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We Are Those Lions

Avani Shah

Note: In 1972, Idi Amin expelled the Ugandan Asians, giving them 90 days to leave the country. Many of these people travelled by train to Kenya, from where they went on to settle in India and the UK. This is an extract from my novel We Are Those Lions which follows the lives of a Kenyan Indian family who get caught up in the Grunwick Strike (1976-1978).

When I wake up my whole body feels stiff and heavy, my skin tight like I’ve grown in my sleep and now it’s straining to cover twice as much of me. Papa’s boiled sweets have left my tongue raw, my lips dry. The air is hot, stale and salty at once. The sunlight plays on the inside of my closed eyelids: splotches, then wavy lines, then strange floating specks that roll and dart, joining and separating, like raindrops on glass. My tailbone vibrates with the car. I hear the crunch of tamarind shells, the wet rattle of pips on Papa’s teeth. Then a creak, a whistle of air from in front, and the sound of spitting. I sip from the current, swirl the cool air in my mouth to soothe my tongue. Beside me, in the middle seat, my oldest sister Neha shifts and her head flops onto my shoulder. I open my eyes.

My other sister Namisha has her forehead on the window. When I’m sure she’s asleep, I push Neha towards her. They both fidget a little, Neha wriggling her cheek into the space where Namisha’s shoulder and neck join, and then settle, their breathing heavier. And already, maybe because of the way the sun caresses my forehead, or maybe because of the way car rocks me back and forth, I feel myself drifting. Shadows from trees cut through the road, turning it into train tracks. Through the window, behind the smear of bird droppings, outside looks like a dream England, the kind of England I imagined before we came here. I can no longer see the brown grass or the dead leaves, just oak copses, rolling fields, thatched roofs, gardens littered with bicycles and skipping ropes and stray footballs; all of it blurring into one moving image. I catch my reflection as the light shifts and as my eyes close, she rises in my mind: the girl on the train from 1972. I remember how my face overlapped hers on the glass, how our features blurred together, how the sight of her made me feel sick to my skin.

I wonder where she is now.

And then I’m opening my eyes again, and Mama is saying ‘Wake up, beta,’ and Papa is pulling up in front of a house with a green front door. And I didn’t think I would remember this place, but I do. It has been nearly five years since I was last here.

A man in a cream shirt opens the door. He bows his head when he sees us.

‘She has gone away,’ he says, clasping our hands between his one at a time as we file past him. ‘Savita has gone away.’

We all repeat the words back to him. It’s been a whole day since we found out, but still the words feel like lies as they come out of my mouth. Savitaauntie has gone, I think as loudly as I can. Savitaauntie is dead.

The sandalwood scent of agarbathi fills the passage, and the sounds of murmured Navkar Mantra and a whirring electric fan drift through from the sitting room. Mama sits down on the stairs to unbuckle her sandals, and Neha, Namisha, and I bob around her ankles like lost ducklings, pushing past each other to be on the front-door side of the hallway instead of on the sitting-room-door side, even though Namisha is seventeen and Neha is almost twenty one. None of us want to go in first.

The cream-shirt man squeezes past us to join the prayers. Papa follows him, and moment later their voices join the chanting. While we wait for Mama, we line up our shoes under a framed tapestry that I don’t remember being here last time. In it, curvy women balance pots on their heads in a desert pocked with red grass. They stare out at me, the corners of their mouths turning upwards like they know something I don’t know. When Dadi died – I was only eight then – Savitaauntie was the first to come. By the evening our house was so full that the rows of people’s shoes went all the way down the front steps and to the edge of the lawn. Namisha and I counted sixty seven chappals before Savitaauntie caught us and dragged us back inside for prayers. The next night, after the cremation, so many people came we had to move to the hall.

The sitting room is exactly the same: flowery walls and green curtains, a black and gold tissuebox-holder on the mantelpiece. Cream-shirt man sits on the faded pink settee, his eyes shut and his hands clasped in front of his chest, and it’s a few seconds before I realise that the man sitting next to him is Jayanuncle. He looks wrong without Savitaauntie by his side. His hair is streaked with white now, and instead of the smart rimless glasses I remember, a pair of thick round frames bridge his nose. He perches on the edge of the sofa and jigs his foot, like he’s not sure if he belongs here anymore, even though this is his home.

