The Audacity of Being English

Photo by Steven Lilley (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Steven Lilley (copied from Flickr)

My father’s was the intensity of a poor man, bereft, alone in his thoughts, wondering why life had done him down.  He had had a stroke two months after I was born and had resolved thereafter to bring the family to a state of emotional defeat that mirrored his physical one. I remember him sitting on an ancient couch with paisley swirls on the wooden arms. We would put an acrylic blanket on it to stop the springs clawing at our legs and understood that its price was its only redeeming feature.

I was fourteen then and would have died before bringing a friend around to visit, not just because of the couch, but because he was always on it. He was always there, just sitting and brooding. “Don’t trouble him with anything” my mother would whisper as she carried the burden of raising the five of us on welfare. We were six if you included him.  All my father did was sit, slouching in his pyjamas, and brooding, as if that was his full time occupation now that the factory had let him go.   On weekends, I would come from doing my homework at the library, sit, and watch him sit, his left arm dead, his left leg too, watching wrestling on a television too big for the room. He would lean forward, absorbed in the tangled limbs of Hulk Hogan and Haku. Grunts of occasional excitement would burst from his brown lips with every body-slam that Haku executed. He knew there was no chance that the Hulkster would lose. But it didn’t matter. That’s what he expected. The white man won. That was life.  By the end of it he was perspiring and I would help to pull him up and pass him his walking stick. Together we would walk to the bathroom, his useless, sweaty hand (the left one) resting in mine as I tugged him to our destination; six inches of soapy water in a plastic tub. This too was an embarrassment, that my father only bathed on weekends when I was there from school (because my mother could not always haul his fifteen stone frame to the tub), and that we timed his ablutions to coincide with the Hulkster’s weekly victories: there was no point doing it before that. Why would you when all he would do, particularly in summer, is sweat (and smell) with each choreographed bout? It was as if each forearm smash took it out of him in a reverie of vicarious pantomime violence.

I never thought it strange that I took off his trousers or soaped him and asked if the water was too hot, opening, sometimes, the small window in the vain hope it would suck out the steam and prevent the inexorable damp that festered in the corners. I just did it, him looking ahead and me mindful of the olfactory revulsion that shamed me in my own eyes. Sometimes, however, when the water was just right his soft shoulders would drop a little, even the sagging left one, and he would sigh in relief, in releasing tension, and in releasing words that flowed otherwise with drink (Bell’s whisky to be precise).  There were several lines his monologues could take. There was the line about how he had a stroke on a white factory floor, spoiling it with his untouchable skin, and another about how he’d be damned if he let my mother relinquish her Indian passport for a British one.  “Where do you think we will go when they kick us out?”

“They can’t do that,” I would say.

“Go look in the mirror. Your name is not John.”

He was right. It wasn’t. Balvinder was as Indian as the curries that the English so adored after pub nights, when they would drink, then eat, then swear at the waiters who would smile their Indian smiles, all Delphic and sweet. I knew that was what the English did. Everybody in my neighbourhood (who all happened to be poor Indians) said so. Not that I ever went to Indian restaurants or out at night or to the city centre clubs where the white English went. Why would I? My mother was a great cook and I had no money. Nor did I have the Levis jeans that seemed essential to catch an English girl’s eyes.

“Levis? Why not Wranglers?,” I once asked Santosh, a kid in my class.

“That’s just what English girls like,” he said authoritatively, as if he knew, and as if all English girls, all white girls, were a homogenous entity liking the same things – from pizza to Duran Duran, a bit like the Borg. I thought they were. It was easy to think that in Birmingham. I also had cousins who ruled our transplanted patch of Indian soil. They never went to the city centre either. “You’ll get killed.” Those were the words of Kully, the hardest man I knew, a man who had spent time in prison while his mother (a fellow untouchable) had told everyone her son was in France, working as a chef. Even my mother had sniggered at that one.  “Sister, I hope he likes France,” she said, knowing that no one from our community went beyond a six mile radius of the Guru Ravidass Gurudwara, the untouchables’ temple where we were all welcomed into this world and freed, at last, from it.

So when my father opined on nationality, on race, waiting to be lifted from the bath to a chair, soft with wood rot, all I could do was reflect on my own nebulous concerns. I knew there was more to life than wrapping myself in a cocoon of loathing, of watching Hulk Hogan, of hoping for anyone with a tan to beat him. But I knew too that my father had been dealt a hand so poor he thought it rigged, and that the contagion of his bitterness was irresistible. Even as a fourteen year old dreaming of things I had no right to see, there was something in me sealed against my own exodus over barriers behind which my father, my mother, my uncles and cousins had stayed, fists up, ready for the English siege to begin, ready for the megaphone shouts of “it’s time to go home.”

