(*** This is the piece that appeared in From There to Here: The 2nd Decibel Penguin Prize Anthology: 16 True Tales of Immigration to Britain, last year***)
I am migrant.
I like to think that this is how the word immigrant was created. It seems kinder. It takes the harshness and edge off a word that can so easily sound abusive. It makes me feel like a bird that has temporarily flown the nest, meaning to return home one day. Albeit, a rather foolish bird that has confused the concept of migration, leaving a warm land for one that is decidedly not. Perhaps that’s why at first I was floundering in the plumage department, my feathers ill-equipped for the country I found myself in.
When I told my mother about my impending move to London, one of the first things she said was ‘Oh how wonderful! I’ll bring down all the coats and sweaters’
My family had lived in London many years ago, and like most Indians who are loathe to part with things, we still owned box upon box of possessions we had no use for in Madras (though with the weather behaving as it has lately, perhaps the southern states of India will one day see snow). A common refrain heard in our home was ‘Let it be, you never know when we will need it.’ As you can imagine, we rarely managed to clear the clutter.
Though I’m sure a maternal desire to prevent her youngest child from freezing in winter was a motivating factor, I had a niggling doubt that my mother was eyeing the soon to be empty space for the reserves in her ever-growing army of Tupperware boxes.
“Think of all the money you’ll save” mother cooed as she shook out ancient sweaters, jackets and scarves that had all seen better decades. Grateful I wouldn’t need to rub goose fat over my body to stay warm, I took all that was offered; telling myself that fashion was cyclical, retro was in. I might even set a trend or two in the red and black chequered puffer jacket that occasionally coughed up swan feathers through a small, invisible tear in the sleeve.
Bearing these family heirlooms, a pressure cooker, saucepan, ladle, silver Ganesha and a few clothes my husband and I arrived at Heathrow airport on a sunny Sunday afternoon in October. The weather, a final gift bequeathed by the month before it passed on. I was relieved, it meant I didn’t have to take my jacket out of the suitcase. Where it would stay till my lips turned blue I decided when we arrived at our temporary accommodation. A tiny matchbox of a hotel room on Old Brompton Road. God, was fond of cruel jokes I realised as I found myself in one of London’s most fashionable quarters looking like an Indian lumberjack. Everywhere we went, my coat and I stuck out like a communist flag, billowing against the virginal white facades of the gated communities in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. From the moment I stepped out of our room, I was surrounded by women draped in cashmere, carrying bags that cost more than my life savings, reminding me of how little I belonged.
I tried my best to blend in. A difficult task since nothing I owned matched my jacket. My wardrobe consisted of clothes more suited to sunnier climes. Crinkled cotton skirts in shocking pinks and copper-sulphate blues, hems weighed down by tiny, jingling bells. Salwar kameezes in kalamkari and ikkat prints. Teamed with my jacket, I resembled a bag lady on acid. In an effort to blend in I purchased a tartan-ish cape. In pink and purple. Made of mohair. If one has ever looked at something on a mannequin in a depressed and delusional frame of mind and thought it was just the thing to cheer them up, perhaps they will understand what prompted me to purchase such a creation. Convinced that I’d discovered the look of the season I took home what now resembles a multi-coloured dust bunny. Cape in hand, I was ready to let the rest of the world see just how fashionable I could be. I fished out a pair of black trousers, a green and blue striped shirt and an ancient red sweater and fastened the mohair cape around my neck. If I am ever to become a super hero (though I doubt I will be allowed to fight crimes against fashion) I would probably choose to look as I did that day – a startling cross between William Wallace and Phoolan Devi. Blissfully unaware of the anxious glances from passers by and the mothers who shielded their children from the abominable pink snowlady, I walked – I must admit – rather jauntily to the station that day and boarded a train. Crammed with the usual commuter mix I wedged myself between two dark suited City types. Their noses which had been buried in the FT till I arrived soon began to twitch, and I found myself (or rather my cape) the cause of a sneezing storm. I was fated to look like a Maoist lumberjack forever.
We soon moved in to our own home. Eager to own a ‘proper’ English house (with a downstairs and an upstairs) and yet desiring easy access to fresh coriander leaves and cumin flavoured papads we moved to Harrow in North West London. The semi detached we rented and the strong Asian community in the area ticked our two boxes. I felt more at home in Harrow. Less intimidated. Why, next to the wrinkled Gujarati grandmothers in their soft cotton saris, feet encased in Birkenstocks and socks, bent over under the weight of the enormous coats that swamped their frail bodies I even looked stylish.
As the excitement of living in a new city slowly wore off, homesickness set in along with the dark winter evenings. I began to miss home, my parents, my life. I missed sunshine and palm trees and soft breezes that carried aloft the fragrance of tamarind. I missed bare shoulders and the feel of soft mul-mul against my skin. I didn’t feel like me anymore – it was as though all those layers of clothes were suffocating my true self. I became sullen and morose, envious of the men and women frolicking around palm trees in the old 1980 movies the Indian cable channels showed. I stopped going out. Sitting next to the window by the radiator and looking at the empty street outside the house became my favourite pastime. Until our boiler went bust. As I sat shivering inside the house, I was forced to turn to the only comrade I had left – my mother’s coat. In the week it took to repair our boiler I grew to love that coat, feather coughing tear and all.
The coat and other hand me downs that had seen my mother through similar winters carried me through those initial lonely months. The oversized candy striped cardigan with shiny plastic buttons down the front, the lime green v-neck jumper and my father’s beige sweater vest in a way stood in for my absent family. Wrapped in those garments I felt closer to home.
It’s been over two years since we came to London and I’m glad to say I’ve settled down well. I work. I’ve made friends. I have some very nice winter coats. But I find that in those occasional moments of homesickness, slipping in to my mother’s jacket or my father’s sweater is as comforting as being enveloped in their warm embraces. I may not be migrating back to warmer climes for some time, but till then I have found a way of keeping my old home as close to me as possible.
Some time ago as my husband and I sorted through our clothes looking for things to give to charity, he pulled out the lumberjack coat and said ‘What do you want this for? Give rid of it.’
‘Let it be’ I replied ‘you never know when we will need it.’