Papa is in a straight-back dining chair at the table by the window and a woman I also don’t recognise sits on the carpet with a toddler on her lap. None of them stop singing when we cross the room, but the woman opens her eyes briefly and nods at us. She bounces the toddler once and then closes her eyes again. Even though there’s an empty chair beside Papa, Mama joins the woman on the carpet. Neha and I follow, but Namisha makes for the spare seat. When Mama glares at her, she drops to the floor too. She pulls a face at the toddler and then clamps her lips together, pouting. I sing extra loud so that Mama doesn’t notice.

I have known these words forever. After a while, I stop noticing the shifting weight of the sounds on my tongue, the way my lips stick together between the syllables. It becomes like breathing. My mind wanders. In my head, I walk up the stairs, pausing, like I always used to, on the large square step where the staircase turns and then leaping superstitiously over the final three steps in one go. I try to remember the layout of the house. Jayanuncle and Savitaauntie’s room is directly above us, and then the small spare room, where Savitaauntie keeps the shrine, must be the next door along the landing. Except someone has moved the shrine down here now, and Savitaauntie is dead. And even though I know it’s true, and even though I keep telling myself so, I still expect her to walk in with tea and apple wedges. I listen for her footsteps, for the clattering of cups and spoons through the wall.

If we were in Eldoret, the house would be full. People would have started showing up before Jayanuncle had even had the chance to tell anyone what had happened. Someone would have stopped by, or the servants would have passed on the message; word would have escaped, spread from house to house, over street hockey and shared cigarettes. After Dadi died, Savitaauntie visited us every day for a month. When all the functions were over and things were starting to get back to normal, she presented us with a tiny guava tree and helped us plant it in the loose soil at the bottom of her garden.

‘It’ll grow with you,’ she said, ‘and whenever you’re feeling sad and missing your dadi, you can come here and remember her. It’ll be a special place, just for you.’

We already had a secret place – between the potted plants and the fence that framed the grounds at the hall – where we hid whenever functions got too boring, but we didn’t tell her. We just rubbed the soil between our fingers, and followed her instructions.

‘One day,’ Jayanuncle told us when we got back to the house, ‘when you bring your husbands to visit us, that tree will be tall enough for your children to hang from the branches like monkeys.’

In England, it’s different. We hardly know anyone, and the people we do know, we never see. Mama says it’s because of the cold weather. She says everyone goes straight from A to B so that they can hide away in their houses without talking to anyone. No one looks at each other in the street, she says, so how could you possibly know if you were walking past a relative or a friend?

It isn’t cold today though. I’ve almost forgotten what cold feels like. The sun glares through the glass doors at the far end of the room, cooking us all. I edge closer to the fan, inch by inch. The door frames a small scrap of yellow grass and a clothes-laden washing line. The wind catches Jayanuncle’s cream shirts and brown trousers, Savitaauntie’s colourful tunics and churidars, and they all sway back and forth. Outside, it could be a different time. It could be yesterday. Before any of this happened. Any moment now Savitaauntie will appear, a laundry basket balanced on her hip, to bring it all in for ironing. The sleeve of a floral nightdress rises and I get it into my head that it’s waving at me. I want to turn away, to screw my eyes shut, but then I think it must be a sign. And if I ignore it, something terrible, something worse, will happen. My arm begins itching. I separate my palms and clench my hands into fists, but it’s no use. I check that everyone still has their eyes closed, and when I’m sure it’s only the gurgling toddler who’s watching me, I wave back. The sleeve flops down.

When the prayer finishes, everyone looks around at each other for a moment and then Papa and Jayanuncle stand up at the same time. Papa clasps both of Jayanuncle’s hands between his for a second and then drops them and wraps his arms around him instead.

‘She’s gone away, Hitesh,’ Jayanuncle murmurs over and over. ‘She’s gone away.’

When Papa lets go, his eyes are wet. It’s strange to seem him feel something. It’s strange to see him at all. How long it has been since the five of us were in one place together? These days MamaPapa are like robots: work, sleep, repeat. Neha too, since Suresh got her the job at the factory.

We all hug Jayanuncle in turn. By the time we’ve finished, the woman who was sitting on the floor is in the doorway with a tray of water glasses, the toddler now on cream-shirt man’s lap.

‘Thank you for coming,’ the woman says to Mama.

