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Learn to Hold Your Onions

What a kind stranger once taught me.

When I was 14, I was walking home one day from our local Bangladeshi grocers, carrying a big bag of onions in its luminous orange netted bag, which never had any handles. Anyone, who knows a thing or two about South Asian families living in the UK, will know that onions are one life’s necessity for us. It’s a key ingredient to our daily culinary dishes, therefore loose onions in brown paper bags or supermarket ones with a handful of small onions had never been an option for us to entertain.  So here I was, a skinny 14-year-old, carrying a 5kg onion bag, like I was dragging a bull by its horn. I imagine that my plight to carry this enormous weight was becoming obvious to passers-by. A Bengali Aunty (Chachi) who I had never met or seen before, saw my struggle and stopped me. I could sense from her smile she felt sorry for me but also a little un -malice joy from my naivety in life, the naivety only a 14-year-old boy could have, trying his best to run a shopping errand for his mum.  

She explained and then showed me how to grab hold of just one onion from the large pack and let it act as a handle and let the rest of them hang. This way, the weight of the whole bag of onions will fall and the onion I hold in my hand will act as a handle. I clasped onto that little onion and true to her word, the weight of the bag disappeared. I thanked my kind stranger, as I continued my journey to my home, this time – effortlessly.

For a while, every time I went out to run an errand, I hoped I would bump into her to tell her how thankful I was for her piece of wisdom that day. I never saw her again but the life skill she taught me, still lingers with me to this day – 25 years later. Every time I buy a bag of onions from the grocers, I think of that kind stranger, who taught me how to carry an onion bag. I went on to teach both my parents and siblings after my encounter with her and no doubt will teach my own kids one day, when it becomes their turn.

Moral of the story.

We all have something to teach and it can happen any time and at the strangest of moments. Sometimes it’s something as simple as giving advice to a young boy on the verge of youth, walking home with groceries. Don’t stop helping people to learn in whatever shape or form, never stop willing to learn in whatever shape or form.  You never know, how small things, no matter how trivial it may seem to you, will leave a lasting impact on someone and how one moment can leave a lasting legacy in someone’s life, which they will then pass onto someone else.

We overlook small things in life, putting emphasis on the bigger things to learn, but small life skills helps build the bigger picture. It takes a village to raise a child, we cannot learn skills, life lessons from just one person/s, we learn it from around us. And although like everyone, the majority of my greater life lessons were learnt with experience and many lessons still left to be learned. I never forget to smile and think of that kind Aunty, who taught me a valuable skill that day. Who knows? With every smile, when I think of her, there might be a silent prayer being sent to her. Somewhere, she is sitting, unaware how her one small intervention that day all those years ago, has left a small but lasting footprint in my life.   

Don’t ever stop learning or willing to teach – Don’t miss the chance to learn to hold your own onions in life.

Featured

Time and Space – Part 2

Part 2. Coping with loss through generations.

“It’s Grandpa.” She blurted. “He collapsed in his house this morning. The neighbours found him. They called me cos they couldn’t get hold of you.”
“What do you mean collapsed?”
“It could be a heart attack, I don’t know. They’ve taken him to St Thomas. I borrowed Jo’s car. Come on.”
“No” I told her. “That’s gonna take too long at this traffic. I’m just gonna run there.”
I ran, as Abi called out my name. No longer tired from my run, I was moving on adrenaline. I didn’t want to dissect in my head, what has happened to Grandpa. I just wanted to be near and see him. I rushed through the pavement pushing unapologetically past a lady with her dog, hoping the urgency in my body language was enough to tell her I was on an emergency. I ran through the traffic as a Prius sounded its horn at me. The hospital entrance came in my view.
I hurdled towards the reception.
“My grandfather was bought in my ambulance this morning. He collapsed, where would they have taken him?”
“When he was bought in, do you know?” The mild- mannered receptionist annoyed me with his calmness. I wanted him to have the same level of urgency as me.
“I don’t know, maybe two hours ago or something”
“Then he would still be in Emergency.” He pointed to the left as I ran towards it and buzzed in.
“My Grandad, was bought in my by an ambulance this morning, I told the nurse on the desk.
“What his name?”
“Eddie… sorry I mean Edward Cash”
She didn’t look at the system.
“Hang on,” She said softly and buzzed another nurse. They were joined in their mumbled conversation by a man in a tie, who ushered me into the waiting room.
“Hello, I’m Dr Chang.” He introduced himself. “How are you related to Mr Cash?”
“I’m his Grandson, what’s happening, where is he? My breathing became heavy, I took a deep breath, telling myself, it’s all procedure.
“Are you his next of kin?”
“Yes, my Grandmother’s dead, my Dad’s abroad and my uncle and aunt don’t live in London.”
“Please take a seat.” He pointed to the chair.
Something told me none of what was about to come out of his mouth was good.
“Your Grandfather had a major heart attack this morning. He had another minor on the way here. Unfortunately, there was nothing more we could have done. I am really sorry.”
His words floated and navigated inside of me, looking for a place inside my head to set. I was lost in essence of the room and its surroundings. Staring at Dr Chang and his sympathetic eyes.
“He is in Room 14. I will get a nurse to take you there. After this we can go through the paperwork.”
“Paperwork?”
“Yes, to allow us to release his body and for you retrieve his death certificate.”
Just like that, Grandpa had become a statistic. His whole life, riddled to paperwork that I needed to fill out. The paperwork I asked for every day, when speaking to faceless people over the phone.
In Room 14, he was lying still on his back, in a deep peaceful sleep. I remembered our last conversation, only four days ago. How could he leave me so abruptly without any warning? I touched his cheek, it was warm. I wished he would wake up from this nap, like he used to, when I was little and crept into his room. I wondered he felt, before his final breath, did he feel alone? Did he feel pain or was it all just a big release?
Abi’s voice crept into my ears, thanking the nurse for directing her to the room. I felt her presence entering and standing behind me, letting out big tearful gasp. She walked near the bed and wrapped her arms around my chest. Her soft body squeezed against my sweaty vest from all the running. I couldn’t hug her back.
“I’m sorry,” she sobbed. We both dropped to the floor, our cries merging like doves, silent but in sync.

