I asked my mother if she remembers how her mother died, but she is blank. She is happy. All the stories of her childhood start from her teen years. She tells me how Dadima had brought her here and how she had never been back home since.
It was like some strange parable – Dadima had escaped a secluded village community to a big foreign city where her and Maya where alone. She’d kept her old clothes, because she couldn’t afford anything else, and left everything else behind her. She forced my mother into an education, working fourteen hour cleaning shifts at the airport to put her through school.
Maya went to all the afterschool clubs – she learnt French and Latin, and played girls basketball. She went on ski trips to the next city over and sang in the school choir. She wasn’t allowed to learn stitching, so she taught herself in secret while Dadima slept or was at work.
Dadima paid for her driving lessons, and moved into a room in a house so she could pay for Maya’s university housing. She was studying to be a doctor.
Dadima never married.
Maya told me about her summer breaks. After her end of year exams, Dadima would give her a little money – whatever she could afford – and send her away for a few days. She’d tell me these stories whilst I was still at school, telling me about the importance of education, and experiencing life, and about how Dadima’s parentage was so modern and how she hadn’t met many Asians until she had started medicine.
Dadima admitted in one of her shaky nights that she had tried to force Maya away from anything Indian, away from any of the traditions that led to the old practice that had murdered her sister. She wanted to give Maya the whitest life possible.
She married an Indian guy, and they had me. Dadima never spoke against the marriage, but I grew up with her switching the Indian TV shows to BBC news every time my father walked out of the room. My paternal grandparents spoke to me in the old language, but she never did. I loved my culture, my father submerging me in Asian-ness he grew up around, ensuring I wasn’t as much as a ‘coconut’ as my mother. She would laugh at this, and agree.
So did I.
Up until the age of eighteen, I never thought about why I spoke English with Dadima, and ate European food, and did things like go to theatre or festivals. It was just a right that came with being the offspring of two educated and successful doctors. It was normality.
At eighteen, I had my own medical school interview. At eighteen, I was told, A lot of Indians apply for medicine, so why should we offer you a spot?
At twenty, they made jokes about all the good doctors being either Indian or Jewish, so I would be okay, even though I was female. Ha ha, I said sarcastically, but secretly I knew this would give me an edge over the female competition.
At twenty-one, Dadima began to lose it, and I had to re-sit my exams.
Dadima went in to the college hospital, and they took blood and ran tests. The minimum was done to confirm her liver was shot. A forty-something doctor spoke to her in Hindi – privacy in a shared room perhaps – but it made me angry. And when said in her low, doctor-like tones, that at her age they don’t consider transplants, I said, She speaks English. So she said it again, this time for everyone to here.
She got worse, I got worse. Her eyes went jaundice, and I took the year away from university. Maya went ballistic. My father called in favours with his colleagues – Make her as comfortable as you can. I screamed at my mother, Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you try?!
I stayed away from home when Dadima was as hospital, and took a part-time job as a bank cashier to pay for rent along with the rest of my student grant.
There, they’d joke about women working, and about sexual violence. I would say nothing – don’t cause trouble; you will be back at university next year. They’d joke about colonies and slavery, and how it should be bought back. I said nothing and kept my head down. They would complain about customers with benefits, and how they were messing up our country. They’d look at me, and say, You’re okay though, ‘cause you were born here.
My head went up, Nothing to do with the thousands of Empire soldiers that made it so you’re not speaking German? They’d change the tone, joking again, about how Hitler had the right idea, and how all of us around that desk were out for the count – me the only ethnicity, but all of us, dark haired and dark eyed.
Dadima passed away, in pain. Maya had her cremated, and asked if I’d like to go back home to scatter her ashes. Yeah, I said, and went back to South London and left her to get on a plane to India.