Mama shakes her head and helps pass out the glasses. The couple introduce themselves as Kishor and Tejal. Tejal explains how much Savitaauntie helped her when her baby was born, how they met in the waiting room at the doctor’s office.

‘Bhauna just wouldn’t stop crying,’ she says. ‘Everyone was looking and looking. You know how the goras stare at us? And then Savita, oh she came and sat next to me and showed me another way to hold her.’ She sighs and tucks a curl of Bhauna’s hair behind her ear. ‘This little one stopped crying straight away, didn’t you? Went straight to sleep.’

Everyone murmurs in approval and recognition before we fall into silence again, sipping our water and trying not to catch one another’s eyes.

‘We’d better get started,’ Mama says eventually. ‘Don’t worry,’ she adds when Tejal stands up with her. ‘We can take over from here. We already owe you more than we can ever repay.’

Neha, Namisha and I traipse after Mama through the kitchen to a spare room I only went into once the whole time we stayed here. And even though I’ve been preparing myself for this all day, I’m still not ready.

Savitaauntie’s body is on a yellow Formica table.

This is the first time I’ve seen her in years.

I wonder who moved her there. How they managed it. I don’t trust the table to hold her weight.

Behind her, through the window, I catch another glimpse of the swaying washing line. I screw my eyes shut and try not to breathe. When I do, the air tastes wrong in my mouth, feels wrong in my lungs. I force myself to look again.

Most of her body is covered with a red and yellow sheet, the kind Mama puts down on the floor at dinnertime when there are too many of us to fit around the table. Only her head and hands show and I know already that this is the version of her I will always remember. The face I’ve been carrying in my head — its playful eyes, the bulbous mole that Namisha and I used to run away from — is fading and this one — hollow waxy cheeks, tea-coloured lids that have sunk into the sockets and cling to the eyeballs — is fixing itself in its place.

The mole is still there, on her forehead, just below her parting, but it’s smaller than I remember. Mama traces a crescent shape from it to Savitaauntie’s cheekbone. Her tenderness makes me feel like I should be doing something too, helping somehow. Neha has tucked herself around the table and now has Savitaauntie’s hand in hers. She thumbs circles into the palm, like she used to do to stop me crying whenever Papa rapped me with a ruler for being naughty. For a moment I believe it might work, that somehow Neha will rub Savitaauntie’s hand until everything is better again, but her circles just get faster and faster.

After what feels like too long, I move to the far end of the table and bow my head so that Mama will think I’m praying. I pretend not to notice the way she keeps sniffing. I can hear the edge of the sitting room conversation through the wall. Bhauna has started crying, and Tejal clucks and coos. Papa talks about how a colleague lent him the Ford Cortina, and the route we took to get here, the traffic, how long the journey was. He might save up for a car himself, he says, it would make life so much easier. Jayanuncle wonders if Savitaauntie would have survived if he’d installed a phone like she’d been asking him to.

‘She kept telling me.’ he says. ‘Every day she told me. “A phone at home is worth two down the road.” She must have heard it from some place. “A phone at home is worth two down the road. A phone at home…”’

I picture Papa shaking his head, turning his hands in his lap, occasionally thumbing his moustache. If it was the other way around, if Jayanuncle had died and it was Mama and Savitaauntie sitting out there, Mama would have her hand on Savitaauntie’s knee, or her arm around her shoulder. They would be crying together.

‘A phone wouldn’t have made a difference,’ Mama would be murmuring over and over. ‘What is meant to happen will always happen. This is God’s wish.’

Papa is silent. I know he doesn’t know what to say. Tejal and Kishor don’t say anything either and after a while, Jayanuncle stops talking. No one tries to pick up the conversation. An ice cream van rings somewhere in the distance.

Neha passes me a washcloth. Namisha is twisting hers between her fingers. Mama pulls the red and yellow sheet away. I don’t know where to look.

Savitaauntie’s privates are covered with a towel, but her breasts are shrivelled and spread apart. Namisha catches my eye and flares her nostrils. We look away from each other at the same time. The skin there has turned translucent, and the nipples aren’t dark like mine, but prawn pink as though all the colour has been washed from them. Hair, coarse like grass, sprouts around them. They poke out.

‘Challo,’ Mama says. ‘Come on.’

