My grandfather once told me that he heard the word ‘Paki’ at work so often he thought it was the name of a co-worker. This was in his first job, as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, and he told me as passing comment, made while flicking through the channels on Sky TV – it landed deep. He was telling me about his life, his journey from the tiny rural village of Bahowal in Punjab, to Southall in west London in 1966. He came alone, to ‘yoo-kay’ as a 22-year-old, bones chattering with the cold, ready to start a life he couldn’t have back home.
My grandad, or ‘nanaji’ never knew that I thought about what he said for months afterwards. I heard the words in my dreams, imagined his confusion, pictured the hurt in his eyes when it finally became clear. Sometimes, my chest would contract when I thought about it. I became obsessed. I imagined every detail: the co-workers and their accents, laughing and pointing as they heaved sagging travel bags and hard plastic suitcases onto trollies; the inside of Heathrow airport with its clean, shiny floors and faded velvet chairs; their scorn. I smelt the sandwiches they ate over lunch, imagined their noses wrinkling as my nanaji took out his Tupperware full of aloo gobi, watched them tapping each other on the shoulder to signal their disgust at his stinking food.
Migration comes with a rupturing of identity, and many ‘immigrant stories’ are packed full of these throwaway details, delivered in blasé manners, already processed, laughed about, thrown out of mind. To my grandad, they were a part of history, the old him, before he found his way and his voice. To me, they provided an insight into the vulnerability of a man I always perceived as strong beyond measure. From then on, I started to reinterpret other stories I’d always heard from him.
During my childhood, he was always a ‘cool’ grandad. There was a running family joke about how he had cut his hair (he had arrived, like most Sikhs in the ’70s, proudly sporting a turban, or ‘paag’) and shaved his beard. We called him ‘modern’ like Bollywood heartthrob Amitabh Bachchan, and he laughed along and dusted off his shoulders like Jay-Z would later sing about, and so, when I was a teenager, I would think of my nanaji when I played ‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’ in my room. It wasn’t until years later that it dawned on me that he had cut his hair because it was impossible for him to get a job with his turban. He had taken scissors and hacked away at his identity to get by, to be underpaid for a job he was over qualified for and to fit in as best as he could. His beard had made him look like a young version of our guru, Ravi Daas, and his close shave, his smooth face, must have been painful. I remember him telling me the reason he shaved his beard was so he could kiss me on the face without its tickling and I would sit quietly on the sink, transfixed, watching the tiny flecks of black fur fall into the sink as he meticulously exposed more and more of himself to the world. I had always remembered these as happy moments, but looking back, I wonder if they fully were.
Today, Southall High Street is awash with Indian-owned businesses, with people hammering themselves into this land declaring ownership. It’s jammed with corner shops that became lynchpins of communities, with names like Sandhu and Singh and Kumar proudly staking a claim on public space via store fronts, accountancy offices, law firms and Cash and Carrys. But in the Britain that greeted my grandfather, it wasn’t yet so. In fact, in the 1970s, this was a place where people with skin like mine kept their heads down, did not stand up straight – and my grandad was no exception. Banks in the area – Uxbridge, Hayes, Ealing – famously refused to hire qualified Indian men who wore turbans. The 1983 Mandla v Dowell-Lee case, about the Sikh boy refused entry to a Birmingham school by the headmaster owing to his ‘dastar’ (turban), is a story often rolled out in my family as proof of how far we’ve come. (For those unfamiliar with the case, it set a legal precedent for Sikhs to be allowed to wear turbans in schools.)
With Enoch Powell whipping hate into a frenzy through his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, my nanaji’s resistance took place quietly. It happened every time he left the house for the airport, setting off to work on black winter evenings and returning home before the sun had risen; working endless night shifts while holding his promise of a British dream tight in the darkness.
Placing yourself, intentionally, in a land where you cease to feel like a global majority and instead become an alien is something that I can never experience. I was born into a country with the full knowledge that I was a minority. My resistance lives in my skin. It started as a surface-level defence against superficial stories and hurtful remarks, and sank further into my epidermis as I grew up reading beauty magazines where I never saw myself and began to feel ashamed of the hair on my body. As I got older still, it filtered into my blood while I mulled over the details of venomous anecdotes, fascinated by their sting. My skin tingled and prickled and flexed and heated when I thought about them. And when I became fully aware of just how much hate still remained in the world where I was to be an adult, I marvelled at how much of the throwback racism my grandad encountered also affected my physical form today. Like PTSD via Bluetooth, his traumatic moments copied and pasted themselves into me, too. I felt them.
I often hear how the poison of ‘racism’ has been diluted, or that racism ‘just isn’t a problem’ in the UK, and wonder whether I’m attaching the trauma of that first generation onto myself. While I second-guess how I feel, my mind casts over that time on the bus when a group of men shouted ‘don’t blow us up, love!’ at me; or the time on the train to Shropshire when a group of teens told me I smelt like curry, or that time in the office when a white editor asked me why black and brown journalists had ‘a chip on their shoulders’. So many aggressions, from micro to major. How can my lived experience be so divorced from the projected unreality of race issues in the UK, in 2016?
But of course, it’s not all bad, and the resilience and strength that I learned from my nanaji is what makes me the thrilling, dual-diasporic power that I am today. Before he died, I traced my fingers over my nanaji’s face and stroked those lines that had so many stories to tell. I told him how much I loved him and wished that I could keep on learning how to stand up straight from observing his proud stature. Those wrinkles, that took him across the sea, that stretched around his eyes as they opened wide to a new world; that frowned when he watched reports of people like us getting bottled by the National Front, that laughed when I hugged him, and those deep, deep ones that finally, happily, sank into British life. Those images are embedded in the archives of my mind. They stop me focusing solely on the darkness and remind me that the way I tread in the world is potent. That he is historically significant and maybe I am, too.
Then I watch the news and hear what some people think about people that look like me, and my back prickles and I feel so small in the world. I remember that Paki story once more. But as life continues to happen I realise that in reality, it’s not those fleeting moments of vulnerability that my nanaji has cast most firmly into my mind: it’s when I feel most powerful, most beautiful, that I always think of him. His life was never really defined by those Heathrow stories because he reclaimed the earth that he stood on and made himself heard in every room. He ended up as a manager at that same airport, and some of that wage funded more of us coming over and putting down roots in Britain. He opened a shop, started a family, sent money home and saw a granddaughter born who would always try and look up, for all those times that he couldn’t. Our stories of immigration are really stories of pride and power and sometimes we forget that when life happens around us. Sometimes, when I’m on autopilot and forget to take a breath, I imagine him seeing me as I can’t see myself. There is he is, quietly looking over at me, and there I am, standing up straight.
'My Nanaji' first appeared in Somesuch Stories #2.
Photograph by Rept0n1 // Wikicommons