By Sabyn Javeri
Excerpts from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’
The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.
I close the book and step off the tube at Tooting Broadway. Outside the dimly lit station grey clouds eclipse the sun, and for a moment, the whole street is engulfed in darkness. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon, but here in London, it is neither night nor day.
A squealing of tires, the grinding chatter of mixed tongues and a rabid odor of waste and pungent spices surrounds me.
I haven’t been here for ages.
On the sidewalk a shopping trolley stands abandoned, and next to it stands a band of old young boys with flapping Rasputin beards and listless hands. Thin, frenzied children trail behind grim faced women in dull black chadors and a Hallal butcher leans against his counter, listening. Outside his shop a Somali man is calling upon Allah to come down and teach the pound shop owner a lesson for over charging. And above all this looms a Primark sign, shadowing the street with its big bold letters. The effect is chaotic.
I think of Karachi, the city I left behind.
I walk down the High street towards The MADINA Store. Someone has spray painted the last three letters with black paint so that the shop front reads The MAD Store. A large Warhol type poster of a man in a checkered headscarf aiming a machine gun decorates the door. Right next to it is a banana yellow poster of Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill. ‘And Blair and Bush too,’ someone has added with a marker.
Inside, the shelves are crammed with every possible item. Rows of children’s toys sit next to bras and wigs, painting supplies are stacked next to spices and in the back a large glass cabinet is stuffed with ‘Used’ mobile phones. A SALE sign sits placidly amidst the busy bustling shelves.
Behind the counter there are rows of Bollywood DVDS and eye popping film posters. In one of them, Shahrukh Khan’s heartthrob face is twisted with rage and a wide-eyed, almost naked heroine is staring up at him. In front of this display, stands a bearded man, lazily chewing beetle nuts.
Like a desert camel, I think.
‘Walaikum Salam,’ he answers.
‘A five pound calling card to Pakistan and a copy of the New Asian Woman.’ Hesitantly I add, ‘And a pack of Marlborough Lights.’
He grins and I shift my weight from one foot to another. Under his stare my shirt seems too short and the jeans I am wearing feel too tight. I put on my jacket though the shop is warm.
As he hands over the pack, he asks if I’ve seen the new Shahrukh Khan film.
‘I’ve got a clean print. Not at all pirated, and for you, only six pounds.’
The six comes out as sex and I glance at the neon sign flashing above his head. ‘BLUE films sold here,’ it reads. I wonder if he is trying to sell me some. I’m about to tell him, ‘Don’t you have any mother or sisters,’ when I see the small lettering underneath the BLUE.
‘Bin Laden Undertakes Enemy.’
‘You can do that?’
He turns around to see what I’m talking about and laughs. I see a flash of rotting teeth as he says, ‘It’s a free country. People can watch what they want. Yeah?’
I don’t answer back.
‘I wish they’d get the trial done,’ she thought, `and hand round the refreshments!’ But there seemed to be no chance of this, so she began looking at everything about her, to pass away the time.
Steam from the food has fogged up the windows and the people inside seem to be drifting in an otherworldly haze. As I get closer, through the glass I see a bald Asian man bent over his plate. His face is close to the food slurping the last of his curry like a cat. With deft fingers he swipes the plate clean, then licks his fingertips and smacks his lips. Next to him, a White woman shifts in her chair. She is glances nervously at her partner who’s waiting at the counter to be served. In between the furtive glances, as if she was in a thief’s den, she picks at her naan bread with her fork and knife and takes great, big swigs of water.
‘No dogs allowed.’ ‘Hallal only.’ ‘Bestest Takeaway in Britain.’
Garish stickers greet me at the door and a loud bell jangles my ears as I push open the door. The owner looks up from his till. He takes in my dark skin and tight jeans and scowls at the cigarette in my hand. A waiter lets out a low whistle and a Brown man in a long white Arab dress glowers at me. I hold his gaze, even as sweat gathers in my palms. He glares back and my defiance melts to a plea.
Am I the only one feeling this way?
In front of me stands a fat woman wearing a tight Punjabi suit, her head covered with a slippery scarf-like dupatta. On each side, a child clings desperately to her and a baby is cradled against her shoulder. She is young enough to be my age, yet older than I could ever be.
Behind me stands another girl, also by herself. Probably a student, I think. She is wearing jeans and sneakers. She pushes back her jacket hood to reveal a skull tight hijab.
‘Sister, it is your turn,’ she says. I step forward in my high heeled boots and clutching my jacket tightly around, order a biryani to go. Despite the protests from my hungry stomach, I do not feel brave enough to eat here alone.