I try to follow Mama’s lead, but when I work the washcloth down Savitaauntie’s arm, her skin begins to disintegrate. It peels away like PVA glue. As Mama wipes Savitaauntie’s front, the skin ripples. It gathers together in thin creases, wrinkling like the film on a cup of hot milk. The breasts lurk below the surface. Mama lifts them up, one by one, and dabs the pale skin underneath. I can’t stop staring. I think of Jayanuncle last night, all alone and waiting for us to come, only two pairs of shoes on his doormat.

A strangled sound filters through the wall. Something animal. We don’t react, like there’s nothing to hear, but all our hands begin working faster. The girl from the train tries to creep back into my mind, but I push her away. I think of the guava tree instead, how together we scooped away the soil with our hands and pushed it down into the ground. How it never did grow. How when I asked Savitaauntie about it a couple of years later, she gave me a guilty look and said, ‘Rex dug it up. I’m sorry, beta. We can try again if you want.’

I try to stop the thoughts from coming, try to focus on how my washcloth keeps catching against Savitaauntie’s skin, on how my hip bones make the table wobble every time I lean forward, on the metallic tang that surges through my jaw when I chew on the inside of my cheek. But nothing works. And I’m there again. In our secret spot. On the day we passed food parcels through the train windows.

The hall was thrumming with activity — MamaPapa and Neha were all inside. Everyone we knew seemed to be there. I could smell the cooking food from our hiding place at the far end of the grounds. We were leaning against the fence and peering through the leaves.

‘There’s probably be a wedding tonight,’ Namisha told me, as we watched people bustle up the path. ‘Or maybe tomorrow.’

She was twisting a leaf round and round so that the tough stem connecting it to the bush grew thinner. I remember finding it annoying, wanting to grab her by the wrist and pull the leaf away once and for all.

As people came and went we heard snippets of conversation:

‘Two hours, I think.’

‘We need more flour.’

‘No, we missed it. We didn’t know it was coming. They won’t eat until they reach Nairobi now.’

After a while, Namisha got bored. She tugged the leaf free and flicked it at me. She pulled away more and more leaves and pretended she was throwing confetti.

‘Do you think Neha will get married soon?’ she asked, not quite giggling. ‘She’s basically old enough.’

I kicked some dirt her way. ‘Shut up, shut up, shut up!’

Namisha burst out laughing and I pretended to join in. I hated the idea that Neha might leave us one day, that our whole lives might change.

When we finally dared to creep closer to the hall, we jumped up and down to peep through the back windows. People were gathered around tables in groups of five or six: some of them chopped vegetables, others rolled dough. There were people cooking, and packing boxes, and sweeping the floor. It was the first time I’d seen men do this type of work. Even Papa was spooning vegetable curry onto squares of rolled out dough, which my friend Puja’s papa then folded into parcels, and Jayanuncle wrapped in foil.

Savitaaauntie caught us.

‘No playing today,’ she said. ‘Come on.’

We followed her into the hall where she set us up next to Puja and Hiral and Vijay who I knew from school and who were loading foil parcels into a cardboard box.

‘Show them what to do.’ Savitaauntie said. And when I remember how she looked at us like we were adults, her playful eyes serious for once, I have to grip the edge of the table. ‘No running off, okay?’ she told us. ‘This is a very important job.’

On the side of the table, Mama squeezes the washcloth under Savitaauntie’s body and twists and turns her arm as she tries to wipe underneath. She doesn’t ask for help, just huffs and sighs. Namisha catches my eye from the other side of the table and sucks in her cheeks. She nods very slightly at Mama, telling me I should help her. I shake my head. No way.

We go back and forth until Neha tuts loudly. She places one hand on the dip of Savitaauntie’s waist and the other on her shoulder and rolls the body towards her. One of Savitaauntie’s breasts rests on the inside of her wrist. Namisha and I move further down the table, neither of us looking at each other, both of us pretending to be busy. Someone coughs on the other side of the wall.

It was Savitaauntie and Jayanuncle who led the way from the hall to the train station, the rest of us following one carload at a time. There must have been fifty of us on that one dusty platform by the time the train rolled in. Every seat on the train was full. I stared at them through the glass. How could people who looked so much like us look so much like that? Their clothes were wrinkled and their hair matted, and when they saw us their eyes — their whole faces — morphed into a strange mix hopeless-hopefulness that I’d only seen on the one-leg man who begged outside school. It made me feel like what was happening to them was my fault.

