Sunday, October 26, 2008

Foodie Fetishes

Wanna know something really silly? I’m slowly nibbling a Crunchie in bed as I write as though it were, instead, a rare and luxuriously expensive chocolate imported from somemagnificently exotic land! And just why it’s so silly is because all my life, I’ve been an uncompromising Bar One devotee – probably only ever having consumed a total of 4 Crunchies in my entire South African childhood – and only then as a last chocoholic resort! But for some reason, the melting, sticky sweet roughness of the honeycomb in my mouth comforts my homesick little heart!

Funny how food has such a strong visceral link to your heart and memories… Some of the patriotic foodie habits I regularly indulge in are:

1. BOVRIL on hot toast into which the butter has softly melted, reminding me of so many breakfasts before school – even lazy Sunday morning breakfasts – where it was our family ‘thing’ to sit together every morning for breakfast: a half rule, half ritual. Never rushed, it was a time for stories, question-time, teasing, sulking, laughter… Now, every SINGLE time I spread butter into my hot, hot toast so that it turns the very toastedness of the toast to a warmly delicious mush, it makes me think of my dear dad and his strict penchant for insisting on toast that remained just that: crisp, hard, barely warm! How he glowered at us girls, drowning our toast in great big buttery dollops and oodles of marge, jam, Bovril – the works!

2. What I call ‘Mommy Coffee’: one generous teaspoon of good quality instant coffee, just about a third of a cup of milk – ever so slightly sweetened with half a teaspoon of sugar. Stir. Whizz around in the microwave for 30 seconds. THEN add the boiled water.

After pumping the cafetieres and milk steamer as a trainee barista at Starbucks for a few months back in 2005 in Newbury’s High Street, I became a bit of a coffee afficianado (actually, more of a fanatic!) what with the in-depth education we received via coffee-tasting, conferences and a brick-thick coffee manual we were regularly quizzed on. And so, I took to drinking my coffee pure and black so the top notes, bass notes, fragrance or body could never be insulted by the adulterous dousing of milk, cream, sweeteners or sugars --- looking down my caffeinated nose at any pleb who deigned to ruin a coffee like that! (In the back kitchen, us baristas even used to get ‘high’ on the literally intoxicating air that was left behind after we emptied a brand new pack of coffee beans into the grinders, pushing our faces deep into the bag and inhaling like a sorry addict – looking more like an old donkey with his feedbag than a glamorous coke junkie!!)

3. Carnation Treat Caramel : oh, the ecstasy, the rapture (!) of unhurriedly winding that can-opener in a circle to reveal a glimpse of what maybe heaven could be like!

A knocking at my kitchen door made me peek through the square of antique French lace that serves as a curtain, to see Ang (fellow SA and neighbour) grinning madly and pointing frantically to the tin of caramel she’d bought for me. Oh boy – it was only 3 days later, and there was only a mere memory left for me of the delights of that tin! Sjoe, and how it reminded me of home – of my mother’s well-stocked and enviously organised walk-in pantry… When either my dad or I couldn’t find something lekker to sate our sweet-tooth, we’d head straight to the back of the pantry to the tin section, right next to the noisy ol’ deep-freeze – and there, never ever disappointed, we’d seize upon a tin of caramel or condensed milk – for which we were fully prepared to endure the wrath of that question, “Who ate a tin of caramel?” It was never hard to find the culprit.

Something I have looked for, year in and year out, in every Tesco or Sainsburys I patronise is : tinned smoked oysters! For me, these reek happily of late afternoons, camping in Wilderness – the sun that hot gold that turns everything glorious, sipping some of Daddy’s cold, cold beer – and sharing a plate of salticrax dotted luxuriously with an oily, brown but deeeeeelicious smoked oyster!

If I just BEGIN to talk about biltong then we’d all be here till at least one of us turned grey! So, let me return to what I ACTUALLY set out to write about: my friend Caroline’s comment relating to my last entry about the NHS and midwives:

My first son was born in SA with all the best of what medical aid had to offer. It was very reassuring because I was very nervous so I can understand what you are saying.

The other two had midwifes deliver them although a doctor was called for no. 2.

That's the nice thing about having your delivery in a hospital - the doctors are never far away if need be.

I found the English midwifes very caring and (over) concerned. They react to every little thing. Although my midwife did try to persuade me to have a home delivery for no 3.

At some point in my third pregnancy I was sent to a gynae for a checkup and when he asked me about my 'birth plan' I looked at him with a look and said "what's up with all that - nothing ever goes according to plan anyway!. I just want a hospital bed and an epidural!" He burst out laughing...

Three very different deliveries --- though none of them sound like there was any disappointment or frustration on Caroline’s part (VERY reassuring for me!!) I’d have to agree that there is certainly a ‘culture’ of midwifery here which I haven’t heard happening in SA, where the whole pregnancy and birth process is overseen by a gynaecologist. My mom and I were both initially quite sceptical about a midwife being the sole carer for me during my pregnancy. I suppose it’s a mistrust based on the idea that a gynaecologist is more qualified. But saying that, women have been acting as midwives for each other since literally forever, and in each and every culture – except until the recent Western advent of the male-dominant ‘doctor’ culture (late 19th Century?!) This is when men put us on our backs, bent legs opened up, ankles in stirrups, in a very convenient position for the doc doing the delivering, but hellishly illogical and a bit pointless for the woman giving birth! Even ancient cultures had women walking around, squatting, sitting – doing what came naturally – and doing what is suddenly again (thankfully!) fashionable today.
And so, I’d have to agree with Caroline and all the masses of hearsay I’ve adsorbed through television, magazines, books and conversation: my birth plan’ll be just the same: get the baby out in one piece and help me not commit husband-homicide in my agony!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Health & Safety?!