I sat on my bed, the sheets half on the floor, the duvet bundled at the end. I hadn’t made it in a couple of days. I focused in on my black shoes, the shiny spot on the top, glaring back at me.
“There you are.” Dad opened the door to my room, with a brown paper bag in his hands. “I was wondering where you got to.” He shut the door and with it, the muffled voices of the guest’s downstairs.
“Sorry, I just needed to be myself.” I told him.
“I understand, it’s been hard on you.” He came near, attempting to sit beside me but changed his mind and instead squeezed my shoulder.
“I’ve been meaning to thank you for having the Wake in your house, it can’t have been easy.”
“Abi did the organising. I can’t take all the credit.”
“Yeah, I need to thank her too. She’s good she is. It should have been in my house. But it all happened too quickly and you know those tenants have a contract for another month.”
“It’s ok, we were happy to host.”
“I should probably just rent it out on those Air BnBs, after this lot move out. More flexibility and more money.”
I looked at him from the corner of my eyes.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t really be talking about this now.”
“It was a good service wasn’t it?” I said.
“Yeah, I’m surprised so many people turned up.” His widen eyes, told of his genuine shock.
“He touched many lives. My friend Zahid from work was telling me that Muslims bury their dead within 24 hours. They don’t really celebrate life in a ceremony, like we did with Grandpa.”
“Different cultures see life and death differently.” Dad loosened his tie. “They give more emphasis to the afterlife – the Muslims, they think the world is just temporary.”
Dad, being this open and knowledgeable about others cultures, was not something I was used to. His brown face told me, he was picking up more than just a good tan in his travels.
“Was everything ok, coming back? Getting flights couldn’t have been easy.”
“It wasn’t, let me tell you.” He tilted his head sideways and nodded. “But soon as Sarah heard the news, she was in a mission to get us back. We were lucky to catch the connecting flight from France.”
“I’m sorry.” I didn’t know why I felt I had to apologise for him having to attend his own Dad’s funeral.
“She is alright you know-Sarah, she is not bad.” He told me.
“I didn’t say she was.”
“I know. But I get the feeling sometimes, maybe not everyone approves. Once you get to know her you will like her.”
“Dad, I do like her, I hadn’t much time to get to know her that’s all”
“So, you’re not upset?”
“About?”
“My relationship and the divorce with your Mum, we never really spoke about it?” I wasn’t sure why Dad wanted to talk about it now, seven years later. Maybe Grandpa’s death made him vulnerable.
“Dad, it didn’t take a genius to know that you and Mum were not compatible. You’ve been sleeping in separate rooms, since I was 10.”
“Oh, you caught onto that.” He seemed let down that I was onto their open secret of Mum sleeping in my brother’s Dominic’s room, for any other reason, but for his care needs.
“I guess, our relationship was over for longer than I care to admit,” He told me. “We decided to stick it out, to give you guys the best start in life.”
I didn’t know what to make of Dad passing on the guilt of his prolonging failed marriage onto us.
“You didn’t have to be miserable for us, we would have coped.”
“I wasn’t miserable. Your Mum would have found it hard to cope with Dominic’s Downs, with me only being around part time. I couldn’t live with that either. We couldn’t choose us over his wellbeing and yours too.”
He had a point, as strong as Mum is, I cannot fault Dad for thinking the way he did. Growing up with Dominic was hard.
“Why didn’t you tell grandpa about Sarah?”
He went silent. “I don’t know, your Grandpa was a traditionalist, he never accepted our divorce. I just guessed, if I mentioned Sarah to him, it would’ve finalised everything for him. I guess I felt ashamed and like I failed him.
“He thought highly of Mum that’s all.”
“Maybe so, but you know he had a problem with your Mum being from Mauritia, at first. In the end, that’s all he admired about her. Our marriage was the first time a real wedge came between me and him.”
“I didn’t know that.” Surprised at the revelation, that Grandpa was a racist.
“He wasn’t a bigot, don’t get me wrong. People from his generation were… let’s just say less worldly, traditionalists and caught up on silly things.”
“Yeah, he was giving me a hard time about my clocks not working.”
“Well you need to know the time of the day son. How else would you know your place?”
“What were the other times? I asked
“Other times?”
“You said your marriage to Mum was the first time things got bad between you two.” I felt I had Dad in the right place to find out more about him and Grandpa.
Dad went silent again.
“Like I said, he was a man of his time.” He started the sentence, to somehow justify Grandpa’s behaviour, on what he was about to reveal to me. “When your Mum fell pregnant with Dominic and we found out that he might have Down Syndrome. The Doctors advised us to have an abortion. Which we were obviously against, well… your Grandpa wasn’t exactly supportive of our decision.”
“Really Grandpa, the church goer?”
“He only became a serious Church goer after your Grandma died.”
“But he loved Dominic, didn’t he pay for all his private care?”
“Yeah, I guess he realised the error of his thought, after he was born. His way of making up for it, his redemption, I imagine.”
“Did you really say to him that Grandma’s Clock wouldn’t fit the deco in your house?”
Dad chuckled.
“I only told him that, ‘cos I couldn’t bear any reminders of mum.”
“You still miss her?”
Dad nodded.
“What about Grandpa do you miss him?”
Dad squirmed.
“You know me and your Grandpa had become distant. We both managed to build our lives without each other in the last decade. I miss him now, but it’s just raw emotion. I’ll be back to my life without him and nothing will change. I’m sorry if it sounds cold, but I just want to be honest.”
“I understand.”
“He wasn’t the man to me that he was to you; you got to experience the softer version of him. The one I didn’t recognise. And I’m glad you did.” He said looking outside my window. “I’m glad you both got to have relationship; I never wanted my relationship with him to interfere with yours.”
“I didn’t realise it was so deep and turbulent.”
“Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. Men of that generation never knew closeness, quick to ship off to boarding school, that type of thing.”
“Do you think he regretted that? I feel he felt your absence recently.”
“He might have, but your Grandpa never needed anyone around to validate his life. He might have pretended he did, but he was content. I knew that, hence it became easier to become distant. He taught me my time and space though, always kept me focussed with words, which I didn’t know what it meant until it happened. And I’ve always been thankful for that for him. I’d like to feel I done the same with you.”
I looked at Dad, he always gave me the best version of himself, it wasn’t his fault I was stuck in this predicament in life. Where I was not sure where I was going.
“Whatever happened with your engineering degree, I’m sure selling insurance, isn’t what you want to do?” He asked me.
“What makes you say that?
“Look around,” he pointed to my bookshelf, my model building, canvases of famous landmarks and architectures. “People who want to sell insurance, don’t have this much character.”
He smiled at me like he saw the world of potential in me. He came and sat down next to me
“Sometimes we all need to take a leap in our faith and believe in ourselves. Sometime I take pride in thinking, I taught you to do just that. He put his arms around me. I don’t want to tell you how to lead your life. I just want us to be open and not end up like your Grandpa and I.”
I patted Dad on the back.
“We won’t, you’ve always been great to us, I could never fault you.”
“Maybe I could stick around, you know spend more time with you.”
“No, you have nothing to make up for, this is your time, be with Sarah, travel the world.”
“What if I stick around to be a Grandpa myself?”
I looked at him.
“Sorry son shouldn’t have said that. Anyway, here you go.” He handed me the brown paper bag, he had in his hands since he entered.
“Your Grandpa’s neighbour gave it to me at the church. She found it on his table. Apparently, he told her he bought it for you, the day before. . . well you know.”
I peeked inside the bag and took out a pack of 12 AA Batteries.
“He knew I wouldn’t buy it.” My voice broke, tears exited my eyes without control. I laid my head on Dad’s shoulders.

Abi stood behind me, as I inserted two AA batteries in my bedroom clock. The second hand came alive, like a bear awoken from hibernation with a new purpose. I twisted the rotator to correct the time and fixed it on top of my fireplace, where Grandma’s clock once was. Underneath, on the mantelpiece was the envelope with Robert’s name on it, inside my resignation letter.
“I can stay one more night if you want?” Abi told me.
I gripped her hands, hoping she can read my mind and stay for good. I was ready to make it work.
“Aren’t you going to put the batteries in the other one? She pointed at the Pendulum Clock, which was placed in the corner.
“No,” I smiled at her. “That one has had its time and purpose. This one should be in our living room.” I showed her the remaining 10 batteries in the pack that Grandpa had bought for me. “I’m gonna leave them here, in this drawer.”
Abi’s eyes twinkled a bit like she had a glistening hope.
“You ok?” She asked me.
“Yes, I’m finding my bearing… my time and space.”

Time and Space

Part 1 – Short Story about time, generations and coping with loss- Koyer Ahmed

Time and Space 

Both the clocks in my house malfunctioned around the same time. The one in my bedroom started losing its bearing a week ago, by 10 minutes each day. Every morning, I watched it’s dangly legs, summoning the strength, to drag itself around the diameter of its round silver surface. Pleading to my compassion, to change its batteries and not let it succumb to an agonising death. The Pendulum Clock in the living room, stopped altogether two days ago. It was abrupt and less conspicuous in its demise. No warning signs given of its ultimate fate.  Too stubborn to afford me the privilege of watching it die a slow painful death.   

“It’s a bad omen,” Grandpa told me. “Clocks have significance; they don’t all just stop working in the same home at the same time.” He didn’t explain what the significance was. I guess he trusted my judgment, to make the correlation between time and space, and that which clocks represent.  

“This isn’t something to ignore. Have you been saying your prayers?”  

“It’s more common than you think; People don’t bother with wall clocks anymore. We have our phones; they carry out all our functions.” I raised my gold-plated Samsung and gave it a small shake. “I’m sure many homes nowadays have dysfunctional clocks sitting on their walls or mantelpieces.” I added, feeling nonsensical, for retiring the wall clock to a heritage of history and rendering it redundant to Grandpa, in order to account for my laziness of not changing the batteries.  

  “Let me guess, I need to get with the times?” He shrugged his shoulders and showed me his black Nokia engulfed inside his thick bulging palms, to make a comparison to my smartphone. His narrow eyes and tiny curl in the edge of his mouth told me, he wanted to say more, but thought otherwise than to challenge my new age rejection of the superstitious myths which he lived his life by.  

“Everything is common, or there is a message in everything.” He placed his mug of tea next to the bag of fresh bagels he had bought me and handed me his grey coat to help him put it on. Grandpa always chose his debates wisely; not wanting to engage in conversations which he felt won’t get him anywhere.  

“How are you ever going to know where to go in life, if you don’t know your own time and space in this world.” It wasn’t a question, just one of his contritely timed statements, he dropped when he saw fit, in the hopes any, or some, of what he was saying, would serve as some sort of wisdom and motivation for me. 

“You know, I bought this for your Grandma 40 years ago.” He pointed to the static Pendulum Clock. stuck on my feature wall, above the fireplace. “We were in Lewes for her birthday. We happened to stroll by a shop and she knew she had to have it. She wouldn’t let me go over 50mph on the drive back, in case it broke. It took us an extra hour to get home that day.” His eyes lit up. An annoying memory no doubt, but with time, and her passing, had become a rose-tinted nostalgia. 

