To be or not to be? Part 2

I had won the second bout. I promptly dropped out of school and found a job but domestic bliss was short lived. Mum felt the backlash from her straight-laced, strict Hindu family over my fashion sense (think Madonna and Prince punked-up and rolled into one), cigarette smoking (Gauloises no less) and the Muslim boyfriend I didn’t bother hiding (unlike my cousins) and was pressured into giving me an ultimatum, “Live in my house and follow my rules or leave.”  I closed the door and never looked back. I have often wished I could turn back time and spend those last years closer to Mum who passed away prematurely only three years later. I was thrown into a seemingly endless downward spiral until I hit rock bottom: Mum’s loss and my overwhelming guilt still mark my writing almost 30 years later.

I was 22 and after a spate of small roles in theatrical productions in Birmingham, Manchester and London, and a few bit parts on television shows, I knew that acting would never pay my way. I concentrated on music, signed a publishing deal with a subsidiary of BMG Music, co-wrote a pop fusion album Ragga For The Masses and then released a single Undercurrents, a new rendition of an old Panjabi folk song performed over a fast rhythm with a rap bridge. There were many brown girls like me in the U.K. but at that time they still remained hidden by traditional immigrant parents justifiably plagued by fear and insecurity. There was good reason to feel this way and had I not been cast away like something smelly in the fridge I too may have sought the snuggery of my home and close-knit extended family. Who am I kidding? I didn’t fit into that mode of life; fear and tradition were never my way but may be I was the fool filled with youthful abandon and brimming with misplaced feelings of immortality.

I had been booked to play at the Edinburgh Festival: my Black British MC, Conrad and I set off early one August morning in a van he had rented; butterflies threatened to burst from my belly. I had never headlined a large gig before, backing vocalist was my preferred modus operandi but Conrad reassured me that it would be a walk in the park once we got on stage. Just over three hours into our road-trip we were almost at Newcastle when our mini-van started smoking and sputtering. We pulled up on the hard shoulder. Conrad opened the bonnet as the engine hissed and belched. Lush fields surrounded us as far as the eye could see, its tranquility was not lost on this pair of inner city kids and we were lulled into a false sense of security. We sat on the tailgate sipping water, waiting for the engine to cool down and gazed at the serene landscape that could have been a Constable painting. That’s when the first stone hit Conrad square on the forehead. Rocks pelted down on us mercilessly as rancorous slurs cut us to the quick, “Niggers! Black bastards! Go back where you came from!”

We scrambled into the car, blood gushing from Conrad’s wound. I had been luckier and avoided their missiles. We locked ourselves in the car and looked out as the granite rain continued; our attackers had ambushed us hidden amid long grass and wildflowers but now emboldened by our retreat they scurried out like rats from a hole. We peered out to see them and were surprised to find a ragtag bunch whose average age couldn’t be more than thirteen. They continued advancing, a rock slammed into a window cracking it in two. Conrad turned the key in the ignition, thankfully the engine spluttered a bit then turned over; our mini-van limped away from the jeering mob of juvenile delinquents in the stunning English countryside. We crawled along the motorway and took the next exit; we had to find a phone. It was 1991 and pre the cellular revolution. We stopped at the first pub on the outskirts of Newcastle to call a towing company. Silence descended as we entered the premises, the publican glared at us and punters stopped in their tracks as we made our way to a payphone in the corner. We were not served nor did anyone care that Conrad was obviously hurt. We made two phone calls and left as quickly as we could, afraid there would be a repeat performance of a larger scale. Needless to say we never made it to Edinburgh. I withdrew from public visibility and refused the three album recording contract I was offered: choking on fear.

Once I stopped singing I sought more acting gigs but they were far and few between. There were very few role models, only Hanif Kureshi and Rita Wolf; being a brown girl on stage was pretty much a non-entity, any theatre gigs I did were theatre-in-education where they often included ‘ethnic minority’ actors as we were called back then. I landed a starring role in a BBC 2 drama Bhangra Girls written by Nandita Ghosh where I played a school girl who wanted to play music- not too far a stretch for me. I built my fledgling arts practice in the early 90s and had achieved relative success in the obscure way that minority artists did. I remember bemoaning my fate; complaining to director Indra Bhose (who was doing a feature segment on my practice for a BBC series Network East) about not only the lack of parts I could audition for but also the lack of quality. I was sick of stereotypical characters whose only goal in life was to role a perfectly spherical roti or cook vegetables for the rest of their lives.

