artists of colour

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.