in which she was this person that I didn’t really know. She never asked me anything and never got involved, as if she had learnt early on not to question my father, being a good Punjabi wife and taking a back seat to her husband. I told her that I thought my mum’s life was quite sad and that I spent hours sometimes dreaming that I wasn’t really my parents’ child. We talked all about my brothers, too, and then I told her in more detail about what my old man had said to me about getting married at seventeen. And all the way through, she held my hand and listened in a way that no-one had ever listened to me before.
We spoke for hours and I didn’t get home until gone seven which upset my old man as usual. But I didn’t really care by then. Being with Lisa made me feel like I was walking on a cloud and I found myself listening to sad love songs and imagining that the lyrics were written about us. Really sad shit. Every time anyone in my house shouted at me or had a go, I’d start daydreaming about her to shut them off, and for the first few months that we were seeing each other it was easy to do. I couldn’t believe my luck. One minute I didn’t have a girlfriend and the next I had Lisa, who couldn’t have been more perfect if I had made her up. I told myself that it was the least I deserved, having her in my life, after all the crap I got from my dad. And she really began to make a difference which meant the whole world to me.
About two weeks after the date in the coffee shop my cousin Ekbal and his mum and dad came round to see us. I was up in my room when they arrived and Ekbal came straight up. I was sitting on my bed when he walked in and immediately I could tell he wanted to ask me something.
‘Hey, Manny, is it true?’
‘Is what true?’ I said, looking up from my book.
‘About you getting married?’
‘You what?’ I raised an eyebrow at him, wondering what he was on about.
‘My dad was just on about it on the way over.’
‘Eky, you ain’t making sense, man. On about what?’
‘He said that your dad has got some girl lined up for you, from India, and that he wants to get you sorted out as soon as you leave school.’
‘He said something about it a while back but it wasn’t anything serious. He just told me that was what he wanted me to do.’
‘Man, I can’t believe that. My old man would never think like that.’
‘Well the old man can say what he likes. I ain’t doing it anyway,’ I said with false bravado.
‘Yeah, like he’s gonna let you. Come on Manny, even my old man is wary of him.’
‘He’s just traditional, that’s all. When the time comes he’ll just have to chill out. After all, it is three years away.’
‘Man, you can’t do it. You’ll end up like your brothers.’
‘No way, Eky.’
‘Seriously though, you need to tell him straight. You know, about how you want to go to Uni and that, and be a writer.’
‘He wouldn’t listen, Eky. He’d just give me all that crap about being a good Punjabi.’
‘My old man’s Punjabi but he ain’t nothing like yours.’
‘Yeah I know. All those liberal parents out there and I get stuck with him.’
‘Well if you ever wanna talk about it, give me a call, man. You gotta make sure you don’t crack under the pressure.’
‘I won’t, Eky. Believe me.’
It was only after Ekbal and his parents left that I allowed myself to really react to what he had told me. If my old man and my mum were going round telling people what they had planned for me, then they were deadly serious about it. I mean, they weren’t going to lose face over it, not their precious izzat (honour). And if they were deadly serious then I was in big trouble. Up until then I had let the whole arranged marriage thing bother me but in the back of my mind I had always believed that they weren’t serious about me having to do it at seventeen. And it was still a long way in the future. What Eky had just told me made me see the light as far as my old man’s intentions for me were concerned. I realized that I was going to have to go for it if I wanted all the things out of life that I’d always dreamed of. And there was Lisa to think of too. I wasn’t about to let them mess up my relationship with her. No way.
There was only one thing for it. I’d have to make myself as unsuitable as possible. What father-in-law in his right mind would want a thief and a smoker for a son-in-law?
a year later . . .
THE POLICE KEPT me in an interview room as I waited for Ranjit to come and pick me up. A policewoman had told me that I was being let off with a warning because I had never been in trouble before. I think the store manager had wanted to press charges but the police had told him it wasn’t worth the bother. All I’d stolen was an empty CD case and he had got that back.
I had been with Ady in the HMV on the High Street. We’d been skiving the afternoon lessons at school and I had seen a CD that I wanted. I’d thought that I’d been really careful, making sure that I wasn’t being watched. I hadn’t really noticed the nerdy-looking bloke in the next row of racks, the one that had turned out to be a store detective. He just hadn’t looked the type. He’d been like some complete geek. Anyway, he’d followed me out and nabbed me as I’d waited for Ady. And the worst thing was that the case had been empty. I’d felt so stupid. When the store manager called the police I’d just bricked it. I was going to get killed by my brothers.