In the UK, a normal, healthy pregnancy is presided over by a usually benevolent midwife until the actual birth. However, if there is some sort of complication such as high blood pressure, or - like me - you take 'non-approved' medication daily, you get referred to an OB-GYN in the antenatal clinic. Admittedly, some may not see this as a positive but for me (and my worried mom back in Cape Town) it was SUCH a relief!! It seemed ludicrous to not see a bona fide gynaecologist AT ALL during my entire pregnancy -- though this is not to say NHS midwives are ignorant or inept.

In South Africa, the norm is that your medical aid (for which you pay through your, um, ... nose) pays for regular visits to gynaes of considerable reputation and skill who're lodged in a private hospital or medical centre. At the birth, the gynae is the one who oversees the most crucial parts of the process --- a reassuring thought at the least.

A number of my friends've had babies delivered via the NHS -- the children are all healthy little buggers: so how bad could it be? Care differs from hospital to hospital, apparently... An article in the weekend paper told about the tragedy of a mentally 'all there', gracefully dignified 72 year old who was shifted from one NHS hospital to another - and received appalling 'care' from the nurses on her ward: they were apparently verbally and physically rough with her, belittling and often just not available! Thankfully, a South African friend of mine works as a PA in Northampton hospital and has guaranteed it's quite okay in terms of all those things I'm just a tad concerned about: hygiene, consistently efficient and kindly care etc.

However... now safety can't really be included in that list! While I was visiting the antenatal clinic (with my Nigerian gynae!) there was what is commonly called, here in the UK, 'an incident'. A 63 year old man had JUST been examined by a young cardiologist in a ward of 28 people -- nothing seemed out of the ordinary or alerted the young doctor of what was about to happen... While examining the next patient, through the thin separating curtain he heard what sounded like a loud scuffle --- his previous patient had shot himself in the head, the gun slipping to the floor from his suddenly lifeless hand... No doubt the other 27 patients are receiving some sort of trauma counselling while the hospital's Big Guns (oops -- no pun intended) will be seriously revising their beloved Health & Safety standards!

No-one would think to check an incoming patient for weapons - but maybe when I'm howling and barking in a wheelchair from hideously powerful contractions at the reception of the labour ward in March next year, they'll be rifling through my overnight bag of nappies and maternity pads, doing a full body search for knives, guns and who knows WHAT the paranoid in the NHS might then deem a 'weapon'!? Car keys? (see )

On a less sarcastic note, the man who took his life had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. (And here, I am silenced.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Ad nauseum

Two newspapers. A local South African one, and BBC News. Hunting for something juicily South African to write about, there really was so little to choose from: 'Luke the Puke' Watson being sent anti-nausea medication to cure his need to 'vomit all over the Springbok jersey' (I wonder how many eyebrows this raised?); a debate over whether or not to capture wild dolphins from Algoa Bay for the aquarium in P.E ; Zuma's court case --- I don't know which of the three is the most reminiscent of a circus? Certainly the dolphins must be the most evolved of the mammals mentioned!

I recently approached The South African regarding the possibility of writing a weekly column for them - but when asked what I'd be interested in writing about, there was one hot potato I wasn't prepared to pick up: and that's politics. Scanning the BBC headlines and our SA ones made my stomach churn with confusion, frustration and fear. It doesn't seem as if politicians anywhere can be trusted! (Pardon me? You've heard this before? A zillion times?)

Can anyone explain to me just how someone can be accused of 16 years' worth of fraud and corruption, and then abracadabra suddenly be set free of each and every allegation? Could so many allegations merely have been someone's deluded and fickle imagination?

I doubt it.

But who am I to comment? I worry about getting into some sort of trouble...

And so, from now on, I'll probably be steering clear of politics as something worth writing about. Let's stick to the things of this world that actually make sense. Like ol' Pukey Lukey and his incurable nausea!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Where is Pakshi?

Maybe it was a subconscious thing that I ended Pakshi’s story on such a grand, distracting note as Part V … Part V wasn’t really “The End” . You see, Pakshi somehow disappeared – and I haven’t been able to find out why. Sometimes I lie awake at night agonising over how I could have let her slip away like that – was it my fault?

In June 2006, Pakshi was heavily but elegantly 7 months pregnant with a son. Her in-laws were, obviously, ecstatic – and suddenly Pakshi’s status rose from kitchen-girl/youngest, childless wife to celebrated and cherished carrier of a male grandchild. This meant new freedoms : a cellphone, enrolment in a driving course and being able to meet with friends more freely. Her response to this new regard was somewhere between guarded relief and cheeky triumph!

The drive up from Southampton to Newbury from where I’d hop onto the London Paddington train was fraught with such deep anxiety that I had to stop at a motorway petrol station to be sick. For two years I’d been trying to leave my ex-husband – and trying to make it work. But by March of 2006, the marriage was as good as dead and buried – and I was buried alive with it. Eventually, the fear of dying completely overcame my sick paralysis and June 21st was the date stamped on my SAA ticket back to Cape Town. I didn’t yet know, the day I last saw Pakshi, that I was indeed going home, but my buried heart knew and I didn’t know how to explain to this beautiful, gentle friend of mine I was going away.

Sitting across from each other in a darkish, yellowly-lit Indian restaurant in Southall, she teased me about my nausea – begging me with her eyes that I be pregnant too. Aloud, she daydreamed about how our children would be like cousins and how we’d visit each other for weeks at a time. The icy kulfi I tried to swallow in my unrealised shame was too cold, bitterly sweet – the clear noodles swam, insipid worms, in the pink, melting milk forcing my eyes shut, queasily.

“Yes, Pakshi?”
Her face was pinched in such earnestness – what was she going to ask of me? It had to be a favour.
“You are the closest I have to family here.”
I blinked. Raised my eyebrows.
“Please would you be with me at the birth of my son? I have already told my in-laws you would be with me. And you could stay for two weeks with me at home to help me.” And her eyes said, ‘I need you so badly. Please, please don’t let me down, my sister, my friend.’
How could I refuse? Her sense of familial isolation was something I knew more and more intimately with each passing week – I, too, had wondered over the years how I would cope without having my mother and family around me during such a devastatingly precious time…
“Yes. I will be with you.” And because she was wedged behind the table by her son-filled tummy, I jumped up to meet her there in a hug that said ‘everything will be all right’.

