Kajal Odedra is a prose writer from the Midlands and is currently living in London. She writes fiction and is working on her first novel about an Indian immigrant family living in nineties Britain.
Contact: kajal_odedra [at] hotmail [dot] com
Newhall was the embodiment of Britain. I’d read that in the 1970s it was grandly named the “Centre of Population.” This meant nothing to anyone outside of Newhall but was often repeated by the residents with British Pride. The “Centre of Population,” named by the Office for National Statistics, is the point in Britain closest to everyone in the country. Something to boast about. And in an old miners’ community, being at the heart of it all really counted.
We moved there in the nineties when I was ten. My parents bought an off-licence and uprooted the family from Leicester. They moved with determination — to a village whose population was 99.9% white and where the nearest place you could buy turmeric was a forty-minute drive away. Why would they move there? Who do they think they are? How will the girls learn to speak Gujarati there? The Indian community in Leicester was beside itself. It seemed unnecessary, blatant snobbery, to choose to move away from The Community, from Little India. They felt jilted. There is nothing like a bruised Indian ego.
But my dad didn’t care about them. He was tired of factory work; they both were. They would come home smelling of musty, hot machinery and chemicals, cloaked in exhaustion and bits of cotton thread. I saw little of them together, as they would work shifts so that there was always one parent at home for us. Dad, with his small body and little belly sticking out, was shorter than Mother but firmly the head of the house. He took matters into his over¬worked, weathered hands. After months of day trips scouting out opportunities, one day Dad returned with excitement watering his eyes. Sitting me, my mother, and my little sisters, Priya and Poonam, down, he described what he had found.
"A shop! Going half value! Gimme two years and I double the asking price." My dad beamed proudly. "And no need for licence! They already sell booze, fags and video rentals. The whole lot!" His arms were waving around to demonstrate his elation, sensing my mother’s reservation.
“But what about Piyal? She in last year junior school doing exam and Priya so young. We just stop their lessons? Now? In middle of year?”
“They have good schools there, and away from all the nonsense of the community. Nobody to judge and tell us how to live our lives.”
“And Indians? They have Indians there, in this ‘Newhall’?”
“That’s why we getting away, Asha! Away from all this Indian nonsense, fresh start. For the girls, they will get tip¬top education outside Leicester. I promise you.”
“Surendran. You always have big plan, but we have family to look after now.”
“Exactly! We double asking price in year!”
So he decided we would migrate to this village, hours from the safety net we had in our little Indian community. Putting an end to years of working in cold industrial buildings, sewing together the clothing that would end up on rails of cheap fashion stores, on high streets packed with fried chicken counters and betting shops.
Our first month there felt like a helter skelter. There was so much happening around me, it was dizzying. I was young and this was my first big adventure. Walking into the shop for the first time, my senses were drunk on the colours and smells of our second home; the chocolate bars wrapped in purple shine, sweets sparkling in sugar mountains inside huge glass jars, fizzy drinks in exotic fluorescent colours. And we had the run of it all. It was our little kingdom. My sisters Priya and Poonam, five and eight, were too young to take what they wanted. But I was older and expected to help in the shop, paid in Twixes and Vimto cartons. Stood on a milk crate so I could reach the cash register, I learnt the ropes with Mum and Dad.
But there was hostility. This was the year that people stopped calling Dad Surendran and started calling him Steve. He explained when we moved there that this was a village undisturbed by the changing world around it. While Leicester had lots of people who looked like us, Newhall sat contentedly in the middle of England without moving an inch. You could see it in the village when we arrived: we were making things complicated. Problems were simple before: they didn’t need to worry about minding their language. Free speech was free speech back then. Our arrival caused ruptures across the village. Not only is a Paki family moving in but they’re taking over. Who the fuck do they think they are? It was a place where the poorest, hardest, most fucked¬ up ran the roost. They were the roughest and they didn’t like what they didn’t know. It was our job to keep things as smooth as possible, like changing Dad’s name. Newhall wasn’t exactly bustling but it had the capacity for chaos. Bubbling underneath, ready to erupt if it was prompted. The shop had changed hands for years without any trouble, but our arrival stoked and agitated that dormant chaos.
I accompanied my mum and dad everywhere, as they set up our new life, like their little apprentice. I loved going anywhere with them, soaking in this new place, where everything looked the same as Leicester, but with less colour.
The doctor’s surgery was located in the next town, Gresley, and we walked through Newhall to get registered there one day. Up the steep hill on the main road, past the Big Fish chip shop, Bertie’s Pets, Garden King and Smith’s Motors. Our new village seemed to have one of everything. But we would pass a corner shop every few minutes, with flashes of Coca Cola, Lucozade and my favourite, Vimto, jumping out at me. Some selling pocket money toys on the counter. Others selling penny sweets in 10p bags. My mouth watered. I asked Mum if we could stop at the shops and get a drink (maybe I could persuade her to buy me some chocolate once we were inside).
“The shame, Piyal. We don’t go into other shops unless you are looking at prices. You thirsty? Here, I have Vimto from our shop. Come on, your dad all on his own, let us hurry up now.”
I didn’t understand why we couldn’t go to other people’s shops. But my parents soon instilled a fierce loyalty in me for our own off-licence; it wasn’t long before I was turning my nose up at the local Sainsbury’s, boldly defending my dad’s prices in registration class. I learned to pack my rucksack with cartons of juice and bags of sweets if I was going to the cinema.
“Why buy there if you can take with you? Cinema is rip-off,” my dad would preach.
As we walked to the doctor’s, my little sisters held on to the flowing silk of Mum’s sari, wrapping it across their bodies and using it to cover their faces when we passed a scary dog.
She was draped in a sea blue silk with white swimming along the bottom. My mother wore the most beautiful saris, made more striking in the grey Midlands village, set against the dull jeans and beige blouses of the other mums. She was a peacock among pigeons. Her sari was perfumed with the smell of chilli, turmeric and cumin and mixed with the smell of the sweat of cooking. I could cover the stench of this new village, of dog shit and battered sausages, by holding her near, my nose buried in her side. But this vision of her would soon become a sight restricted to Indian ceremonies and family gatherings.
When we finally got to Gresley Doctor’s Surgery, I felt uncomfortable shifts and the turning of heads. The waiting room was full. This was our home now; a pensioner who stank of fresh whisky, staring at the clock, desperate to steal her next sip; an overweight young mum pushing a pram that held a bright pink baby back and forth; a middle-aged man grunting at the T.V. and letting off a deep smoker’s cough that brought the room to a standstill. All white. So white they were blue.
We stood at the reception queue and finally it was my mum’s turn.
“We here to register girls for doctor.”
“Sorry, you what?”
“I get my girls registered please?”
“Sorry love, I can’t understand a word ya sayin.” “I need register for doctor!”
“Can you speak English proper? I can’t understand ya.”
My mum was flustered. Her face, which usually looked so dignified, with her sharp cheekbones, long nose and elegant bump, was fighting the embarrassment, making her look vulnerable, like a child.
“I speak English!”
Her voice wobbled. I could feel my heart. I swallowed hard to push down the fear caught in my throat. I was the eldest so I spoke up.
“We need to get registered for a doctor. Can we do that here?” The receptionist turned to me.
“I see!” She chuckled. “Difficult to understand what Mum is saying in’t it? Right oh. Let’s see, you’ll need to get your mum to fill in this form ’ere and come back with a proof of address and some ID.”
Mum took the paperwork from the receptionist, her head bowed, and ushered us out. I could feel the heat of her tears building as her eyes glazed. She was silent on our walk home, and so were we. Our lives were going to be different here.