 “£50 it cost, a lot of money for a clock in those days.”  

“It’s still a lot of money for a clock.” I winked at him. He cut a look at me with his right eye and head tilted to one side. The small hunch in his back protruded.  

“They don’t make them like these anymore.  I’m glad you decided to keep it.” He patted my shoulders. “Your Dad’s not much of a heirloom sort of guy. He told me it will just pile up in his garage, as it didn’t fit the deco of his house.”  

“Have you spoken to Dad recently?” I shook the strands of grey hair mixed with scalp flakes that had mounted on the shoulder pads of his coat.  

“He called me on my birthday. He didn’t speak for long, just a few words. You know, happy birthday and all that… just formalities, as always with him. He said he was Tanzania, is that right?”  

“Yeah I think… he was there around that time. He’s in Cairo now.” 

“A lot to see there” Grandpa said “I asked him to send a postcard. He said they don’t do them anymore. That he can e-mail me or send me pictures on the phone. Like, I‘m supposed to get the hang of all this new messaging malarkey.” He raised both his eyebrows at me like I should agree with him.  “He knows I find it hard to use a computer. It’s just excuses to build a wall between us.”  

“He is just busy Grandpa and a little…” 

“Selfish, arrogant,” Grandpa finished my sentence.  

I smiled.  

“He means well.” 

“I’m glad you took after your Mum.” He told me.  “I always knew she was too good for him. She understood the importance of kinship and family. It’s a big thing in her culture. Much better than that woman he is shacking up with now, in his world travels, what’s her name again?” 

“Sarah.”  

“Yeah, I wonder what she is like. He didn’t even mention her to me, I found out about her, from your uncle.  Probably digging away at his fortune.” 

“He is not that well off.” I reminded him  

“Well, he won’t be for too long after she finishes with him.” He cackled and threw an air punch.     

“I think this is the first time it stopped.” I pointed at the clock, diverting the conversation away from the turbulent relationship between Dad and Grandpa. 

“It stops every now and then, you have to wind the key behind it,” he told me, “I can wind it for you now if you want? Show you how it’s done.”   

“It’s ok, it’s too wedged into the wall, maybe next time, or I’ll have a go at it later.”  

Grandpa nodded his head, a bit annoyed from my lazy response. He was the ‘get it done straight away’ type of guy, approaching every matter in life with a sense of urgency.   

“Well, make sure you do.”   

I dusted of the shoulders of his coat as he stretched out his arms. 

  “You’re always welcome to stay with me for a few days if you like?”  

“No, I’m fine, I enjoy my own bed.” He told me, placing his checked top hat perfectly to cover his bald patch. “Besides, I like to know what time of the day it is.”  

He winked at me, grabbing the Gazette, and walking towards my front door. “Tell that lovely wife of yours I said hi and oh yeah. . . for her to get some batteries for those clocks.” 

He drew in closer to be wrapped around my arms for a goodbye. 

I leaned against my door and watched him walk down the stone steps of our porch and tread slowly up the pavement to the Zebra crossing. He lifted his Gazette armed hand and waved at me one last time.   

My phone vibrated; it was Zahid from work.  

“Rob’s questioning, why you haven’t logged in yet?” He spoke quietly.  The echo around his voice, told me he was in the toilet somewhere.  

“I told him I’ll be logging in at 10 today.” 

“It’s quarter past.” 

I glanced at the time on my phone. I was glad Grandpa had gone. It would have proved his point.  

“Thanks mate.” I ended the call, opening my Mac book, sitting down on my home desk.  

My phone vibrated again, this time with a WhatsApp message from Abi.  

You didn’t answer my call this morning, is everything ok?   

Sorry. Grandpa came.  

I typed with one hand, logging in to my work system with the other.  

How is he doing?  

He’s ok. He brought bagels. He asked me to send you his regards. Had a go at me about the clocks lol.  

Are they still not fixed? I have been telling you for ages to get the batteries 

I could sense her tone over the phone, that stern, annoying ordering voice she had 

I’ll get it, don’t worry.  

That’s the problem with you. You always put things off. You never do things when you are supposed to. You keep letting everything linger on. 

 Through the porthole of Whats App, I pictured the angry impressions on her face without the aid of any emojis. 

What is this really about? 

It’s about everything, you just thinking everything can be fixed without trying. 

Look do we realy hav to talk about this now  

My fast texting was too much for even auto-correct to come into play.  

You know how much I hate texting when I’m working. Rob is on my case because I am  already late logging in.  

Why can’t we just talk about it at home. When are you coming home? 

I’m not.  I need more time, I’m sorry. I’m not ready. I’m gonna stay here with Jo for a bit longer.   

How much longer?  

I gritted my teeth. 

Why you being like this? Why can’t we just sit down and work it out.  

As long as it takes 

What do you want? 

You know what I want. I want a family and stability. I want all the promises you made. Just marrying me wasn’t going to shut me up and not want anything more.    

Can’t we just talk about it at a time when I am not busy with work?  

She was no longer online.  

I miss you 

The double blue tick came up, but she didn’t reply. 

Maybe Grandpa was right, I didn’t know my time and place or had a sense of direction.  Twenty Five emails had already surfaced in my inbox. I sorted through the rummage of office announcements and IT updates. I opened Rob’s e-mail.  

Dear Team,  

I am looking into the Working from Home policy. In order to ensure more effective cover in the office. From now on, everyone’s request to work from home will be approved by me. I am under no obligation to approve any, if I don’t feel the need to.  

Regards 

Robert Sommerville  

 
Being familiar with Rob’s passive aggressive tendencies, I knew that e-mail was targeted at me.  His lack of trust, that I can sit at home and sell insurance at the same pace and time I do in the office.  

Two days later, we are all celebrating at Barcelona Tapas Bar and Restaurant, our regular hang out after work. Rob buys the first round. He is happy but giving me the silent treatment.   

“Well done for a great quarter and being a great team. Thank you for all your hard work.” He lifted his glass with a raucous roar from the team. He winked and pointed at Zahid, standing next to me. Zahid in return raised his glass of coke with ice, wedged with a lemon.  

I decided to go and speak to Rob, through the noise of my colleagues muttering, whilst others stayed stiff in their suave blazers and swept back hair, doing their best pretend act to keep up with chatter on how to spend their bonuses. Rob seemed annoyed at my attempt to strike a conversation. He was alone facing the bar, but didn’t seem to want my company.  

“Any plans for the weekend?”  

“There is only one plan, when you have kids.” He took a sip of the lager in his hands and unbuttoned his tie.  

“Yeah,” I muttered like I understood.  

I took a deep breath and addressed the elephant in the room.  “Look Rob, I’ve been meaning to talk to you. Lately, I feel things are not right between us.  Did I do something?”  

He raised his eyebrow, a drop of sweat from his red forehead trickled down. He took the napkin from the top of the bar to wipe it.  

“You know what? I didn’t think you even deserved that bonus I gave you today.” He gulped his beer. “I just couldn’t let you be the only one in the team, not to have one. That’s why I gave you the lowest one.” 

I was startled by his revelation.  

“Your mind hasn’t been in it for a while now. Your numbers are low.” He took another gulp and looked me in the eye, his jaws squared in.  “You say you work from home, but you log in late.  You keep quiet in team meetings and quite frankly, it sucks. You got to decide whether or not you want this job.” 

I couldn’t get any words out. I knew my motivation was slipping but I didn’t know it was that obvious. Sitting behind a desk and looking at spreadsheets was never my career plan.  

“I mean you still bring in a fair amount of business for us, don’t get me wrong. But your attitude isn’t the same as when you first started.” 

“Look Rob,”  

“Robert,” He corrected me.  

“Sorry.”  

“Robert, I don’t like the name Rob” 

“Sorry, I … always called you Rob”   

“Well, I don’t like the name.”  

I wasn’t sure, what to make of the walls he was building.  

“I’ve just had a lot on.” 

“Leave it; I’ve heard it all before.” He interrupted me.  

“We all have a lot on. I can tell you that much, an ex-wife and 4 kids later. But we leave our shit at home and come here to do our jobs. We are not a fricking therapy group.  You have Yoga and Pilates for all of that or whatever it is that you all do.” 

He turned his back to me, as Raj and Steve came and shook his shoulders, in their mild drunkard state.  