The next week and a few days slipped by excruciatingly -- trying to understand just HOW I was going to run away from this man I had lived with for 11 years, with no money at all to my name, but JUST enough to cover my ticket home. It all made so much sense – and yet seemed like the most frighteningly mad and impossible thing on earth to do. I telephoned Pakshi a couple of times at her home to tell her I had to leave. She never answered -- was she ever given the messages? Instead, I emailed her – something we did on a weekly basis anyway, but found almost criminal to do with the news I had for her.

The 21st of June arrived. At Heathrow, I saw a blonde check-in clerk – harshly pretty - berating a cowering man in front of not just his blushing, stupefied family, but in front of everyone within earshot. It was all just muffledness by the time it got to me – I said a quick prayer under my breath that I didn’t get her when I got to the front of the queue! The polite, unquestioning worm of travellers inched forward, watched by ruddy-cheeked police in their black bulletproof gear, their guns scanning the crowds like a probing, x-ray eye. The fluorescent light was cold, the air hot and thick with the smell of people coughing, crying, laughing, dusty rucksacks and shopcounter perfumes.

The acidic blonde beckoned me forward from the front of the queue – and my heart sank. Though she was South African, she was curt and NOT in the mood for South-Africans-Away-From-Home chitchat – and she weighed my luggage with a mean look on her face which looked like she was actually HOPING I’d be overweight! And, I was. Five kilograms. With my cheeks burning and my aching heart pounding, I begged her to please let me go through – that I was starting my life all over again with nothing but what I had in my bags.
“I don’t care. You can pay the extra or you can unpack right here.”
I was in such a deep state of shock already, that this completely broke me and I almost collapsed – but my friend, Melanie, got me under her control so I could at least get through this moment and get on that plane!! Every single item in my bags had been agonised over, again and again – and weighed against other things I should or could take – and having to unpack in front of this hard heart of a woman and a thousand staring strangers was one of the most humiliating moments in my life. I wondered, stupidly confused, what to leave behind and what to take. It was so, so hard…

In the end, I got through (literally and figuratively) and was home in Cape Town 12 hours later.

Within a few weeks of arriving home, I had found myself a fabulous job and had a car (FOREVER thanks to my dad and mom). Life was sweeter than I could have ever imagined it could be! I had been reborn – and every moment and freedom was almost too beautiful. I felt like I was 5 years old again, gazing about in wonder, curiosity and the most indescribable joy! There were so many new friends and so much going on, but still I sent off regular emails to my friends in England – receiving quick replies. Except from Pakshi. After awhile, her emails started bouncing back with a message saying her inbox was too full and could not receive any new emails. By that stage, I couldn’t even phone her – my cellphone had been swiped off my desk at work by a devious and invisible colleague.

Facebook lists a few hundred Pakshi Veturi’s – but none of them are MY Pakshi. How else can I track her down? Where is she now? Since about September of the year I left, I’ve had this revolting, ominous feeling down deep in my gut that Pakshi died in childbirth. It is nothing I can explain – and surely, these days, women don’t die from complicated childbirths? Surely not… She would never have cut me out of her life for leaving her and the UK. Her heart was too strong and too wise to do that. Maybe she ran away back to her family in India? But everything I have ever read or heard from Indian people is that divorce is not just taboo – it simply does not exist as an option. What ever happened to my Pakshi?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Coping to just cope!

Two tranquilisers and a double Jack-on-the-rocks later, and I somehow managed to zombie my way through the most traumatic goodbye of my life! It was April 2003 and at 24 I was heading off to live in the UK on what I had been promised was a mere two year stint. Visions of romantic weekends in Paris and exciting skiing holidays in the Alps helped anaesthetise the thought of living away from everything I had ever known – my family, my Cape Town…

In 2006 I headed back to Cape Town on my own, determined to never again live away from Home.

But hell, now I am back in England! At least this time it is of my own volition, which makes coping a somewhat different kettle of fish: I can’t blame anyone else for my homesickness! Every day sees me doing something to ease the pain – whether it is eating a tin of Carnation Treat Caramel, yakking two hours away on the phone to my mom or simply sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. We all have different ways of coping with living overseas – and though we each have our very own personal little things we do to manage our feelings, there are some things which are common to ALL of us expat South Africans!

1.Deliberately seeking out fellow South Africans. When I first came over to England, I specifically decided to NOT do this – but to rather make friends with whoever came across my path. My main goal was to become a part of England – TO BELONG – and not to socially and ideologically isolate myself by sticking to my own. At first I thought I found the English to be aloof and unkind, but some of the most precious and loyal friends I have ever had are English… But now that I have South African neighbours (one of Craig’s childhood friends and his darling wife) I DO find their companionship fills me up in a way that being with my English friends doesn’t.
2. Buying exorbitant prices for South African products. Yes, admittedly I do buy boerewors – but other than that, I couldn’t be bothered to buy South African things like Pronutro and Ouma Rusks. (I didn’t buy them when I shopped at Pick ‘n Pay!!) But the proliferation of these South African shops and their obvious success all over England must mean that smells, tastes and even the homegrown logos must meet the need for ‘home’ in plenty of the South African hearts out here.
3. Braaing. I refuse to "BBQ". No way, Jose! We braai with lekker ‘stuks’ of wood and real wors – none of those fatty, grey burger patties and limp pork sausages for me! Our one neighbour commented over the fence a couple of braais ago, “Hey, you Africans are a destructive bunch chopping wood for your BBQ – always needing to burn things!” Hmm… a rather random comment from an otherwise educated, pleasant man – but it shows two things: firstly, how innate our cultural connection to braaing is (and the sense of home and family it creates for us) and secondly, how two cultures, though they seem to do the same thing (braai vs. bbq) are not doing the same thing at all! (Eish – did that make sense?!)