“You’re right,” I would say to my father as I helped dry his back and then pull a clean vest over his head. Over the years, in the ritual of steering him back to the couch, I started to consider my own afflictions: I was strong enough to leap from my father’s world, but only so high as to remain dangling from the precipice of a new one.  If I should fall, no one knew where I would land. It was unchartered territory.

“He’s gone to Nehru’s college,” my mother would tell the grannies who would come by to drink Lucozade and knit and watch Dallas re-runs. She was proud that I got in to Cambridge University but couldn’t deny that the absence of an income was a blow to the house.

“Now you’ve got in, there’s no way they can deny you a degree,” my brother said. It was more of a question than a declaration and “they” could have been anyone that was English and influential. “Just keep your head down,” he said, reaffirming my own belief that to be there was a precarious privilege easily denied to our kind, a probationary sojourn from my family’s existential concerns.

“Are there any Indian teachers there?” he once asked.

“I think one of the big shots is a guy called Amartya Sen.”

“What do you mean think? You should know.”

And so it was that my brother elicited a worthless promise that I should contact some Indian professor I had never met if the walls of my new Jericho were to crumble. His anxiety rubbed on me. It didn’t help my mood that the first conversation I had with one of my tutors was along the lines of, “I don’t think we’ve ever taken someone from your school. I’m sure you’ll justify the faith we had in taking you, ” or that another, on our first reckoning, said “Balvinder” and sighed as if his prodigious legal mind (and my tutorials with him showed that’s what he had) could not face the verbal challenge of saying it too often.

“Bal,” I said, smiling like a puppy. “Please call me Bal.”

“Well if you insist,” he said and smiled before turning to some guy called Rupert with whom  he discussed the prospects of the University Boat Club that term.

I wanted to give them (them being the same nebulous English folk my brother referred to) the Obama riposte of gliding to a First, editing the University’s law journal and then ending up a somebody. I couldn’t do it though. Every four weeks I took the bus home, sat in the same untouchables’ temple my father used to before he stopped walking altogether, and wonder why God took me to Cambridge if he wasn’t going to give me the intellectual rockets to set the sky alight. In my mind, I pictured him shrugging his shoulders and saying, “you got what you wanted.”

My averageness as a student didn’t help my paranoid belief that I didn’t belong among these people with their talk of summer holidays that really were holidays and not stints at a steel factory of the kind that ruined my father. The only thawing in this entrenched mind-set took place in the company of friends I made at university: the ones from home had long since started to peel off once I moved away. The new ones were white English of all things. With them, I would drink until I slurred my speech and laugh and discuss everything from women to jobs to women again, flinching only when they would talk of the summer vacation.  My friend Jonathon would say, “it’d be awesome if you visited. My dad thinks you are great.”

How does your father know about me was my instinctive thought. “I’ve got too much on,” I would say, resolving to be shot rather than incur the unwritten debt of having to reciprocate an offer of hospitality in high summer when the heat intensified the need for the weekly ablutions of my father, and the sun amplified the faded paintwork wherever you looked. “Do you fancy another beer before they call time?” I would say having already launched off my stool.

“Think about it,” he would say, and he meant it.

As an aside, Jonathon did visit once. It was just after I graduated.  He was attending a conference in Birmingham and phoned me at home, catching me off guard. I had no choice but to invite him: he was already on his way. God, mercifully, arranged it to be a Saturday afternoon and Jonathon ate with me off a rickety coffee table (we never had a dining table) with my scrubbed up father watching, perplexed and interjecting in Punjabi, “give him rum. I hear they like rum.”  He was right. I gave him rum. Jonathon was happy if a little bemused. It was a good visit, a one off.

Jonathon was the first English friend I had, by which, of course, I mean white as every brown face in my neighbourhood had English (or rather British) nationality. Our friendship, however, didn’t bring me to a sense of a common nationality, of deep shared interests. Intermittent looks of mutual perplexity would prevent such ideas from solidifying. He never could understand why, for example, I would flinch at going to the working class white pubs situated where he lived. To him, it showed an unwillingness to integrate.