I ran through the dry grass of Hyde Park. My conversation with Robert from yesterday still fresh. I wanted to feel the presence of the ground on my feet and that sore burn in my chest. The more I ran, the more my thoughts became clear, my controlled breathing, beating against the sound of cyclists and other runners. My tracker app spoke to me through my Air Pods.  I was doing a four -minute KM. Linking Park and Jay Z providing the much-needed soundtrack to the scenery. A hipster couple with their buggy moved out of my way at the sound of my thudding steps and heavy breathing.  

I ran up the pavement to the road of my house, kneeling over with my hands on my knees, retiring my run.  There, on the steps was Abi, tapping on her phone frantically, looking relieved as soon as she spotted me.  

“Hey, you’re back?” I looked for luggage around her.  

“I’ve been trying to call you all this time, why haven’t you been picking up?”  

I slipped my phone out the pockets of my shorts and saw six missed calls.  

“What’s happened?” My heart started racing at a different pace then from my running.   

“It’s Grandpa.” She blurted.

What came home? Thought on the Euro 2020 Finals

I’ve never been one to know much about football, I won’t be able to even explain the offside rule to you properly. Saturday nights were mainly pop music and TV comedy for me, rather than Match of the Day and either moaning or cheering about the latest football results. However, the International tournaments like the FIFA World Cup and Euros were always something that attracted my attention. Maybe it’s the thrill of it coming every four years, the idea of nations competing with each other in the backdrop of the long summer days and nights, the draws and competitions at work, the predictions, the colours, the unity of the country and the ever prediction of football finally coming home, only for England to crash out within the first few rounds, all fed into my appetite for it.

Throughout the years, it was hard to feel sorry for England each time they came stumbling out. The overarching egos of the players, the attitude, the disillusioned fans and the scapegoats made by the people and media, made it easier to accept their tournament reign coming to an end. We knew the narrative, it was always followed by the resignation of the manager – a Dejavu we all had become accustomed to.

That was until Gareth Southgate took over, the man who forever will now be remembered as someone who brought back class into the England Football Club, the embodiment of sportsmanship and probably one of the best England managers. A man well too versed with the scapegoat culture, needed to justify the poor attempt of the club. Who is still forced to carry the burdens of a missed penalty back in 1996, something that he is reminded of even to this day, by a nation with no regards to how much of a mental burden it puts on a person’s soul or like we are all free of error and didn’t miss a penalty opportunity in our own lives.

In 2018, we saw a glimpse of what he was capable of, taking a herd of young unknown players to the World Cup and progressing England into their first Semi Final since 1990, much further than the previous era of prima donnas and famous cologne wearing ego maniacs. For the first time the nation was given hope that we could finally get it done! Bring it home and I for one was happy. This was a team that you can get on board with. When they got knocked out of the semis, there was no scapegoats but just praise. Off the pitch, these guys were just as good, instead of signing up to promote the latest clothing or getting in the headlines for their parties in the club or dating pop stars, they got involved in social causes, making sure something as basic as free school meals are available to children.

As the Euro rolled in, the nation was in pain, a year of pandemic, lockdown, furloughs and deaths, not being able see our loved ones, had cut deep wounds in the society just like it had globally and we needed something to rise up of this unfortunate situation. This team did just that, we never thought it would happen. But as soon as they demolished our age old rivals Germany out of the tournament, people started dreaming the impossible. It was like Batman had finally killed the Joker. The streets filled with hope and Badiel and Skinner’s Three Lions coming out of every house. For the first time in my life, I donned the England red shirt, I’ve always favoured the red, never liked the white one. Anyone would think I was a true football fan, but I wasn’t. The red meant something more to me than football, it meant a country united, that we had moved passed some of the earlier controversies such as ‘taking the knee’, that sports as always will unite us. We were heading for once in a lifetime moment and when we thrashed Denmark, I knew we were in for a generational moment.

On the day of the final, as I run through London Bridge, the site was something else. Young, old, men and women in groups, all in England shirts and flags lighting up the summer day. It was a surreal vibe, something I never witnessed before. Random people stopped me to ask for my prediction. Every Instagram feed was of people having parties in their houses as the BBQ in my mum’s house was also garnering flame for all us siblings to get together.

The night ended in tears and maybe so did the unity? Mindless thuggery of some age old fans, who trampled all over Piccadilly Circus, gate crashed Wembley, assaulting people started surfacing. Then came the online abuse towards the black players who missed the penalties. A culture so entwined in finding scapegoats and abusing them, also thought it would be nice to add the colour of their skin to the mix as well. It opened up deep wounds and showed us we are still coming to terms as a society of the deep diversity of our nation. A society so cruel, that a 19 year old player who is still a child and not born in the century that England won their first and only World Cup, has to deal with so much hatred and agony. A boy who wasn’t around for 36 years of the so called hurt we had been facing. We failed to applaud that he took it upon himself to take a penalty and the burden of the nation, we all had been waiting for 55 years. A boy who thanked his Mum and God for his opportunity before a match. That was his innocence, his naivety. Maybe it is that naivety that is missing from all our lives, part of us that we have hardened as we grew up. But as I donned the England shirt the next day, it was in the spirt of Southgate hugging Saka, the spirit of the majority who came out to support the English Football team, it was the spirit for the first time in decades, the mainstream media along with the rest of the nation, made no excuses, but clapped their hand in support of the Three Lions! It was in the spirit that in Southgate, there was leader with qualities that we had been sorely missing from our politicians.

We may not have brought the cup home, but we brought integrity, class and sportsmanship back and we can’t let bigots outshine the great team.

I only hope the boy who thanked his Mum and God, is still inside him and this aftermath did not change that.

Summer, Dancing and Heart Attack (Part 3 of 3)

90’s Politician

My Dad was an emerging local celebrity, so the news of his heart attack, spread much like a viral video does in today’s social media generation. The word of mouth was a powerful tool within the Bangladeshi community. Who make it their business to know everybody’s business. We associated his stint at the hospital with a bulk shopping spree. The mixture of Bengali hospitality, a politician and the universal social protocol of bringing food/drinks to the ill was a toxic mix. Much of that summer we didn’t buy drinks for our house, we had an abundance of it. Taken by well wishers to visit him at the hospital, which my Dad promptly dished back home to us. It was mainly film wrapped Lucozade- because glucose was good for people who were ill and a rich orange cordial drink called Three Top.  Still to this day, I find it hard to convince anyone that this drink existed.  I can’t have made it up in my imagination.  

As Summer slowly died out and Autumn crept in, the talks in our household changed like the season. It became dire and brown much like the leaves scattered across the pavement and dreaded words like ‘operation’ started making its ugly way into our conversations. We relied on our Dad to tell us where his fate lay. As ever, the attention seeking, self- centric person that I got know about him in my later years. He told my crying Mum how they planned to cut open his bare chest and dissect his left leg to transfer a vein to his heart. Even today, I don’t get the science behind it or why our parent’s generation were so irrational to what they spoke about in front of their children.  Like the time a doctor came and measured his height in front of us, he told us they were measuring him for a coffin. They were going to operated him inside, just in case of the very real chance he dies during surgery. They will shut the lid and bury him as there would be no point in doing anything else. It was the type of stories my Dad was famous for, sometimes I think he found it hard to distinguish his tales from the real world.  What was an eight year old to do with such absurd information, more importantly why would a husband and father openly talk about their death in front of his distressed wife and young children? My older brother carried on from where my Dad left off. He told me it was the most complicated operation ever carried out in medical history- whatever that meant. Exaggerated and melodramatic stories were just the first of many I got used to from my Dad throughout my life and to a lesser extent my brother.

His Triple Heart Bypass took place a year after, I don’t remember that day but I remember the day he went to the hospital for it. Me and my brothers seated on the window ledge of our house, peering outside watching the cars pass and pedestrians crossing. While my Dad, the ever dapper guy that he was, donning his black suit and tie whilst neatly packing his clothes inside his small duffel bag and briefcase (yes he packed his clothes in his briefcase). The heavy heart and tears came as soon as his friend arrived to pick him up.  My Mum did the honours of opening the floodgates, my older brother followed and my heart couldn’t cope and so I too joined. The idea of him going to the hospital by his own admission rather by an ambulance was hard to bear. The patriarch of our family was leaving and he was not going to come back for a while. He smiled and tried to comfort us all assuring us he will come back.  He touched my head as he did my brothers, if he had tears too?  He did a great job hiding it. With everything that was going through his mind, with the impeding operation, he had to show a strong face or everything falls apart.

After the operation, I recall the red webbed scars covered by strips of bandage running down from his chest to the top of his slightly protruded stomach. Every night, he would sit down on his chair with my Mum watching guard. Cleaning his wounds like a wounded, battle hardened soldier who returned from war with cotton wool dipped in a bowl of lukewarm water. He used to have a big mole in the centre of his chest, it was no longer there. My biggest fear was that his stitches would come loose, his chest burst open and his organs flush out.  

