“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.