The drive home was silent. Ranjit talked to the policewoman for a while and then signed some papers. As we were walking out, he just shook his head. I was relieved that he hadn’t gone mad right there, in the station, but I knew that he was upset with me. He looked almost disappointed, like I had let him down. Harry would be a whole lot different. I knew that he would be going on about how I had shown up the family and all that stuff. It just wasn’t the right impression to make, not when his wife was so new to our family. His wedding had been a total nightmare – a horrible kind of dress-rehearsal for what my old man had planned for me that I could only endure by kidding myself it would never happen. But now I wasn’t kidding myself. I knew that I was in big trouble, and my stomach was turning over all the way home until I actually felt like being sick.
‘Why you always trying to mess up the family’s name?’ The first person to explode, as soon as I got in, was Harry. I got two slaps across the face and then the shouting began. He was swearing at me in Punjabi, calling me all sorts of things and using words that he’d never dare to say in front of the old man. ‘Daddy-ji goes to India because our aunty is dead and you think it’s OK to go stealing with that black bastard!’
I wasn’t going to back down. Not to Harry. I swore at him, told him to eff-off. I was fuming, tears flowing down my face. ‘Get lost! I don’t have to take anything from you, you fat bastard!’
‘You ain’t going out any more, not with that bloody kalah or anyone.’ Harry looked to Ranjit for support, then laid into me a couple more times. Not that it bothered me any more. I had been slapped and punched that many times that it no longer even hurt. The more that he hit me, the angrier it made me.
‘Leave him now, Harry. He’s had enough, innit.’ Ranjit had decided to speak up. ‘Let me deal with it. The responsibility’s mines.’
I wanted to laugh at the way he had said ‘mines’ instead of ‘mine’, but I didn’t. I watched Harry sit down and measured up a kick at his head. Before I had the chance to go through with it though, Ranjit ha
‘Get to your room, now!’ His face was red and he spat the words at me.
‘Get lost! You ain’t my dad!’ I tried to struggle free, but his grip was too strong.
‘Get upstairs! Go!’
Jas and Baljit, Harry’s wife, had been watching everything, wide-eyed, but had said nothing. Now Jas put her hand on Ranjit’s arm, trying to calm him.
‘Chadd deh. Let him go, Ranjit.’
‘No, Jas. No way. He needs a lesson learning, innit.’ Ranjit pulled me to the living-room door. ‘Upstairs!’
I kicked at him and then ran upstairs, slamming my door shut behind me.
Ranjit came up to my room about an hour later and sat at the end of my bed whilst I pretended not to notice him. I didn’t want to talk to anyone – at least to no-one in my family. I wanted to be with Ady, out on the streets, having fun and not thinking about crap all the time. But he wouldn’t let up, asking me over and over about what was going on in my head. About what was wrong with me. I let him carry on until I started to cry and he came over and put his arm around me, which felt really strange because it was the kind of affection my parents hadn’t shown me since I was a small child.
I let him hold me for about a minute before I started to feel embarrassed about crying in front of him. I pushed his arms away and shouted, ‘I’M ONLY FIFTEEN AND I’M NOT GETTING MARRIED AT SEVENTEEN! I’M NOT! IT’S TOO YOUNG AND I WON’T DO IT. THE OLD MAN CAN KILL ME IF HE WANTS – I WON’T DO IT!’
‘IT IS ABOUT time you started thinking about your future, Manjit.’
My dad was sober because it was Sunday afternoon and he had been to the gurudwara. Like a lot of other Punjabi men, he didn’t drink or eat meat on Sundays. It was like some kind of religious fashion statement that he was making, only he generally tended to get even more plastered on Saturday nights to make up for it. I just thought that it was so stupid not to eat meat or drink booze on only one day in a week. What was the point? The way I saw it, you either were religious or not. I was sure it wasn’t supposed to be something you made up for yourself. That was why I always tried to get out of going. Eventually my old man let me stay at home – not that he was even a Sikh. He was a Punjabi first; the religion came second. One was the way he actually lived his life, and the other was the religion he pretended to practice on Sundays. Not that I said any of this to my old man. I had gone through enough grief over the shoplifting thing; Harry had told him about it almost as soon as he had come in through the door back in January.
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