The man taking my order takes in my accent and asks, ‘Indian?’
Silently, I shake my head.
I shake my head again.
‘You don’t have a British accent.’
He looks up as he packs my food. Imposter, his gaze seems to say.
‘I was born in Pakistan.’
He heaves a heavy sigh and slips in a flyer not too discreetly, as he hands me my food. I step out in the cold sunshine and take great big gulps of air. My whole body smells of curry and the smell moves with me as I walk.
I come across a dustbin spewing with empty cartons, old newspapers and broken beer bottles and pull out the flyer from the paper bag. I already know what it will be about. I reach out to trash it but my hand hovers over the bin. A voice rings in my ears. It is my mother’s voice. Words laced with fading yellow edges trace the air around me and I think back to a time when as a child I played on the roof of our house in Karachi.
Ma is bending over me. Her chador shadows her face, casting a dark glow between us. ‘It is a sin to throw away Allah’s name.’
In my head, I can see what would happen in the next few days. Having carefully folded the paper in my pocket, I would look for flowing water to put the paper in. This was the only honorable way to dispose of material with God’s name on it. Or so I had been taught to believe. A belief I found hard to discard, unlike others which I had shed in the first few years of my stay here.
‘I’ll think about hell when I get there,’ I say and reach out to bin the flyer. But some small beliefs are harder to let go of than others. I take a long drag on the dying cigarette and exhale slowly.
The paper still flutters in my hand.
She, Alice, was just saying to herself, ‘if one only knew the right way to change…’
How long have I been standing here? The book I had brought along to read on the tube feels heavy in my hands and I can feel the scents of Tooting sweeping into its pages. A White shopkeeper, often called a foreigner by locals, calls out, ‘You lost, Love?’
I blink back.
Perhaps thinking I didn’t understand English he asks again slowly.
‘Have you lost your way?’
I glance up the street to where a group of young boys are handing out pamphlets and calling out to the public to fight in Iraq and Syria.
‘I’m not the one who’s lost,’ I say.
The man spits on the sidewalk and mutters something about immigrants before returning to his pitch.
I walk towards the cries of Save Iraq. Not a hint of Arab in them, I think, as I pass the boys.
‘Sister, please make a donation for our Palestinian brothers,’ says one.
He speaks with an East London accent and his sandy complexion, grizzly beard and prayer cap, send chills down my spine. He is talking to me with his eyes to the ground.
I don’t want to support a war that is not my own war. I don’t want to see the bigger picture. I don’t want to be responsible for the entire Muslim Ummah. I don’t want to be the savior. I want to stay aloof.
No Thanks, I say as I walk past without reaching into my purse. In a shop glass I look at my reflection and think, uninvolved. I want to think of myself as me, immigrant to the first world, holder of a newly printed British passport and then as a Muslim and much later as a woman.
But could I really?
Here in Tooting, surrounded by the Punjabi and Urdu words, the black hijabs, the aroma of curries, the cries of ‘Stop the war’ mixing with the pungent call to prayer, I question myself.
To steady myself I clutch the inside left pocket of my coat. This is where I keep my new found passport. I run my fingers over its smooth texture and feel a strange sense of abandonment. Like the Arabian nights flying carpet, this magical booklet could take me wherever I wanted to go. I was far away from the poverty, the humiliation and the struggles of the old country. The fight for democracy wasn’t my fight any more. The flies, the gutters, the overflowing stench of poverty was not my headache. Let the ones who got left behind fight the honor killings. I had other things to worry about. Like how to say house without h.
I feel a thrill race up my spine. It’s laced with guilt.
Above me, the grey sky hovers unsteadily. It runs into tall brick buildings and races above tunnels decorated with graffiti, litter and dead rats.
‘Paki go home,’ says a wall.
I look the other way and walk on. I wasn’t a Paki. Not anymore.
I hug the passport closer.
‘Nor are we,’ echo the grey faces of Asian boys in hoods and baseball caps, leaning against the graffitied walls.
I retrace my steps to the High street and standing at the Broadway crossing, the intersection seems like a prophecy. East, West, Pakistan, Britain. Paki, Paki British, British Pakistani, British? Maybe that’s why the kids on the campus used to call themselves Muslims instead of choosing one or the other or both like me.
‘Sailing in two boats, trying to be both’, my mother would have said. Curious, open, refusing to choose, I would like to think.
Why shouldn’t I be both?
‘Be what you would seem to be,’ said the Duchess, ‘”—or if you’d like it put more simply—”Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.”’
At the crossing, waiting for the green man to replace the red, I stub out the cigarette with my heel. A group of girls in black head scarves pass by. They look at me sideways and whisper. One of them turns back to smile. Envy or pity, I wonder.