The first 3 years, I found myself drinking plenty of red wine every single night and never once realised it was a daily habit of trying desperately to numb my heart. My walls were constantly bare of any photos of family and friends – as though I could visually block off any reminders of those I’d left behind. Now though, I have as many photographs up as I can – and regularly look through my collection of pics on my laptop in the folder called ‘loved ones’ – because now I’ve realised it is healthier to feel your feelings: it is part of the process of maintaining your emotional health and identity, because otherwise numb denial eats away at you from deep inside like some dark, black sickness…
Craig reads his local Port Elizabeth newspaper on-line every single day! I admire his ability to stay so connected – I cannot bring myself to read the news from home. But at least I’ve gotten used to him playing Radio Algoa on lazy Saturday afternoons! Before, the sound of South African accents and advert jingles was CRUSHING. (The most devastating was hearing ANYTHING by Johnny Clegg and Savuka!!!)
Being pregnant has turned my homesickness from a pesky, persistent 'flu' into something more like fatal cardiac arrest that doesn’t want to stop!! My heart aches neverendingly for my Mommy… Not being able to share this miraculous time with my family is torturous – made worse by the fact that I’d always imagined it would be a very shared, daily adventure – AND, well, these blasted hormones are not making things ANY easier!
Oy, that’s enough for today! Just writing about it is making this ole heart ache…
I’d love to hear how YOU coped (or didn’t!) There is a comment box right underneath these words for you to capture your thoughts (wink).

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Pakshi's Story - Part V (The End)

Passing back through the archway, Pakshi quietly thanked the old, cross-legged lady in faded pink with a small bow, as if that was the signal for the spell to be broken – and Pakshi broke into immediate chatter about our next stop in the temple: the communal eating hall.
Along the one side of the small hall was a row of trestle tables, laden all along its length with steel pots and dishes, each manned by an oldish or ancient Indian man. Pakshi handed me a steel, compartmented tray, a spoon and a little see-through plastic mug. As each man dished up his fare onto my plate, I was met with a heavy, suspicious glare – each one slightly different from the next -- as if they were silently asking: “White, Christian woman, why are you here to eat our food that has been blessed by our priest?” I was asking myself the same question – guiltily, embarrassed. Their eyes were so hard. It felt terrible to be so obviously scorned and unwanted.
Sitting on the floor with our food and hot, sweet tea, Pakshi quickly explained we needed to face a way – that is, in the direction of ‘the great book’ in the hall we’d visited before. The younger women and their little, noisy children smiled openly at me, as though we’d just passed each other in the street – and I wondered what it was that made the older generation seem to hard and hurt. Pakshi tore off a piece of still-warm chapatti and showed me how to grasp it in my fingers to dexterously mop up the spicy, yellow lentils. She ate quickly, habitually, while I laboured slowly over the mopping and soaking up of the different glowingly spicy vegetables and sauces which I gratefully diluted in plain yoghurt. (While I write this, I now suddenly remember that one older man at the food counter did smile at me: a magnificent, happy smile that seemed to apologise for everyone else – making his white, waxed moustache twitch as his face stretched to accommodate his smile!) Next on my plate was a small portion of pale, runny rice pudding worlds apart from the almost chokingly sweet one of my youth – and scented with the barest hint of rosewater. Thank goodness I had a spoon to eat this with!
Pakshi clangingly stacked our plates against the far wall with all the others before we headed out to the reception area to get ready to leave. I can’t say I wasn’t relieved to be leaving this place – but then, it was one of those experiences that change the very make-up of who you are. What I learned, quite harshly, was what it felt like to be on the receiving end of mistrust and contempt – and all because I was not one of them. And yet, as soon as we stepped out of that temple, the roles were suddenly reversed and I was the ‘normal’ one again – and no-one would dare look at me as they had in the temple. Their temple was their sanctuary in more than just a religious way. It was the one place where they were back in India. Where they could BE Indian without the West interfering. And, I know that by being there, I was like a finger of that white interference twisting its way into their sacred India. I understood their hard, hurt eyes now.
Back on the streets of Southall, we headed towards a well-known Indian supermarket that Pakshi says was set up by an Indian man who won the lottery! Along the way, we were accosted by glittering silks and sequinned shoes that overflowed from the interiors of the shops, the sounds of sharp bartering going on inside. There were sweet stalls selling intriguing shapes, colours and flavours of traditional Indian confectionery that we stopped and gawked at – Pakshi explaining how each was made and the ingredients before hurrying me along to the next shop (of which there were so many) which sold all their jewellery for 1 pound each!! Needless to say, each trip to Southall saw my handbag full of bangles, necklaces and earrings – what more could a girl want? The jewellery wasn’t of the best quality, but it was wildly fascinating to me because it wasn’t Accessorize or Topshop: it was all the way from India and very obviously, exotically so!
The supermarket was an adventure in itself with its heavily layered scents and aromas, brightly colourful packaging and menagerie of Indian sounds: questions being asked, instructions shouted, Hindi music dancing through it all like a thousand fluorescent butterflies. Oil was sold in big, yellow plastic containers the size of a very thick briefcase. Sacks of basmati rice leaned against each other like old, fat people. Pakshi dragged me excitedly to the spice section where she started pointing out the various spices I needed to buy: ground cumin, green cardamoms, black cardamoms, garam masala, ground coriander… My mouth watered crazily and my eyes felt like they might pop out of my head! And, amazingly, it was all so very, very cheap! I left with two heavy plastic packets of all the spices I could ever need – my favourite purchase being a smallish white plastic jar with blue Indian script listing its ingredients: it was a ready-made concoction of the five chai spices! Pakshi had seen it and gasped with being pleased to find it on the shelves for me, saying (with that cheeky wink of hers) she could hardly imagine me doing it her way, rolling pin and all – and all I’d need to do was put some of this straight into my tea! (I’ve guarded that little jar jealously while I was in South Africa the last two years, only deigning to share it with my mom. On the way to the airport in May, she said, “Oh darling, you forgot to pack your bottle of chai! Shall we go back and get it?”
“No, no. It’s okay. Let’s just get to the airport now.”
You see, I had two thoughts: one selfish, one not. Firstly, after my expired passport debacle and being separated from Craig for a month, I didn’t want to jeopardise ANY chance of getting to the UK. And secondly, I thought it would be good for me to leave the chai for my mom so she could enjoy it and think about me each time she uses it. (Though knowing my mom, she will have put it aside to post to me, or put it back in the pantry awaiting my return home…)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Pakshi's Story - Part IV: Southall, Sikhs & Scarves