Jayanuncles’s words circle in my mind: ‘I should have got a phone. Why didn’t I get a phone? She’d still be here if I’d just got a phone.’

I remember thinking that there must be something we could do. That if all fifty of us stood across the track, surely the train wouldn’t be able to go, surely all of these people wouldn’t have to leave home. Neha laughed at me when I told her about it later.

‘They’re not from Kenya, dummy. They’ve already left home.’ Then she giggled a little and beckoned me closer. ‘They got expelled,’ she whispered. She never told me where the people were from though, or where they were going. She never told me what they had done wrong.

I expected them to fight to get to the windows, like the blackbirds that swarmed from the trees above the schoolyard if you dropped so much as a crust, but when the train stopped they spoke to us in Gujarati. Our men passed the boxes along one by one, and their men took them through the windows and passed them down the train.

That’s when I saw her. Her hair was braided, like mine, but untidy like she’d just woken up. Her papa pressed her a foil packet into her hands, but before she could open it her brother snatched it away. We locked eyes then, me and her, just for a moment, and as my reflection on the glass overlapped her face, and the two of us blurred into one, I thought: Thank God I’m not you.

Maybe it was later on the same day, or perhaps it was another day altogether, that I woke up late at night for water and found MamaPapa huddled over the radio, the silhouette shapes of their bodies leaning towards each other to make an arch, the lamplight glowing behind them. I watched them from the doorway.

‘We won’t have to go, will we?’ I remember Mama saying, or something like that. She was sniffing then too.

‘No,’ Papa told her. I heard him inhale and then let out a long slow breath. His cigarette smoke tickled my nostrils, made my eyes water. When he spoke again, he sounded angry. ‘No one can make us leave. This is our home.’

Mama passes me a slip, and Namisha gulps as she lifts and twists Savitaauntie’s legs so that I can manoeuvre the material over them. When Neha sees us struggling, she comes over and helps. Savitaauntie’s toenails are thick and crumbling, the skin on her shins patched with ash white. On her thighs, varicose veins, knotted like bark, give way to silvery stretch marks.

Neha holds up Savitaauntie’s shoulders and I slide the sleeves of her blouse over her arms and then button it up over her breasts. Namisha offers me the end of a white sari. We work in silence, positioning and repositioning the silk until it begins to look right. I think of the day Jayanuncle and Savitauntie left. They were the first people we knew to go. We must have gone to the train station then too, to see them off. Mama must have packed them food or something. But all I remember is worrying about Rex and who would look after him once they were gone.

Mama leaves us to make the final adjustments and busies herself with rubbing ghee into Savitaauntie’s lips and powdering her cheeks. When she finishes, she runs a comb through Savitaauntie’s thin grey hair. I notice that she’s stopped first, and then Neha and Namisha realise too and we all wait as she cradles Savitaauntie’s head in her hands. She’s not sniffing anymore — her whole body is still, stiller than I’ve ever seen her, so still that when she speaks her voice sounds like it belongs to someone else.

‘She taught me how to do everything, you know,’ she says, ‘back when I first came to Eldoret to marry your papa. Savitaauntie was there for me when I didn’t know anything and now, now…’

Now she’s gone. Now she’s gone, and we weren’t there when she needed us. I wish Mama would grasp for my hand, but she just rocks back and forth, letting a heavy silence soak the room. I want to reach out, to go to her, to wrap my arms around her waist and tell her it’ll be okay, but I don’t know how. The others don’t move either.

Finally I cup Savitaauntie’s small feet, then Neha and Namisha take a hand each, and for a moment we all just stand there, all connected. I wonder what will happen, after the cremation. What Jayanuncle will do with the ashes. I imagine Savitaauntie becoming part of this London water, and then part of this London mud, in all the flowers, in every tree. And it hits me like it never has before: we’re tied to this place forever. I take a last look at the dented toenails and then slip her feet into a pair of white socks. Now they could belong to a child. I wonder what she was like back then, before she knew us, before she knew Jayanuncle. I picture her surrounded by a group of children, all of them laughing and chattering in the sunlight as she jumps a skipping rope. Where are the trees that were planted when she was young? How tall they must be now.

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