A sudden gust of cold wind makes my skin shiver.
‘The sun here has no warmth,’ says a shop owner. He is stroking his long thin beard. He seems to be talking to no one in particular, his creased face bearing that timeless quality of someone for whom time has ceased to be a measure. He could have been a young man waiting for time to pass or he could have been an old man unaware that time had already passed him by.
There are many like him here, I think. Disillusioned shopkeepers, who sit outside their shops on solitary stools, stroking their beards and calling out their wares by making hopeless small talk to passersby. Unlike the busy bazaars of the old country, they don’t shout out the prices here. The price is to be judged by the appearance of the customer. Pound each for the poor and filthy asylum seekers. Pound fifty for the Blacks, because of whom Almost-Whites like them have to suffer. ‘No bargaining, only fixed price’ for the infidel Indians. For the old masters of the board, the Goras, who venture into the ghetto for the occasional curry, the price is irrelevant. But not so for the ‘White Trash’ who are here to make life hell for the ‘Paki.’
‘They prowl the street looking for a Paki to look them in the eye,’ the lady at the threading parlour had told me. ‘And then there is trouble. Later you could bleat racism all you want but could you bring your son back to life?’
I sense the shopkeepers’ gaze on me and I am reminded that there are also those of us who have forgotten their roots and committed the unforgivable sin of assimilation. For them there is only contempt.
In this old man’s eyes I can see the unabashed pride in prejudice. I break away from his vacant gaze and cross the street. He will always be a stranger at home.
“Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else”
My biryani is giving off a strong smell and I brace myself for the wrinkling of noses and shrinking away that would follow me on the journey home. People would vacate the seat next to me on the tube, move away from me at the bus stop and glance suspiciously at the bag in my hand when I emerge from the underground. But before I leave the smells and colors of my childhood behind for the odorless grey landscape of my present, there is one more thing I have to do.
Mangoes, the very reason I keep coming back to Tooting.
I look at his salty grey features, unaware of the dark bitterness of rat-infested basements that awaited him at the Takeaway kitchens once his money ran out.
In my mind I map out his future. ‘Three years,’ I say silently. It shouldn’t take him more then three years to realize the streets here are not paved with gold. And then what will he do? There is no going back empty handed from this land.
As I wait for them to finish swapping scores I think about how, when the bitterness sets in, the man will become vulnerable to the Brotherhood. Religion will be the only solace. The eventual fundamentalist, I think. Aloud I say, ‘One kilo and hurry.’
The man noticing me behind him moves to one side.
‘Ahh!’ says the shopkeeper, weighing the mangoes on his ancient scale. ‘Mangoes and cricket are two things that bring all people together.’
‘Only money brings people together,’ says the thin man. His eyes cut across to me and he mumbles, ‘You can get away with whatever you want, when you’ve got money.’
‘That is true,’ agrees the owner. Like an oversized Buddha, he sits cross legged on a stool. Surrounded by flies and fruit, he looks as if he belongs in some tropical jungle instead of this forgotten SW17 ghetto with not even a novelty value like that of China Town or the East End.
His stubby fingers deftly pack the mangoes with straw and strips of paper inside a cardboard box while he talks without once looking up. ‘When you have pounds in your pocket, a flat in Knightsbridge, no one will call you a Paki. No Jee No! They will call you ‘Sir’. Good to have you with us Sir!’
His large belly jiggles as he laughs. Alone.
Slapping the money down, I take the packet and make my way back to the tube station. I’ve had enough of Tooting for a day.
The box of mango tucked firmly under one hand and clutching the bag of biryani, my paperback and a large glossy magazine in the other, I step on the tube heading north. Tooting disappears into a haze of darkness.
In the train I look at the rainbow of faces around me. A shade darker here. A shade lighter there. Here in London, where it seems that every person is half White, half Black, half Indian, half Southall and half Chelsea, color seems only skin deep.
Yet we wear our pasts close to our skin.
The tube rushes through the darkness. I lean back in my seat and flip through the magazine. Glancing back at me from the glossy pages are sleek, honey skinned women with poker straight black hair. They wear Asian clothes tailored to resemble western attire. One model wears a sari with a halter neck top and the other has on a tight fitted blouse and straight pants. A scarf is loosely draped around her head. The caption says ‘Amalgamation’.
I smile and think, if only.
The tube grinds to a stop and I step out of the sliding doors. But on the escalator going up towards the light, I can see still feel sunlight on my skin. And it’s not just the mangoes and biryani that make me feel this way.