The first adventure Pakshi and I shared was to Southall, at her suggestion. We met at Paddington, wrapped up in our thick, wool coats and scarves, and clumped along in our heavy winter boots to the train bound for this little Indian kingdom of temples, bazaars and restaurants. We complained about the dreadful English cold that ate into our bones, and how the sunless days turned our skins, robustly tanned since childhood, into nothing more than translucent white maps of blue veining. Our winters back home were almost like the English summers, and our entire 15 minute train journey to Southall was devoted to discussing the overheated English shops which blasted you with stifling, stale air which turned your layers and layers of clothing into nothing more than obsolete and the ensuing claustrophobic struggle to free yourself. She brought up our initial meeting at the Home Office, telling me how she just knew I could not have been English by the very fact that I warmly extended myself into more than a courteous hello (and no doubt, too, by the fact that I was there to apply for something a British citizen certainly wouldn’t need!) Obviously flattered by this, we thrashed out this peculiar English penchant for cold reserve – especially toward foreigners. Having both come from cultures with sad and violent histories of racial/class discrimination, we were both acutely sensitive in our assessment of the English’s reaction to us, but it is something I have discussed with a number of South Africans and English, but to which the responses have been incredibly varied so as to not help me reach any sort of understanding at all, except that it seems to be a highly personal and individualised thing. I think that perhaps it is rooted in a person’s particular experience of foreigners in living in their country. For example, my neighbour, Maureen, is a lovely, gentle and intelligent lady in her early 60s – but had the rather unlucky experience of working in the same office of a young South African woman who arrogantly and loudly told anyone and everyone that the only reason she was in England was to be awarded British citizenship – as though the actual living in England were a trauma and trial to be endured for this particular prize. What a bloody cheek! I felt embarrassed and defensive when Maureen tole me this story – and because this girl behaved so appallingly, there was nothing I could say except blush in agreement. To make matters worse, the girl would natter deliberately in loud Afrikaans to the young South African psychiatrist in whose office they were secretaries – causing each group to be isolated in or outside of this language barrier. “And yet”, Maureen says, “I felt no resentment at all towards the young man as a South African. He was an excellent psychiatrist and exhibited none of the ugly arrogance of the secretary.” And so, in this one little story, it can be seen that the problem is not so much to do with being South African, as much as the South African’s attitude toward England and their reasons for being here.

When I first moved to the UK in 2003, it was supposedly only for my ex-husband to attempt the Olympic Games as a British citizen. After four years, it became painfully obvious he never intended for us to return home. He had a bizarre loyalty to a country he wasn’t even born in and had only briefly visited once or twice before in his young lifetime. (I didn’t share his warped sense of national allegiance and returned home without him - for good, in 2006, just three days short of attending the ceremony where I was to be awarded my British citizenship, having written a ridiculous little test I apparently wrote in the fastest time they had seen and paid obscene amounts of money to the government – but I had decided that breathing African air was more important than this sought after document – a decision I have since come to regret… The laws changed while I was back in Cape Town between 2006 and 2008 ; I now have another 5 years to go before I can think of applying for British citizenship again. This time, however, I am more concerned about attaining citizenship – the main reason being that I am in the middle of my first pregnancy and suddenly having a family’s future to consider rules out the faithful love I feel for my country which seems never to stop struggling with so many turmoils. For the first time, I find myself among the ranks of foreigners who are seeking some kind of asylum and financial refuge.

Hmmm… that was quite a digression! Where were we? Ah – Southall! Alighting at the station, we were immediately swamped with the surreal sense of being in another, more exotic country. Darker skins in so many shades ranging from sun-starved caramel to the richest darkness shimmered inbetween tightly wrapped dark blue turbans, thick black beards, sparkling brown eyes, orange chiffon swirls of sari and fuschi, turquoise, emerald, gold… The street outside the busy station was even busier – cramped with hurrying pedestrians and hooting, tooting cars and taxis. Descending the little hill from the station, Pakshi pointed out the various temples explaining the religious and cultural differences, saying she considered herself a Sikh and that, for lunch, we would be eating inside the temple she worshipped at whenever she came to Southall. It was not so much the free fare as the exciting and novel experience she wanted to feed me. Like many white South Africans, I have been a Christian my whole life – and the thought of eating the blessed food in this alien temple felt exceedingly uncomfortable – even unnerving, maybe even ... a little frightening. I suppose I was afraid of the reactions I’d provoke. The furthest away from a regular, suburban church I’d ventured was on a primary school outing. We explored an old mosque in the historically rich Bo Kaap area in Cape Town – feeling only the tiniest threat of awkwardness at the outskirts of my fascination – protected by my identity as a gawking spectator as in a museum or curiosity shop. No-one looked at us through slanted eyes – and probably largely because during its 'off hours', the mosque operated as museum of Cape Malay culture and was mostly deserted by worshippers! This penetration of mine into a Sikh temple where I most certainly did not belong made me feel more afraid and awkward than I am able to admit… Pakshi merely laughed at me in her wise way and led me by the hand through the big, metal security gates which were dwarfed before the colossal, white marble temple which glistened luminously in the pale winter sun. Apparently the marble had been shipped laboriously but faithfully all the way from India, costing the Sikh community in Southall an astronomical 17 million GBP.