Two months later, against doctor’s orders and my Mum’s, he travelled to Bangladesh. The military government over there bowed down to public pressure and declared Marshall Law over calling the first General Election in nearly a decade. It was a homing beacon summoning him home, to campaign for the Awami League – his political party. The party that ignited his political career, whose founder father -Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the unilateral influence and hero to my Dad his entire life. Growing up, his pictures were lambasted all over our living room wall, so much so, one would have been forgiven to think he was a close family member. Sheikh Mujib was given the honorary lifelong title of Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal) by his nation. Thanks to declaring and leading a brutal seven month Civil War with Pakistan in 1971, to liberate East Pakistan and finding the Republic of Bangladesh. Whose brutal assassination by a covert defecting military team in 1975, broke my Dad’s heart and gave heed to his self imposed exile from his motherland.

You would think a man like my Dad would have had his life activities cut short by such a big change in his life. But his soul hadn’t reached its pinnacle, so his body had no choice but stumble along with it. His heart attack or the operation didn’t knock him off his pedestal, his best years still laid ahead of him.

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he never had the heart attack, how much further would his life had lead him and where would my life be as a consequence. We would never have been housed to a ground floor maisonette away from my beloved 3rd floor council estate home. The estate where I learned to ride a bike, play marbles, swap stickers, get stung by stinging nettles, make slingshots with coat hangers, play football with the milk crates, climb walls, graze my knees and skinned my elbows and when we were forced to move- experience my first heartbreak.  He could have carried on being a Councillor longer than the two terms he served and possibly challenge his old comrade John Biggs, for the all mighty Executive Mayors position.  I picture a more idealistic childhood, instead of gushing memories of him being swoon to hospitals, suffering cardiac arrests or us reviving him in his sleep when he stopped breathing, which became normal practice by the time I reached my teenage years.

An alternate reality where he played with us outside in the park, ran with us, kicked a football, threw us over his shoulders or raised us on top of his head. What would it have been like to not miss those three months of school, thanks to his illness?  Back in the days when social services didn’t get involved for prolonged absences. I could have been a better a reader and learned how to swim. 

We siblings would have seen him as a strong force of nature rather than the weak physical person that rapidly manifested in front of us over the years. As a result, the iron rule fathers were expected to bring to a family, eroded from him. Maybe it was that absence of an alpha male presence, armed with a firm hand, was what led to my elder brother, the greatest genius that world had never known, thrown into a dark path. The talent and bright spark of our family, whose presence forever shadowed my life. The prodigal child moulded and destined to take his rightful place on the mantle of our family throne and lead us to frontiers not yet conquered.   The boy wonder, wise beyond his years took a U Turn and fell victim to a plague that ended up defying and driving into the dark abyss a lost generation of Bangladeshi boys in Tower Hamlets.  In doing so giving up his rightful succession to the family throne leaving a vacuum for me to fill. Why I spent all my time right up to my Dad’s death, fighting battles with him, to take a role that he wasn’t ready to relinquish or was ever meant for me to take in the first place. Taking a position I never asked for or moulded into, making sacrifices the world will never know. Goofy the 2nd in line for the throne, somehow found himself in the world of a Mascot and the circus that came with it.    

Summer, Dancing and Heart Attack (Part 2 of 3)

Heart Attack – Aftermath

“Heart attack” – It sounded majestic like it wasn’t a bad thing, when it rolled out of my Mum’s tongue on her return that night. A tiny regal with a sharp prickling effect cutting the silent sound barrier of the room. The word was on constant loop, repeating out of her mouth, her coat hanging off her slouched shoulders, her lips dry as she continued sipping from the glass of water in her hand drowning out her tired eyes. She did not even acknowledge us, the fact it had been over 12 hours since we saw her and Dad whisked away by the Ambulance, didn’t seem to have an effect on her. She talked over our heads and into the ears of our relatives who had all gathered in the house. I didn’t know what a heart attack was or what it meant. My Mum described it as a death sentence and how the earth moved for her when the doctors took her aside to give her the ground breaking news.  The day must have been hard for her, the fear and anxiety of potentially being a widow at 27 with three children.  Not knowing if or how long your husband will be around for.

The word didn’t quite have the same effect on me as it did on her. It was a description, nothing more. Something that happened to his heart that made him end up in the hospital and he wasn’t returning home anytime soon.

The morning after, we were strapped inside a cab with our Mum and swept to the Royal London Hospital. The Victorian building with a great big statue of Queen Victoria herself majestically placed in the Gardens. The driver was Bengali, like most cab drivers he knew my Dad and like most of them he didn’t take our money. It’s something we got used to growing up in an environment where everybody knew our Dad.  

So there we were- three brothers or musketeers, wearing our matching patterned nylon half shirts – a fashion disaster of that time, much like most of the early 90s. We stood patiently outside Cotton Ward on the third floor of the hospital waiting to see our Dad. We listened to our Mum pleading with the nurse in her broken English, that we were his kids and he wanted to see us. The ward had a strict policy about letting minors in, even though I was eight years old and did not consider myself as a child.  Not in the way I considered my three year old brother. She managed to negotiate a 10 minute time span for us to see him.  

My Dad lay riddled on his bed in his white singlet. Round white stickers stuck to his chest connected to wires leading to a square beeping heart monitor with wavy lines. I’d like to think our Dad hugged or maybe even kissed us, but the truth is, I was too mesmerised and in awe by the medical machineries that stood in front of me to remember. I listened intuitively to my older brother with his all knowing and all seeing self. He was precise to break down the gory details for me and I found out, if the line went flat? It means my Dad’s heart had stopped and he will die.

The rest of the day we sat at the wooden chairs with cracked leather cushions in the waiting room. Flicking and reading through the free outdated TV guides scattered at the centre of the table that came with The Daily Mirror or The Sun. One of the cast members of Neighbours was on the front cover. My brother read that article intensively. I still wasn’t able to read properly at that time.  My Mum – the poor and dutiful wife, sat vigil next to my Dad. The day was long and we became an audience to the friends and relatives that came swooning in to see him. No respect for the two visitors per bed policy of the ward. A rebellion we got used to for the next 28 years of our lives, when it came to hospital etiquettes.

My Dad’s elder sister walked out off the ward crying out loud, my Mum was in sync with her. It was a battle of who can cry the loudest.  It seemed the women in my Dad’s life were open to display emotion in the most public of places. They couldn’t be sad in a private way. In their own little world, public grieving was a calling card that they cared, that they love and most importantly they hurt. There was no other way to show it. 

A few days passed and it became clear he was out off immediate danger.  The sympathy everyone felt for my Dad slowly manifested into judgment. Lying in the hospital, strapped to a machine, wasn’t a ‘get out of jail free card’ by any means. His twenty a day smoking habit and the decades of raising his voice for his political campaigning and community activities was pin pointed as the cause of his heart failure by our family and friends. He was at fault for his own slow demise, somehow it made it easy for everyone to accept the situation better by placing the blame on him. It made them feel more control of their own health and that the same would not or could not happen to them.

As an eight year old, I learned what many of my age at that time didn’t know. Smoking and shouting will give you a heart attack. It served as a rude awakening for most men in our family, who weren’t well versed, like many of the Bangladeshi men of that generation of the harmful consequences of smoking. Most men who accompanied my Dad were smokers, all the men in our family smoked. Walking into a roomful of smoke and having an ashtray filled with grey ashes and orange cigarette butts were part of the natural deco of the house.  It was an integral part of the Bangladeshi masculinity, along with sporting a thick moustache. Cigarettes were passed around to each other as an act of greeting, hospitality and goodwill. Back when a packet of twenties would cost you a little more than £2.  I remember fanaticising about being a grown up, carrying a packet of Dunhill or Benson and Hedges- the brand my Dad smoked.  Practising with a rolled up piece of paper, the theatrical ways I would light up my cigarette with a Zippo like the one he had. My fantasy ended around that time. It wasn’t until I was 14 and thanks to my raging teenage hormones and bowing to peer pressure. I romanticised about cigarettes again and even smoked a few.   

If anything was clear from all this, it was my Mum’s stance that she would make him stop smoking and God help her put a stop to his political career. Her tone made us take her seriously and we rallied behind her triumphant battle cry. Like all her multiple crusades she had with my Dad over the course of their 39 year marriage, she failed to win that one too. He continued to smoke for a good decade after that and his political career didn’t end either.