“If no one writes them you can’t act in them. Start writing.”

Indra’s observation changed the trajectory of my practice. I don’t regret it but it’s also a testament to our naiveté: we both believed that if material was written it would find platforms for production, which has clearly not been the case in my experience and is apparent from the lack of diverse programming witnessed on screen and stage in the U.K. and North America.

I gave up songwriting and wrote my first play entitled Windows. It had a reading on an Asian radio show broadcast from BBC Pebble Mill and a workshop at a black artists’ run centre in inner city Birmingham. I began presenting a lifestyle television show, Xpress and did that for two years until one day I fell in love with a goose and followed it- flying across the pond to Canada, thinking I would find a better home- I landed in Saskatchewan with a bump.

To be or not to be? Part 1

From the start I knew I was different from the rest of the fold; I would dig in and become immovable, extremely sensitive and unable to fit in. Much of my childhood was miserable but now I see that my artistic temperament was already squirming inside ready to break out. With a burning need to create something out of nothing in an attempt to make sense of the world: I have found that unless I am actively writing my creative energy turns within with destructive vigour. Through my work I have struggled a great deal and grown not only as an artist but also as a human being.

My decision to be an artist met with great opposition: not to the same degree of hostility the Haitian freedom fighters that Edwige Danticat writes about in her essay Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work faced but more than I had ever encountered or expected at sixteen. The first scuffle began in 1984 when I had to choose what A-levels exams I would take two years later. I lost the first bout and was enrolled to study History, English and I don’t even remember what the last course was because I really couldn’t have cared less. The arts was strictly prohibited by my science-bound British Indian family full of doctors, dentists, chemists, nurses and teachers. I was warned it didn’t pay and had little prospect of financial stability and they were right; it doesn’t pay. I have scrambled all my life but it has been worth it because wealth must not be measured by money alone.

Two very difficult months took its toll, I was disinterested and it showed; my resentment grew as my average plummeted. One day I happened to notice Mum in school and followed to see what she was doing. I listened at the door of the Principal’s office as Mum was told that I was either disruptive or nonresponsive in class and she replied that she would sort it out. I walked out of school and fumed all the way to the local station. How could Mum just turn up like that? What gave her the right to plan my future? It was my life. When I reached Birmingham New Street Station instead of heading to my usual platform change I crossed to other side; where a fast cross-country train had just stopped. I hopped on and found a seat with no idea where I would end up. It was good training for my future because as an artist one never knows where your practice will lead you. The train sped down South to its final destination London Euston. I ventured around the grand capital wandering about wide-eyed without a penny to my name- not sure where to go or what to do but wishing I were more like the punks who didn’t seem to have a care in the world; sporting tall green mohawks and safety-pins piercing both nostrils. When it got dark I took refuge in a bus-shelter. That’s when I began rethinking my hasty departure. I sat and brooded, smoked and brooded some more and when I was close to laying an egg, a man entered the bus shelter. Bus after bus passed and I twiddled my thumbs, getting more scared about facing the night alone on the streets. My angst must have shown because the stranger asked where I was going but I ignored him. I didn’t speak to strangers especially white males: the only interaction I’d ever had with them was as authority figures or mad knock-your-block-off racists or nutters. He spoke very kindly to me and guessed that I was a runaway. He asked where I was spending the night and did I have some place to go? I shook my head. He offered his sofa and from my reaction he continued to say that he wouldn’t trust him either and had I heard of Centre Point? I shook my head again and he proceeded to fill me in. This kind young stranger hailed a Hackney Cab, paid the driver in full and sent me to the safety of Centre Point: a shelter for homeless teenagers where I spent the night in a dormitory full of Glaswegian girls who had run away en masse. Their boyfriends were in another dorm on the other side of an adjoining door and in the middle of the night they broke through the door so they could accost their willing girlfriends. One lone straggler thought he could make out with me but he tumbled off my cot pretty quick when my knee found his groin. I stayed in London for three days roaming around and reveling in Her Majesty’s sprawling parks with my adoptive Scottish clan until it was my time to see the youth counselor who couldn’t contain her surprise that I had run away simply because I wanted to be an artist. She called my poor mother who had pulled out half her hair by then and Mum agreed that I could leave Kings Norton Girls School in favour of the arts.