Inside, the temperature confused me – being too clammily hot but also cold, austere. Pakshi’s voice dropped to a reverent hush as she pointed to the wicker basket overflowing with scarves, miming the action of choosing one and placing it over my head. Burrowing into the top layer of scarves, I found a translucent pink scarf amongst a sea of thick, navy ones, polka dots, striped ones, sheer silk ones and colourful woven prints. Amongst the bustle of people buzzing quietly around us, Pakshi stood in front of me, arranging the scarf proudly over my head, wrapping it deftly around my neck, letting the ends fall gently over the backs of my shoulders. A satisfied nod later and I was following her into a large, brightly lit cloakroom lined with pigeonholes and lockers glaringly bare of any locks. We wrestled our boots off, leaving our thick, woolly socks on, and stuffed them into the same locker along with our handbags. (I didn’t want to ask if they’d be safe or not.) At the top of a very wide flight of white marble steps veined with the same grey as the clouds outside, we were met by an old woman rocking meditatively, cross-legged on the floor. Swathed in a threadbare pale pink sari, she barely registered our arrival except for reaching with a practised hand into the bowl to pinch off a piece of the pale brown, sweet dough for Pakshi as she kneeled before her. The quiet exchange of melodious words between them sounded like an oft-said round of blessings, but I couldn’t be sure because I was under the spell of the awed spectator, locked in deep fascination at every new detail and sound that unfolded itself so generously before me. Because I also felt a sense of shame at being so noticeably alien, I kept my eyes pressed down onto the once plush red carpet as I trailed Pakshi up the aisle between what I could sense were many worshippers on either side of the aisle. I prayed they were too absorbed in their own prayers to notice my interloping intrusion into their sacred place, unable to bring myself to look to my right or my left. A loud, praying voice was transmitted via surround-sound through the cavernous hall over what sounded like giant speakers sunk deep into the cold, stone walls. The warbling, rumbling incantations seeped into my bones and made my brain hum with its hypnotism. Up ahead I discovered the focus of worship (and the source of The Voice) – a large, square tent dazzled amongst spotlights and acres of luxurious brocade and glimmering gold fringing. A large, turbaned priest swayed, mesmerised, before an enormous and ancient looking book. It was before this man and book that Pakshi kneeled and kissed the floor with her forehead. I felt perplexed and ashamed of my unfair witnessing of this intimate moment, wishing I’d rather waited for her outside.

(More to follow very soon - promise!)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Pakshi's Story - Part III : Of Samoosas & Spices

Pakshi was a veritable artist in the kitchen, surrounded by her herbs and spices! The first and last time I went to visit her at the house feels as though it were yesterday – and I think my tongue still bears the scars from all that chilli! Her in-laws were a little paranoid about her social contact with this ‘Lisa’ and so it was decided I should travel all the way up to North London where they lived in a very Indian community to meet them (and their approval!)

It felt like forever and a hundred different tubes and overland trains for me to reach Pakshi’s town. The station was a dusty, crumbling place through which a cold gale whipped through, making my hour long wait for Pakshi to fetch me rather unpleasant. The cellphone issue didn’t help as there seemed to be no-one at home when I called form the station to say I had arrived. It turned out we’d miscommunicated about my ETA, but we were like two little girls in our joy in seeing each other again, that it didn’t matter at all. We walked in the bristling winter wind to her house which was a large brick affair amidst a row of unkempt plastered ones, though not as large as I had imagined with all those nine other people living in it! Stepping into the thick warmth of the house, I was greeted at the door by the mother-in-law who looked exactly as I had imagined: roundly overweight, long greasy grey hair tied up in a lazy chignon and eyes that looked both kind and cold. The lounge was obviously decked out for the occasion, the tables heavily laden with spiced almonds, cashews and a variety of biscuits. Even a pot of tea steamed in the middle of a tray of immaculately floral tea-cups. Pakshi’s body language screamed awkwardness and we both found it hard to talk to each other as we usually did. The mother-in-law was not the chatty type and I was grateful for my verbal diahrrea, managing to chat a storm and thereby convince the mother-in-law I was good, happy and wholesome company for her daughter-in-law. The sisters arrived next in a whirl of designer clothes and loose, long black hair. My previously attained knowledge of them didn’t help to predispose me to them too kindly and I struggled to not see them as my friend’s piggish tormenters! Reason conquered in the end, and they were pleasant, well-educated women who it seemed would never marry, and if they did, it would be for love. I couldn’t begin to imagine them living as Pakshi did. It is still hard for me to understand the paradoxical way in which Pakshi’s mother-in-law treated Pakshi versus her own daughters. Archaic and traditional compared to modernly Western.