Much of my memories from the summer of 90, are sitting at home with my brothers and missing school. Playing with our Yoyos, watching and dancing to a bad VHS copy of ‘Bad’ (excuse the pun) by Michael Jackson that we recorded from the TV. Getting re-introduced to David Hasselhoff who had abandoned his Knight Rider gimmick and slow motioned his way onto our screens with Baywatch.  Listening to New Kids on the Block and watching the cartoon and of course watching Italy 90 which was sprucing up my Geography knowledge.  The World Cup taught me names of countries I never knew existed.  I was confused, how a country called Holland was also called Netherlands.  There was a West Germany that was quite good, unlike their eastern counterpart.  I familiarised myself with new and now famous sporting celebrities like Gary Lineker, John Barnes, Paul ‘Gazza’ Gasgoine, Diego Maradonna and of course Roga Milla. I remember my sadness when Stuart Pearce and Glen Waddle missed those penalties and England came crushing out off the Semi Finals. At that time I wasn’t aware of the significance of the World Cup. I was just upset England was out off the competition.  

All the while my Mum carried on visiting my Dad in the hospital, who had developed new culinary habits throughout his stay. My Mum’s famous butter drenched fried bread and ghee embellished Paratas, which probably contributed in a major way to his heart attack, were no longer his first choice for breakfast. He began to mildly contradict his anti colonial beliefs by announcing he was eating like an ‘English Man’, thanks to his stint at the hospital and being exposed to a new diet. He wanted toast and crumpets with jam.  We had no idea what crumpets were before this.

With each summer day stretching, so did my skills on my Coco Cola Yoyo.  I learned to ‘Walk the Dog’, where it span on the floor before retreating back to my hand and ‘Around the World’, where I spun it 360 degrees and took it back in. The best part of the Yoyo experience, was making new strings, with our Mum’s collection of multi coloured cotton rolls from her mini makeshift home factory. One of the greatest untold stories from the Tower Hamlets Bangladeshi Community from the 70s through to the 90s, are that of the generation of women who were expert Seamstresses, working in their homes with their Brother sewing machines. They were the gears and backbone of the notorious East London clothing and garment industry. Women who were artists in making coats, dresses and inner linen wear. So while the outside world held a narrow perception of these mildly oppressed women, with no spoken English, litters of kids and obedient to their patriarchal masters. Little did they know, behind those veils, lay an array of skilled women, earning money and empowering themselves with their craft.  Putting in 40 hours a week including all nighters whilst managing their families. Santa Clause didn’t bring sacks of presents to our house. We had burly Asian men carrying big sacks of linen and textiles for our Mum to sew, 15p per garment was the average going price.  Every fortnight, I waited patiently for her to be handed that small brown envelope with bright orange notes, her hard earned wage. I earned my pocket money of £1, if I helped her trim labels and sort out the different cuts. It helped develop my fine motor skills and gave me my first experience of employment. My Mum got rid of her Brother sewing machine in 2008, although it had been voluntarily decommissioned and sitting in our hallway since 1998.

Summer, Dancing and Heart Attack (Part 1)

1990 – Roga Milla

Disneyland wasn’t the happiest place on earth.  We were being sold a big lie.  I was eight years old when I stumbled upon on that secret and it wasn’t that magical kingdom located in the sub tropical climate of Florida. Masqueraded through every media platform of 80’s popular culture to the eyes and ears of children growing up in the West. With a sole aim to make us fall in love with a high pitched rodent with large disproportionate ears and his lovable companions.  The incoherent duck, dressed as a sailor with no pants, the dog with two bucked tooth and big floppy ears – Goofy. I emphasise that name, because that’s what everyone called me, because of my own two frontal gushers.

My family were given the task of house sitting my Nan’s house. A three bedroom, third floor council flat on a gritty East London council estate in Tower Hamlets. An eyesore of a building accustomed to the occasional drunk and quick urine relief for passersby. Nothing out of the ordinary for that place or time, another large concrete structure, erected during the 1960’s to accommodate the growing population of London. An archetype of social housing sitting on the edge of Margaret Thatcher’s orgasmic dream of giving tenants the ‘Right to Buy’ and giving a  lingering hope to the poor working class, to have within their clasp the privilege of private ownership. Thus turning the wheel into motion, which was about to change the landscape of this part of London, that no one accidently gave a shit about.

Here I was, peering through the gap of the pane glassed living room door, watching my Dad on his feet. One hand placed above his groin and raising the other over his head, doing the Roga Milla trademark celebratory dance. Against the noise emitting from the square brown television set that was broadcasting FIFA World Cup 90.  

Looking back, I wonder what it was, that pushed a man, who came from a strict conservative background. To get up from his seat and thrust his hips and bum so provocatively, in the presence of my ten year old brother, who was eagerly mimicking his actions. Was our Dad caught up in the moment of euphoria or was the spontaneous dancing a celebration of a higher sense of achievement?  Two months prior, he made local history, by being the first Bangladeshi Labour Councillor in Tower Hamlets, alongside his comrade and friend John Biggs – who went to become Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets in 2015. Maybe he was still high from the finality of achieving an official elected position in the local government at a hostile and pivotal time for race relations, after being a grass root activist for over a decade. A man rebuilt with a sense of hope and coming to terms with his new found power.  To be in a position to make a change for his people, that for decades had been in desperate search for a voice. In him they saw a leader who was going to pave the way for the future generations of East London Bangladeshis. A small step for a man, but a giant leap for a community, that was in the verge of awakening.  Maybe the hands up in the air, represented that in addition to all this, he was in his 40s, the prime of his life, married and the father of not one, but three healthy boys.  His heirs to the throne and therefore in the tradition of South Asian cultures his future financial security. A feat many Bangladeshi families dreamt off, but only a few achieved.

Or maybe it was none of that and in Roga Milla, the breakout star of the 1990s World Cup. He found joy and comfort that an unknown African football player from Cameroon was making a name in the world biggest global sporting competition with his wacky dance and flamboyant character. A player who wasn’t white, who he could relate to and whose rise to stardom represented to him, everything he so passionately fought against – The Establishment and British Colonialism.   

So there he was, my Dad- The mascot of the family, the Mickey Mouse of our Disneyland.  With a gleam on his face, his hair a frizzy wild, his hips thrusting and the top three buttons of his shirt open. Basking in the glory of the summer heat and standing on the pedestal of what was about to push him towards the peak of his life and bring forth his glory days. My Mum – Minnie Mouse, in the kitchen or probably on the prayer mat with her forehead on the ground seeking and speaking words to the benevolent. My younger brother- Donald Duck, in the back room counting the Lychees that he loved to eat, my older brother – Pluto, lost in the moment dancing with my Dad all ready to one day take the mantlepiece from our Dad wear his shoes. And then there was tis, I – Goofy, the overlooked middle child, with my bucked tooth, skinny arms and if my family’s recollection of my childhood was to be believed- a snotty nose. Sitting down in my own solitude, in full acceptance of my 2nd in line to a family throne that would never be mine, observing my great family and thy great father – My happiest place on earth.

The next day, my Dad was lying flat on the bed, his face covered with red sweat, heaving out every single prayer that he had learned in his life. Unlike my Mum, I had never seen him pray or talk about God, but here he was, with every shortened breath, the Lord’s name transpiring out off his mouth, begging for his unlimited mercy. His half tinted glasses laid on the floor, his shirt open and his hand on his chest, a far contrast from the boisterous man who was dancing the previous day.  I couldn’t tell if he was pretending or if he was in actual pain, he had complained about chest pains a couple of days before but was up and running a few minutes later. It was hard to make sense from his agonising gasps and through the loud wails of my young mother- she had just turned 27. She didn’t call 999; it was my Aunt who did. She was too busy crying for him through his anguish, that was her job. In a culture where they were taught, woman who cried the loudest were the most committed to their spouses, she was playing the devoted wife, anything else wouldn’t fit the narrative. Her white saree with red glittered borders that she wore for Eid that year, draped over him.  It only served the irony of the situation. Since white sarees were mainly reserved for widows, like it was the Universe’s sick way of taunting her, of things yet to come.  I don’t doubt she was distraught that day and her tears had more meaning. But weather it was her playing the role of the dutiful wife or the genuine shock that her husband laid in front of her, close to death. It was the first time I witnessed love and affection from her towards him.  Something other than watching him getting yelled in his ears about the late nights coming home, his lazy attitude or him not having a proper full time job like all the other men. Because being an activist never paid – it only garnered respect. That didn’t put food on the table, pay the bills, buy clothes for the children or afford a holiday back home to her beloved Bangladesh. A place her heart yearned for since she left when she was 13 and had yet to return for her long overdue homecoming.

