Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pakshi's Story - Part I

In 2004, after exactly one year of life in the UK, it was time for me to head off to Croydon to apply for what is called ‘Indefinite Leave To Remain’. If, as a foreigner, one is married to a UK National, this is the first of many steps in the long and expensive process in applying for British citizenship. I remember how the trip to Croydon seemed overwhelmingly complicated with all the various buses and trams and trains I needed to catch to be at the Home Affairs office as early as possible to find a place in what I had heard was a neverending queue. Having not grown up in a culture where public transport is used much, it is no wonder I felt frustrated and, a wee bit afraid! In South Africa, I only ever used the train a couple of times to and from college when I was about 17 – and even then I was accompanied by two big, burly teenage boys. The risks for anyone, no matter what your creed or colour, catching a train in South Africa include stabbing, rape and mugging – hence why we are more notorious than renowned for our public transport system!
After the long train into Paddington the tram to Croydon fascinated me! It was run purely by electrics and computers – there wasn’t a driver – though I think there may have been a conductor checking our tickets. I befriended a helpful and kind lady, heavily laden with grocery packets, who explained exactly how to get to Home Affairs from ‘my’ stop. She even got off a stop early so I would be sure to find my way!
Greying and large, the imposing block of the Home Affairs building loomed over me, and I felt incredibly uncomfortable, as if I were wrapped in a gaudy jacket which didn’t fit or even belong to me. There seemed to be no obvious entrance to the building or indeed any sign of helpful information; a bewildered handful of souls wandered or sat aimlessly around the building. Nobody seemed to know anything. Indeed, nobody seemed to understand English. Eventually, off to the side of the building, in an obscure, dark stairwell, I discovered a sign which confirmed I had in fact reached the right place, and I stepped over couples huddled on stairs, and brushed heavily past backpacks and burkas bumping along in the opposite direction. At the top of the stairs, protecting a glass security door was an armed guard drenching me immediately in that cold September 11th sweat. No smiles, no reassurance at all: just a frisking, bag search and brisk verification I had the correct documents. He allowed me into what felt like a dark, warm cavern, handing me a square of paper with a number printed in rough ballpoint. Murky green inside, the sombre light came from the most minimal strip fluorescents along the low ceiling. But more oppressive than this dank cave-like atmosphere was the humanity. The people! I felt swamped inside this hushed, murmuring, seething mass of people. There seemed to be people here from every corner of the world… Nigeria, Congo, India, Taiwan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe. I didn’t feel as if I belonged in this desperate confusion where armed guards stood watch over the afraid and impatient people. How many were refugees? The sense of poverty and sadness made me feel like an interloper – as if I had no right to take up a space here : me with my happy, very English life.
Checking my number against the digital counter on the far wall, my place at one of the desks seemed hopelessly out of reach – as if I would never be helped before the end of the day. With nothing else to do I found a seat (hard, olive green plastic) next to an exquisitely beautiful and smiling Indian girl. Helloes exchanged, I rummaged in my bag for my journal or a book to read. I needn’t have bothered because within just a few minutes, I was engrossed in my neighbour’s deliciously accented story about how she came to be there. Her name was Pakshi and I remember how I called her ‘my Pakshiti’ after that long day spent becoming friends. In a strange way, she felt like a sister to me – as if I had known her my whole life. We thought that we were the only two people who laughed there that day, sharing our juice and sandwiches. Navjot and I shared the experience of both having spent one year in England because we were married to English citizens. We were both dreadfully homesick – and we shared the same complaints about our husbands: workaholics, mothers-in-law, loneliness, our lack of independence and an ardent desire for children not shared by our husbands. It is hard to describe the feeling of just what a blessing it was to meet her that day. Maybe ‘kismet’ is the closest?
Pakshi was a few years younger than me, and at 22 looked like India’s most beautiful woman. Her hair was so thick and long, that it could have been a glossy wig it was so perfect. Her arched eyebrows framed magical grey eyes that shifted between blues and green all day long. Ever so lightly hooked, her nose gave her face some drama, while her lips were full and wide, always playfully curving up into a smile that dazzled! She explained how marriage and weddings in India are so different to the kind I knew – for example, why she wore no wedding ring or engagement ring but instead had an arm full of bright gold bracelets. I showed her my big oval diamond set in platinum and told her the story of how I had come to design its antique setting myself and how disappointed I was that it was not the romantic surprise I had dreamed of since I was a little girl. Of course, Navjot laughed shrewdly at this and then embarked on her own grand epic of her arranged marriage, making my disappointment seem childish in comparison. Don’t get me wrong, she didn’t seem to feel sorry for herself at all, it was merely her matter-of-fact approach to her situation that made me feel so petty. It was only much later in our friendship that the truth of how she felt seeped out into our conversations like tears unwept for too long.
In India, near Delhi, Pakshi grew up in a fairly affluent home with her happily married parents and sister. She sailed through school and ended up with a good, but in the end, futile degree, as she was not allowed to work as married woman. Her father arranged the marriage with a friend and ex-business partner of his now living in England. The son was a banker – hardworking, wealthy, reliable: a good catch. Within six months the process was complete. Pakshi had met the son a couple of times when he and his family had been on holiday to India before, but there was no attraction between them – merely a formal acceptance as family friends. And so, with the marriage arranged, Pakshi ‘got to know’ her fiancé through emails. I suppose, on the outside, this may not seem very different to how potential lovers meet on dating websites and chat rooms, but when one digs a little deeper, the difference is immeasurable. For those of us who have grown up on a Western diet of love and romance, the idea of an arranged marriage seems barbaric and terrifyingly unpalatable. I must have sat with my mouth agape and eyes wide in shock when Pakshi told me all of this, because a couple of times, she paused to laugh at me as though I were naïve and uneducated. And perhaps I was. Having been married and traumatically divorced and currently engaged to be married again, marriage has taken on a different guise and meaning altogether for me, and had I to meet Pakshi all over again today and have her tell me her story, I would respond so very differently…

