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.