I didn’t go back inside the room. It was hard to understand anything from the commotion. The front door like every other summer day was gawping open and the sun blazingly shone down on the grey concrete veranda of the third floor. I could hear my peers playing football, distant sounds of bicycle bells, the hypnotic and melodic tune of ice cream vans, leading the children away like the Pied Piper. I probably would have been part of that crowd, if I didn’t have more pressing matters to focus on. I waited for the Ambulance, once they come and take him to the hospital, he should be ok. He will be back up dancing again and my Mum’s crying would stop.

Two phone calls and 30 minutes later, the big white van arrived with blue bulbs on top. I was looking over the balcony watching my 10 year old brother. He was already down on the streets waiting, waving his hands in frenzy to signal, as soon he spotted them.  The sirens weren’t flashing, I still don’t know why to this day. There are a whole lot of maybe scenarios to contemplate. Maybe in those days sirens were reserved for the extremes cases and the super important. Maybe my Aunt couldn’t explain the severity of the situation or maybe the whispers we heard later were right. They never bothered that much when they heard Bengali names.

Snippets of that day are still embedded in my memory like strobe flashbacks in a film. How his limp body was strapped to the chair by the Paramedics – two tall white men, whose uniform and skin colour alone demanded respect and authority. I watched as they slipped a mask over his mouth to ease his breathing and strolled him away like royalty. His head limped sideways, his eyes bloodshot red and in that plastic oxygen mask, his first bit of peace and serenity out of the whole ordeal. My little brother cried when they refused to take him with my Mum on the Ambulance, who by then had managed to calm down a bit and donned her long brown woollen coat.  Followed by us, the three siblings sat in the living room, the one he was dancing in the day before, in the care of our Aunt. Trying to calm our little brother down, no parents and not fully able to understand what just happened.

Climate Change – What We Can Learn from Our Immigrant Bangladeshi Parents.

It’s a common theme amongst conversations for second generation Bangladeshis here in the West, when discussing growing up in a Bangladeshi family. We come across a large tin of Quality Streets, Roses or a tin of Biscuit hoping to open and find chocolates or confectionaries, only to be greeted with the pre-cooked pastry or frozen Somosas our Mums had stored inside. Countless jokes and meme’s have been made about it – to the extent it has now become embedded in our general conversation on what it means to be a Bengali. One person once wrote, ‘My Biscuit tin has biscuits in it, does it mean I am no longer Bengali?’

But beyond the jokes and memes, lies a deeper meaning into the mindset of our parents and that of our previous generation. A mindset which some may label an art form, that we are sadly losing or have already lost in current times.

Growing up, I had never seen a Tupperware in my house, I didn’t even know what that was. My parents like many, used empty ice cream containers, empty cans, anything they had salvaged from items they have bought from the supermarket which could be used for something else on top of their original purpose. We, the younger generation attributed it to their ‘Bangladeshi out of touch’ background, on them having no clue on how to adjust to Western society. It was embarrassing to share with anyone at school, who were not from our cultural background, that our Mum used old drink bottles to store her cooking oil, empty plastic containers of my brother’s baby milk formula for her various cooking spices, or how I used to help her mash the garlic for her cooking in the empty can of chickpeas. It was even more embarrassing to explain to our non-Bengali friends, about the second-hand furniture’s that our parents had bought from the market or received from a neighbour who no longer needed it.  

Looking back, we now see the wisdom in their behaviour.  They belonged to a generation where waste was not an option. In their world, any item that can serve multiple purpose, should be salvaged and used, the ‘mend it and use it’ generation. Ones who did not throw something away because it was broke or no longer served the single purpose it was made for. They viewed items like they viewed individual people. The resourcefulness of what each brings and the different purposes they served. In doing so they were doing more for this planet than we knew.

We never have had recycle bins in our house, our parents would always find some use for the cardboards or plastic bottles. Whether it was for watering plants or acting as a makeshift cover for where we leave our shoes. They didn’t do this because they were socially conscious, fighting for climate change or for some ‘Woke’ reasons that we find ourselves surrounded by in todays world. It was just their way of life, seeing value of every resource, product and item.  Making use of everything even after its sell by use. A far cry from the throw away culture that we have now become accustomed to.

As we grew up and progressed on with our lives, getting our degrees and well-paying jobs with careers. We associated those age- old practices of our parents with poverty and their lack of being in touch. To prove our affluence and to accomplish our rise from rags to riches story, we replaced our old tin pots that stored our tea and sugar with ceramic pots that had the names Tea, Sugar, Coffee printed on it. Our biscuit tins now have biscuits instead of pre-cooked pastry. Our fridges lined with different sized Tupperware to take our lunch to work and our living rooms decorated with Ikea furnitures, to look pleasing to the aesthetic eye.  Little realising that in our quest to prove that we have moved away from poverty. We have left behind a very important lifestyle, practice and teaching that is pivotal to the survival of our hearts and the planet.

Nowadays, we find ourselves promoting Climate Change issues more so than we practice or care to admit. We carry metaphorical placards to reduce plastic, drive 10 miles of fuel to buy bio-degradable products, all the while knowing that we are participating in a throw away culture than ever before. Every morning we are greeted with stacking pile of our takeaway boxes and our growing collection of clothes all of which is feeding into our constant need of consumerism.  Our parents did not know about Climate Change. Recycling is not a word in their vocabulary, nor have they ever heard of bio- degradable products. Yet they lived a more eco -friendly life and contributed less carbon emission, than we do now with our ‘Woke’ knowledge and campaigns. They relied on simple common sense of valuing each and everything for what its worth. Throwing something as mundane as a tin can, for them was same as throwing away a £5 note. The way they treated the items in their lives is how they treated people, which in effect shaped the world we live. A home filled with items less than a year old and Amazon packages filling up our bins is a scenario unimaginable to them. If we could pull our heads out of the bubble wraps that cover our latest delivery, we would realise how this life we lead is eating into our climate and our souls.

The Universe has a funny way of balancing and adapting to our behaviours. The way we treat the things in our lives, eventually shifts our attitude to the way we treat each other. Our parents fought hard to keep relationships with people around them, mend the broken ones, found usefulness in the less useful ones, tolerate the eccentric ones. People were valuable and like the items in their life, they knew they were unique and scarce commodities to last and not to throw away.

Our inept desire for more things, only digs away at these very fundamental and our souls. This culture of getting rid of things after they serve their single purpose, has transformed into our behaviour and in effect how we treat and look at each other as humans. We now live in a world where many fail to see the value of a person or the multitude of skills and things they have to offer, other than what they can serve to us. Friends, Family, Relatives, Neighbours, Ex-Lovers, Colleagues all of whom we discard and no longer reach out to because they have passed whatever use they brought to us at a certain time of our life or have failed to provide something we want- so we discard them, like we do with the items in our lives. Broken people, who like the plastic that float in the the Ocean, lay in waste, hoping that people would see them for more than what they once served and all the other things they are and can be for us.

The race to save the climate does not just rely on poster campaigns and awareness. It lies in the way we lead our lives. We don’t need some expensive viral campaign hosted by celebrities to raise awareness of how to do our bit, we have it inside ourselves already. We just need to dig into our roots a bit. It’s time we did what our parents did,  take a hard look into some of their practices and claim them back, in doing so, not only would we find ways to save the world but in the process save our souls too.

The Never Ending Plight of Palestine.

As another Ceasefire is declared after 11 days of war. Only one thing lies certain ahead – this is only temporary. For many, like myself, we have seen this endless cycle of war and peace played out over and over in this conflict between Israel and Palestine. 2009, 2012, 2014 and here we are again in 2021. The same story – only more casualties. Those who have been around more than me, can add more years to their resume of this saga and those younger, are going add more in the future.

The issue of Al Aqsa and Palestine stretches far back beyond the creation of Israel in 1947, the Balfour Declaration, Hamas, Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Yassar Arafat, Ariel Sharon or Benjamin Netanyahu.

The hurt of Palestine runs deep like the rivers and it amplifies that much more each time, a never ending voice that refuses to retreat.  

Al Aqsa holds deep entrenched values to the global Muslim world- it’s not something they can simply let go and disown. It is the place where the Prophet Muhammed travelled in his night quest and led the prayers with all the Prophets of the past.  It is the point where Muslims were first directed to pray towards before being instructed to change it towards the Kabba in Mecca. Whether you believe in the religion of Islam or not. These very beliefs are cemented within their principles, their fundamentals and their future beliefs (where Jesus (Isa) will arrive)- In the same fashion, Judaism believe it is their Promised Land from God to their people. The conquest of Jerusalem from both the Christian and Muslim world in different periods of history, had been the focal point of these beliefs.  