When Pakshi could see I had the situation under control, she disappeared briefly, only to return with a silver tray of the biggest samoosas I have ever laid eyes on, lined with oil-spotted paper doilies. My eyes must have either bulged or watered because Pakshi laughed and assured me she had used the most mild of chillis in her samoosa filling. Relieved, I popped one onto a plate and sunk my teeth deep into the soft, oily pastry expecting a gently spiced mince to fill my mouth. Instead, I felt my mouth actually ignite – and then my tongue became a red-hot, burning coal which seemed to burn brighter and harder with each passing second. And this time, I KNOW my eyes bulged AND watered, because everyone in the room had a big fat guffaw and began hurriedly pouring me more tea and showering me with paper towels for my watering eyes. (What I really wanted to use the napkins for was to get rid of the hellish morsel in my mouth!) Needless to say, I didn’t suffer a single bout of sinusitis for at least a year after that! Having finished my giant samoosa, Pakshi begged me to please have another one – and I could only rub my tummy in response to say: no thank, my friend, but I am full to bursting! As an alternative, she wrapped two more up for me in tinfoil for my long journey home (though I could hardly imagine attempting this voluntarily again!) With the entertainment now over for the day (i.e. watch the uninitiated South African try to eat our food as politely as possible) the sisters and mother left us to ourselves in the lounge, both relieved to finally be able to talk as we usually did. What I didn’t expect was for Pakshi to announce, while we cleared the lounge of the leftover spiced nuts and empty tea cups, was that it was now time for lunch! Besides the fact that I was already full from that Samoosa (it was so big it deserves a capital S!), I couldn’t bear the thought of having to force more chilli down my poor, virgin gullet still searing and blistering from what felt like 3rd degree burns! My first thought was: escape! I must go NOW! I hoped my phone would ring from someone urgently needing me back home – or that I could suddenly remember a once-forgotten dentist’s appointment: ANYTHING! But as my reason kicked in, I knew I had to stay for this lunch – but I would have to tell Pakshi how burny her food was to me. While she showed me the five vegetable dishes she had so meticulously prepared, and the three meat dishes, I plucked up the courage to explain my dilemma. She laughed till the tears rolled down her cheeks, looking much like I did in the middle of munching my Samoosa – consoling me with the fact that she would place big bowls of dessicated coconut and cool, white yoghurt on the table for me. She let me help her carry the bowls and trays through to the dining room, which was dark and strangely colonial in style with it’s almost black, super-glossy mahogany table and pink damask wallpaper. And while the food stayed warm in the server (she had set the table before I’d arrived) she showed me how to prepare the chapattis and naans. Nothing had been bought from Sainsbury’s or Tesco’s but had been hand-prepared that morning (and knowing Pakshi, probably before sunrise!) I watched in awe as she flung and bounced the chapattis over the naked blue gas flame on the cooker – amazed at the grace that years of practice had endowed her movements with. Imagining myself attempting the same manoeuvre brought up images of sleeves catching alight, scorched chapattis and screeching smoke-detectors, leaving me quite happy with giving my Tesco chapattis a cowardly, unauthentic spin the microwave instead!

A round bamboo lidded container swallowed the warm, steaming chapattis which I carried behind Pakshi to the diningroom. As she dished up each portion for me on a rather large white plate, the room filled with layer upon layer of spicy fragrances – I could pick out cinnamon here, clove there… and here a lavish dash of garlic… Despite myself, I salivated hungrily and couldn’t wait for Pakshi to finish dishing her plate up so we could tuck into this incredible feast. Surprisingly (though I think the Samoosa had either anaesthetised my tongue or permanently killed off every one of my tastebuds) the food wasn’t nearly as hot as I predicted it would be. Instead, the bouquet of spices I’d smelled before eating, was realised in my mouth as deeply scented and exquisitely flavoured sensations, each dish beautifully different from the next. I was so enthralled and intoxicated by the delicate intensity and versatile complexities that poor Pakshi suffered through a veritable inquisition of questions and more questions. I’d never understood Indian cooking before and now I felt like the sun was inexplicably rising in the middle of the day! At last I understood: I had finally attained gastronomical nirvana: there was more to food than the Italian food I’d been fascinated with since a young girl. My poor mom had to suffer rolling eyes and the whinging of three daughters whenever she cooked a curry – and like Pakshi, kindly producing bowls of chopped banana and coconut to ease the apparent burn (though twenty years later, I realise it was also to stop the high-pitched whine of three impudent daughters!)

With lunch finished and a new passion in me ignited, we tidied up the dining room, Navot wiping down the table leaving the room spotlessly immaculate. Back in the kitchen, the dirty dishes piled next to the sink, Pakshi submitted once again to my renewed interrogation of her cooking methods and ingredients. While a pot of water was set to boil on the stove for chai tea, Pakshi began an extensive explanation of her particular style of Indian cooking. Each region in India has its very own method and style of cooking – from techniques to actual ingredients. The problem in our Western Indian restaurants is that they generalise to form a menu of Indian food which is presumed to be more palatable for the Westerner. Probably the most efficient and exciting way to truly discover the delights of authentic Indian cuisine is to invest in a couple of very good Indian recipe books which will teach you everything about, for example, why the spices, in order to release their flavour and fragrance, must be warmed up in the oil at a specific point in the cooking process as opposed to just randomly throwing them in at some point when one remembers! Opening up the monstrosity of a fridge (for nine people, an ordinary freezer won’t do) Pakshi began pointing out how she organised her fridge and deepfreze, and then hauled out two huge round aluminium trays, each filled with what looked like a kind of paste cut up into blocks and covered in a tight skin of clingfilm. She explained how every two weeks, she’d stock up on fresh garlic and green chillies – usually about a Tesco packet full each – and then haul this home to prepare for the next two weeks’ worth of cooking. Every single night sees me carefully select two lobes of garlic, carefully peeling the papery envelope from the flesh I’ll crush into whatever it is I am making that night. Yes, it is a bit of a mission to do that peeling and crushing every night but so worth it when one compares it with the synthetic flavour of garlic flakes, or the stale onioniness of those tubs of yellowing pre-crushed garlic. Now, can you imagine peeling not just two little cloves but head after head of garlic until you had enough to crush so it would fill a deep aluminium tray with it? And now that you’re finished with the garlic, you have the fresh, green chillies to prepare (though the exact process of that remains a mystery to me. I think Pakshi decided, after my close encounter with her samoosas, that I wouldn’t ever need, or want to know the fine art of preparing chilli!)

As she showed me around her immaculate and fascinatingly organised kitchen, I asked her why she didn’t consider becoming a cooking teacher. She blushed her modest little blush and tried to change the subject, but I persisted: “You really are quite phenomenal – and I just know that with your personality, talent and knowledge of Indian cooking, you would be an instant success!” But she just mumbled something about not being allowed to, even though her eyes, sparkling, were telling me otherwise. I decided not to push her but hoped she’d at least consider it. It would get her out the house, give her some sort of independence and most importantly, make her some friends. Of course, that was only my personal point of view and it was impossible for me to understand her circumstances completely and the subject was never raised again.