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The "Soutpiel" Phenomenon

I think it was Bryce Courteney in "The Power of One" who described the unique human condition of being a 'soutpiel'. One foot in South Africa and one in England (and your 'piel' hangs in the separating seas, making it salty!)
Between 2003 and 2006, I found myself in this rather awkward position and vowed I would never do it again. But now, I am back here in sunny England, my 'piel' dangling precariously and inexplicably between Cape Town and Heathrow.
Being a South African, whether from Benoni, Bloem or Bellville, in England is a remarkably unique experience which deserves some sort of investigative analysis as a phenomenon and diaspora-of-sorts.

Outside the sky is deathly still and the particular grey only an African can recognise as being so damningly English. Always mutable, today it is cranked up to ‘luminous’ – managing at once to be both darkly overcast and glaringly bright. When I left England almost exactly two years ago, I was deeply convinced I would never live here again. But here I am once again, confronted by the daily-ness of living in a world I feel I cannot call my own. In the past I used words like alienation, isolation and exile to describe my existence away from home. But now my reason for being here is so utterly different that now I look at those words and think they sound a little dramatic – but perhaps there is some hint of truth to them still.
Living in the UK is very different to popping over here on a mere holiday. In fact, when one is here as a South African on holiday, one is pleasantly comforted by the cosy English pubs and the red buses of Piccadilly Circus – it is just like in the movies and sitcoms which are the staple diet of South African television. But when you have lived here for awhile, the persistence of pubs and the glaring lack of restaurants becomes a source of cultural irritation and gastronomic frustration and all you wish for is a swish Italian café which doesn’t serve chips with all their pasta dishes! This and various other idiosyncrasies of the South African/English experience fascinate me now in a way which didn’t before. And though each South African’s experience of living in the UK is unique, we all have shared many of the same dreams, frustrations and asked the same questions. And so I hope you will enjoy this collection of bitingly true stories and frank interviews as much as I have enjoyed writing about them!