For this reason for Muslims around the globe, the situation of Palestine ranks high and raises awareness than any other acts of war and oppression taking place in the Middle East or other parts of the world. Which is why every time a severe bombing campaign takes place, emotions take over rather than the mind.

However, the modern warfare and struggle which we see today reaches far beyond the fundamentals of religious ideology and exposes the tyranny, hypocrisy and double standards of the world governments. Leaders and politicians have failed to acknowledge a situation that stares them indiscriminately in their face. Similar situations in the past and present, carried out by any other government apart from Israel, has demanded (rightfully) these governments being faced with sanctions, embargos, arming of militants and even invasion. Syria, Iraq, Iran and Libya are just a few examples of the last decade.

Israel is an apartheid state, it has used and continues to use disproportionate amount of ammunition and sophisticated fire power (funded in billions year after year by the US taxpayers) to neutralise who they think are their enemies. They have a blockade at the border to minimise the amounts of medical supplies and food that gets across to Gaza for every day life. They arrest and imprison children, they are an imperialist nation and the only one in that region with nuclear weapons. Their crimes against the people of Palestine stretches far beyond religion- its an act of cleansing and an act against every basic human right. No human being can ever evaluate the situation and stay neutral, and that anger is only fuelled when world leaders and politicians (who we elected) do just that. People of influence who have always had an opinion and sides in global warfare and for decades have had the chance to facilitate a solution, stand idly by and hide behind the smoke screen that ‘Israel has the right to defend themselves’. Instead they focus on the few immature and isolated chants of close- minded idiots, to make it about Anti-Semitism, avoiding the real issue at hand. Their rhetoric and slogans are wearing thin, as we move toward a world where political thoughts and ideologies are no longer controlled by the box in our living room and newspapers owned by a few individuals. With the ever-rising power of social media and the different ways people receive their news. We have more windows to see the world for what it is. People in power should know, that hiding behind old wordings, just to keep the powerful lobbies of a few, are numbered.

Even though the placards, banners and rhetoric from the protest are the same each time, every year. One thing is for certain, it’s growing each time, it’s raising more awareness each time, it educates a new generation of people and the tides are changing in all aspect of global causes, not just one.

As we move on from this moment of radical, virtual and physical protests. There are some waiting and some hoping, that the 11 days of awareness around Palestine, will die out.  History tells us, that is exactly what will happen. So, for those of us who took the time out to raise your slogans, attend the protests, fly the flags, sign the petitions, change our social media DP, share videos, get into internet debates. What else is there to do after this?

The real action comes from you own action, if the Pandemic has taught us anything, is how vulnerable the global economy and power structure is and how much influence we have, as collective powers. Government and big businesses who get involved in unethical businesses do so with the powers we give them and with our money.

Let us set aside the Western governments and businesses and look at the ones who should be closer to the heart and region of Palestine. I am talking about the Muslim countries across the globe. Its time we boycotted them where and when we can.  Take United Arab of Emirates who had established a diplomatic relationship with Israel since August 2020. A place which has benefited and been the go-to place for Muslim tourists for nearly two decades. Knowing all too well how sensitive the whole Israel – Palestine situation is, went ahead against the wishes of the people and created a link for their own greed and power.  

Its time to look at our moral compass, simply posting flags, poems and chants is not good enough. Emotions dies out, causes don’t. How long can we hold onto our anger and emotions? That is the pivotal question.  It’s time to hit them with our minds and wallets, boycott those who fail to hear your voices, its only when they see the rising tides of unilateral voices, the changes really happen.

Are we willing to go beyond the luxury of our Frappes from Starbucks, our branded clothes from the likes of Puma, our resorted holidays and pictures for Instagram at Dubai and stand our ground. At the end of the day, this is all we can do. Raise our voices and take a collective stance against those who are complacent of the Occupation.  If we cannot make those simple changes, ask yourself, what are we really doing and who is this for and our voices only left for the chat room and virtual world?

End the Blockade.

End the Occupation.

End Apartheid.

Liberate Al Aqsa

Free Palestine.    

“She’s amazing … but a bit dark.” Thoughts on Colourism

“Why are you eating chocolate ice cream? You will become blacker by eating that.”

Sounds absurd right? That comment. Hardly a joke? It will probably have you spitting the tea out from your mouth or falling off your chair from reading it. Now, imagine that was shouted at you by your mum, when you were 13, in a crisp hot summer day in August, in the middle of a busy park with you surrounded by people enjoying the blazing heat. It would probably be a defining moment for most people. But for me, it was another bygone comment, that was retorted back with another delicious lick of the gooey chocolate syrup covering my ice cream.  I wasn’t even embarrassed, mad or angry. It’s the small things you get used to when you are born with dark skin and growing up in a Bangladeshi family and community.

Did my Mum say it out of hate, resentment or her own embarrassment that she was being seen with me? Did she do it out of spite or neglect? No, it was humour after all, it didn’t mean anything to her. She doesn’t even recall the day or the comment when I mention it to her sometimes, all these years later. Probably because she had said so many similar things, it had slipped her mind. Comments like that didn’t question her unbridle love for me or the high pedestal she has for me in her world. To her it’s an embedded teaching and attitude she was forced to grow up with and did not know any better. After all, being dark skinned meant that I should be used to being a target of humour and ridicule and regardless of age, I shouldn’t take it too much to heart, as it was my misfortune to be born with it, so therefore live with it.  

Growing up, questions, jokes and taunts around my dark skin never evaded me. More so from my family and relatives than outsiders. My mum having to explain to everyone, why she as a beautiful fair woman, can have some multi shades of children rather than embrace the beauty of having such a diverse portfolio.  The fair ones being the good-looking ones and me and my younger brother, of course not so much.

“Their uncles are dark, that’s where they got it from.” She would explain to everyone who asked. So, I would find myself searching my own roots and blaming family members who I have never met in my life, for inheriting their misfortune and gene. That’s the Asian way, none of this is breaking news. Another forced baggage to carry, growing up in an Asian family, an experience only another dark-skinned person will relate to and understand.  

No regard to how the stigma of being dark skin, shapes a person and teaches them to see a part of their body as a curse rather than something to be proud off. You end up wishing, one day you will wake up and shed your skin into a fairer one. All the while knowing deep down that all this trauma you feel is being orchestrated by your own community.

Dark skinned women being judged as not being marriage material, not worthy enough, their accomplishments geared down to nothing, their features never beautiful, only because none of what they are, is coated with white fair skin. “She is amazing, but a bit dark though.” The common sentences we have come to associate with many descriptions around potential Asian brides.  

Our first family trip to Bangladesh in the 90s, I remember my parents forced to explain to everyone, how we can be born in England and still be so dark.  Being from colonial London should have meant, we should have been fair (imagine that mindset). My younger brother getting the most brunt of the jokes, he was only 7 then, too young to have grown the thick cloak of armour needed to defend his dark skin in our community. He would get extra sensitive. As an act of love and seeing his negative reaction to it all, everyone started calling him ‘the beautiful brother’ a tongue and cheek title, to imply that he wasn’t. 

You can imagine the fun they all had when we came across a song called ‘Kala Maya’ – translated ‘Dark Skin Girl’. A song that plighted the struggle of a beautiful dark skin girl and how nobody saw her true worth.

So, this week, whilst the British public have had their jaws dropped down to the ground when Meghan Markle revealed how a member of the Royal, questioned how dark the skin tone of Archie might be. You could hear the pin drop of silence from the Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian community. A rude awakening for many 2nd/ 3rd generation Asians to contemplate some of the ideas and thoughts they still live with. Forcing them to look at their own thought process of the age old colonial idea that white represented beauty and power and how that it is still very much embedded in today’s Asian society.

Spoken words and dialogues may indicate one thing, but actions and attitudes tells us a different story.  We see it in the way beauty products are promoted, sold and bought by social media influencers. Light skinned models being used in Asian bridal magazines, filters in social media that lighten your skin shade and euro centrify your features. The fetishizing of mixed raced children or the pride of being mistaken for a middle eastern or anything other than Bengali, cos after all being Bengali means you are dark and therefore not beautiful.

So as people drop their two pennies worth in the Harry and Meghan debacle, I wonder if Asians see their own hypocrisy staring back at their face in this saga? Are they able see the roots of colonialism that continues to shape their own narrative around the different shades and tones of skin in their own people?  Will they learn to finally embrace the beauty of their ethnicity rather than uphold old ideas that has for centuries white-washed the roots of their pigmentation?

Lyrics from Kala Maya (translated)

‘The dark face has wisdom which the white face doesn’t have. Nobody wants to understand the pain of a dark-skinned girl.