If anything, after graduation, the pendulum of my thoughts swung back to my father’s couch and its zone of hard comfort. It was then that he fell ill. My mother did too. Panicking, I failed an exam: I was in the midst of qualifying as a lawyer and in the midst is where I stayed while my contemporaries moved forward in their inexorable rise to the professional classes. The only place I moved to was back to my parents’ home to help out while numbed and depressed, both for my parents and for my worsening debts from law school. Any euphoria I felt at being accepted by a fancy law firm went stale when they told me, “of course we still have faith in you.” It was the “but” that killed me. “We can’t justify paying you now.” They couldn’t do that now but they could then. And they did.

“I appreciate your understanding,” I said and retreated to my childhood bedroom and the shell of an identity I had outgrown and whose isolationist comfort I now sought once more. It was after the third week of the physiotherapist’s attempts to straighten my father’s legs that I told him. He was sitting on the couch. “The firm can’t pay me to train with them. But it’s fine. The bank’s already told me they’ll give me another loan. In a couple of years, I’ll be a lawyer and I’ll be rolling in it.”

My father just looked at me. I didn’t know whether that was because he hadn’t heard me or whether his worsening speech was too difficult to evince from his droopy lips. I was about to tell him again but he stopped me with a raised eyebrow. “That’s what they think of us son. You’ll always be a paki to them. Where’s Cambridge now to pull a string, to open a door?”

I didn’t argue with him. It wasn’t my place to stand up for English lawyers. They weren’t my people.

Subsequently, having sleepwalked though my legal training, I qualified as a lawyer. It felt like a pyrrhic victory as the law firm waved me goodbye and sent me off with their best wishes, never to contact me again. Frantically, I searched for somewhere, anywhere, to take me. That somewhere turned out to be the British Army as an officer in their Legal Corps.

My parents turned white when I told them, fearful for my fate, thinking that I’d drown (or be drowned) in a sea of white faces. I told them it was a great opportunity, mindful never to disillusion them of the belief in my meteoric ascent in the law. They needed that comfort the further I drifted from them both physically and emotionally. Neither, of course, did I have the courage to tell them, or anyone else in my community, of my stuttering career progression. I could almost hear the taunt, “No Cambridge law degree is going to make you an Englishman, boy.”

Deep ambivalence therefore characterised the start of my four year army commission. It was a time in which I was flung into the obscurest, most rural parts of Britain, with people the embodiment of everything I conceived to be English, both as a child and as a man. There were those who I knew refused to address me for reasons never to be articulated, for to do so would suggest a chip on my shoulder.  But there were others too.

One time I was stationed outside Winchester, a brown speck in an English idyll of a landscape. I was at the bar of an old pub when the raucous laughter started somewhere.  Someone tapped me on the shoulder, turned me around and I looked at a man who had nothing to say to me. He just looked at me for a second as if his rage was too difficult to articulate, his fists clenched. I didn’t even have time to place my drink on the bar when four soldiers from the barracks came and stood by my side, an impenetrable wall for one man to break, and so he didn’t try. He just turned on his heels and left the pub. I don’t recall ever seeing those soldiers again. But that incident has come to symbolise for me something about being English, a sense that affiliation need not be dependent on ethnicity.

It was brought out again when I served in Bosnia, stationed with an infantry regiment of working class men. They were of the kind I would have avoided if I had seen them in one of the pubs that Jonathon used to frequent. These were men who came from sink housing estates, who could barely write, and who found their sense of belonging in the service of a national ideal not sullied by thoughts of skin colour. We were there as part of the NATO peacekeeping force, ensuring that the Muslims, Serbs and Croats did not resume their butchery.  Sometimes, I would patrol with the soldiers, bouncing up and down in the back of land rovers with no suspension. I once asked one of those soldiers how he felt about being there, knowing the Bosnian war was not his, knowing that his loved ones waited at home, anxious for his return. He said, in his own unprintable words, that bringing peace and justice was part of what being in the army was about. It was part of what being English was about and that there was still mileage in the old English adage of ensuring fair play. “Yes,” I said, thinking of the wretches who had lost everything in pointless bloodshed and now lived beneath polythene sheets, wretches  who would look at me, an English officer, and stand when they met me, as if I was a somebody with an outstretched hand, willing to help.  They had less than I ever did. “We are English,” I said “because we fight for justice.”

And at that moment, gratitude welled in me for the fact that I was an Englishman.

Balvinder Banga

About Balvinder Banga

Balvinder grew up in Birmingham. After twenty years working in corporate London he emigrated to South India where he currently teaches English. He has been published in several journals and anthologies including Wasairi and Book of Birmingham (Comma Press).

Balvinder grew up in Birmingham. After twenty years working in corporate London he emigrated to South India where he currently teaches English. He has been published in several journals and anthologies including Wasairi and Book of Birmingham (Comma Press).

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