Just at this moment Alice felt a very curious sensation, which puzzled her a good deal until she made out what it was: she was beginning to grow larger again, and she thought at first she would get up and leave the court; but on second thoughts she decided to remain where she was as long as there was room for her.
I’m being jostled along with the rush hour crowd towards the ticket ends. The jabs are sharp, the cries of excuse me, loud and impatient. I feel unwanted.
Was I longing for home?
‘I am home,’ I remind myself but the voice persists. Why do you go looking for the smells and tastes you left behind?
I step out into the cool night air and join the sea of commuters walking down King’s Road. The air here is different, almost scented. But still bleak. Prejudice, albeit of a different kind, still hangs in the air. I look around me and then at me in the glass of the million pound storefronts, I pass.
I stop walking and look up. The sky is the same as back home but something feels different.
London is not my city and never will be.
Alone in the crowd, I watch faces, perfectly still and expressionless, hands carrying Blackberries and Burberry, restless fingers typing away.
Because London is not even a city.
As the people drift past me I think, like a patchwork quilt, it is a series of countries within a city, bursting at the seams and held together by the sheer will of its people. Almost as if Tooting was a country with its invisible boundaries that contain the immigrant breeds, Chelsea is another such realm. It is a tight circle with limited access to those who could afford it. To live here, you have to be born into it or work very hard to get in. And even then, you can only look and not touch. You will always be the outsider.
By you, I mean me.
Later, as I board the No.22 bus, a man in blue glances suspiciously at the packet in my hand and then at the cardboard box which takes up half the space on my seat. Ignoring the distrust in his light eyes, I focus instead on my book. He sniffs the air and pinches his nose.
I smell foreign and unfamiliar, even to myself.
Hunching my shoulders, I slouch deeper into my seat. The little booklet in my breast pocket is tight on my heart but even its smooth caress can not soothe the unease.
A boy boards the bus and sits down next to me in the tight space. He is dark enough to be Black but light enough to be something else. He wears a white T-Shirt with a black logo, Alien Nation.
‘Alienation,’ I read quickly.
Suddenly, I feel as if everything is illuminated. I find myself laughing. ‘Isn’t it ironic?’ I say to the boy who moves away to another seat.
I close my eyes and think that this is where I’ll be when I open them again. At this very same spot from which there was no going back and no way further, either. I no longer belonged in a world wrecked by fury of those who felt persecuted, nor did I fit in this new world, which had opened its doors to me but was indifferent to my existence.
What had I become?
‘I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, THAT’S the great puzzle!’
The bus moves slowly in the descending darkness, steady and serene, like the eye of a storm in the middle of great chaos. The lights dim at the High Street and I look out at the fishmonger who’s just closing shop. I wonder how far the fish have traveled to be sold here. The fish stare back, their eyes cold, their mouth frozen in a surprised O.
The bus halts at World’s End estate and people at the back of the bus get off. There is a smattering of Oyes and Inits and boys with hoods and girls with tightly pulled back hair and silver loops for earrings board the bus. A hooded figure with sallow skin and hollow eyes runs past me and up the stairs.
The Driver hollers, ‘You boy!’
Nobody moves. He shouts again in a heavy Nigerian accent, ‘Da Bus not moving till I see yor teecket’.
We wait patiently till the boy comes down and mouthing a Fuck Off Paki at the driver, jumps off. A young Bangladeshi mother huddles close to her three children. A Chinese man closes his eyes. He reminds me of a cat.
The bus moves.
I look at the people around me. They remind me of tiny pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that come together but never form a picture. A whole of things, yet incomplete. People paused in a frame, as if waiting for someone to unclick them.
Hybrids or freaks?
The bus driver brakes roughly and a dog barks at me through the frosty glass pane.
‘We come and go,’ I whisper to myself and to the dog outside. Somewhere in the dark a Busker is strumming a guitar and a woman is singing.
‘I’m like a bird…’‘I don’t know where my home is…’
‘Where my home is…’ I hum along.
I look out and notice the sky is lit up with stars though it is not yet night. Amidst the twinkling of stars, a wane sun peers out from layers of thick white clouds.
Only in London, can the sun and moon shine together.
I close my eyes and listen.
Only in London.
So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality.
Sabyn Javeri is an award-winning short story writer and upcoming novelist. She has won The Oxonian Review short story award and was shortlisted for Meridian, Leaf books and the first Tibor Jones South Asia Prize. Sabyn holds a Masters with Distinction from the University of Oxford in Creative Writing and is currently a PhD Scholar at the University of Leicester. Her debut novel, ‘Nobody Killed Her’, which is set in Pakistan, is expected to be published next year.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story was first published in The London Magazine (2006).