It was time for tea and almost time for me to head back to West Berkshire, which felt like an entire universe away from this dark, bizarrely colonial but still very Indian house, its walls infused with years of oily spiciness and regret. Next to the stove, against the wall, was a tall wooden chest of square draws which looked as if it was very old and had endured a rough sea journey from India to England in a trunk lined with saris and spices. With a pot of water bubbling furiously on the stove, Pakshi plopped in two Earl Grey tea bags which were sucked under the boiling surface and then thrown back onto its furious surface again in a vicious whirlpool. While the tea got tumbled around and around, Pakshi opened various unlabelled drawers, bringing out small handfuls of the particular ‘chai’ spices. Laying each type of spice down on the wooden chopping board next to the stove, she crushed them with a long, pale wooden rolling pin, releasing the fragrance trapped in the oils of the black peppercorns, green cardamom, nutmeg, ginger and sweet cinnamon. Carefully tipping them into the boiling pot, she readied the teapot and some milk in a jug while the spices saturated the brew with their magic!

The tea was like nothing I had ever tasted! It was as if I was transported to another place and time which whispered to me of the exotic and the precious… My mouth tingled as if from the most passionate, illicit kiss and each sip was like another kiss. In India, chai is drunk milky and quite sweet – in bitter contrast to the darkened, sugarless brew of English teapots. What does this say about cultures? I don’t really know, but perhaps it has something to do with hedonism and a lust for beauty, as opposed to polite austerity. All I know is that I drink chai tea whenever I can - even becoming a bit of a ritual for me when I write. It is as if it has the power to unlock my memory and ignite my imagination! (But please don’t be tempted by the Westernised version of chai tea – it is weakened by dilution into something which would embarrass an Indian!)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Pakshi's Story - Part II :The Wedding

The wedding was a momentous affair, in India, with over 500 guests! When, a few months later, Pakshi showed me her wedding album, the opulence and glamour seemed garishly ugly and pointless in comparison the bride’s tear stained face. Red, swollen eyes brimmed with tears in every single photo, the kohl running down her cheeks in smudged, grey stripes. Her response to my obvious questions was double-edged: as a bride worthy of her dowry, she was expected to be in mourning for her lost family. It would show her to be chaste and pliable. But, Pakshi said, hers was not an act which some brides perform with macabre virtuosity. Hers were real, raw tears. Tears of fear, loathing, brokenness, anger. Even as she spoke, her eyes shone with tears and she tried to distract me by opening up her big, wooden trousseau where her blood red wedding sari seemed to mock us in a kind of glittery defiance.
Although it shocked me, I suppose it wasn’t much of a surprise when she told me how it took 3 months for their marriage to be consummated. This is so impossibly different to our understanding of weddings and honeymoons; it would be futile to even attempt a comparison of values and dreams and disappointments. But what is so miraculous about being human is the ability to console another hurting heart – and that thing called empathy – despite any apparent borders of culture. Fingering the intricate gold embroidery on her red wedding sari, her tears tumbled down her cheeks, the pain still so tender, as a wound which will not scab over. The past pain must all have blended with the current agony of her living situation – which was something beyond which I could imagine coping with. As the youngest member in a family of 9 other in-laws, her role was basically that of an indentured servant to the rest of them. And without having any sort of family or even friends no closer than India, it must have been humiliating, desolately lonely and frightening – not to mention exhausting! She was always the first one up in the mornings and the last to head to bed. She had two sisters-in-law – both in their mid-30s – who Pakshi said behaved like spoiled little children who left their coffee cups for days beside their beds and often forgot to flush the loo. The one, I remember, was a successful criminal lawyer! With her husband the first one to leave the house in the mornings, Pakshi would get up with him at 5am to prepare his breakfast and a cup of tea. He was also, incidentally, the last one home at night, often returning after only 10 or 11pm. It was Pakshi’s job to cook the supper for the family of nine, and then wait up until her husband returned home and then reheat the food and only then eat supper with him. And while he was preparing for bed, she would do the last of the dishes and clean the kitchen. She complained about how she hardly ever saw her husband because he worked so hard – and that she still hardly knew him after a year of marriage. I’ve heard many South African women (and British!) complain about the same thing – but it can hardly be compared: how many of these South African women could be found living as the youngest and expectedly servile member of a family of 9 in-laws? The loneliness must have been unbearable. Her mother-in-law prohibited her from having a cellphone and disliked her having any friendships outside of their closeknit circle of family friends. It was only when Pakshi fell pregnant with their first grandson that they deigned to give her a cellphone – for obvious reasons. Staying in touch with her was a matter of phoning the house’s landline and inevitably having to face one or the other’s brusque hello, and then the awkward wait while Pakshi’s name was barked and screeched till she appeared from whichever corner of the house she was working in. And meeting up with her at Paddington station was always a logistical nightmare, because so often a train was running late – but there was no way for us to know because of her lack of cellphone contact. And even when she did receive one, it was with great reservation: she didn’t ever use it so send text messages – its function was purely for her safety while pregnant.
Perhaps I seem harsh and critical of her situation and her culture – but what I am saying is mostly shaped by her own words and feelings. No doubt she was somewhat prepared for the life she would lead as she would have grown up with the knowledge that marriages are arranged. That love is something that should grow – and is more akin to devotion and loyalty than romance and passion. She spoke about her own parents’ deep love for each other – despite their marriage being arranged as well. So must have been this that convinced her that marriage produces love, and not the other way around. Perhaps the mere fact that one is marrying a virtual stranger you know you must come to love is a more realistic basis for marriage: there is very little place for disappointment, and one certainly cannot fall out of love! Whereas so many of our Western marriages are based on unrealistic ideals of love and beauty that shatter at the slightest pressure. Maybe spending one’s childhood and adolescence observing and understanding this Indian notion of marriage prepares one for hard work and the ability to make the most of every situation. As a wannabe feminist in my university years, I would have blatantly chastised the Indian version of marriage as feudal and barbaric – downright colonialism and slavery! But, with my own failed marriage behind me, I can see the simple and functional beauty of the Indian way. Pakshi believed she would come to love her husband more and more as the years passed – though she still wished he could spend more time with her, and dreamed of living in their own house minus the hoard of in-laws. Even having my ex mother-in-law over for dinner left me reeling in general pissed-offness – and a brief holiday seemed like sugar-coated hell to me!