I took a deep breath to steady myself. I’d been wanting to make this call for so many weeks and I couldn’t stand it any longer. I wanted to talk to my mum, to know that she and Dad were missing me. I wanted Mum to tell me to come home. I had this fantasy that she would say: “Stay right where you are, putt, we’re coming to get you.” Putt means darling. My dad used to say it to me sometimes.
It was just after 7pm. I knew Mum would be in the kitchen at our house in Derby, stirring something on the cooker. I could almost feel the heat and smell the turmeric. Lucy, my younger sister, would be watching telly. I wondered if the teachers at school had asked her where I was.
Dad would have gone to the foundry. Had he told his friends about me running away? They’d know anyway, of course; in the two months since I’d left home the gossip would have filtered through from our Sikh temple, the gurdwara. I hoped I hadn’t hurt him too badly.
I could feel the courage draining out of me as I lifted the receiver. Mum answered almost immediately. “Mum, it’s me . . .”
She was off straight away, screaming and crying down the phone: “How could you do this? You’ve shamed us. Why should we suffer this disgrace?” I was crying, too, but I managed to say: “Mum, you know why I left.”
She wouldn’t have that. “I hope you have a daughter who does to you what you have done to me, then you’ll know what it feels like to raise a prostitute.”
“I’ll come back, Mum. But I won’t marry that man. I’m only just 16. I want to live my own life. I want to go to college.”
“Live your own life then, and good luck to you. In our eyes you’re dead!” She slammed the phone down.
My legs seemed to give way beneath me, and I crouched on the floor of the phone box, choking on my sobs. Had I really done something so terrible that my parents could disown me? Had they really stopped loving me? Was it such a crime to want my own life?
WHEN we were little there were four of us in our bed: me, Lucy, Robina and Yasmin, sleeping two at the top and two at the bottom. There were three other girls in our family. Bachanu, my half-sister, in India; Prakash in London; and Ginda, about 10 years older than me, who slept in the other bed in our room. She looked after us while Mum was at work.
My brother Balbir slept in the other bedroom. He was treated completely differently from us girls. Mum would prepare his food and wash his clothes. We were expected to wash our own clothes, get our school uniforms ready and get our food.
I was about seven when I started asking why everything was different for Balbir. Then I questioned other aspects of our life. If Sikhs think everyone is equal, why do we look down on people of a lower caste? The gurdwara near our house was—and to me still is—the local gossip shop.
“Have you heard Hasina’s daughter-in-law has had another girl? I think Hasina is really regretting that match.”
“What about Zainab Singh? Her mother caught her at the bus stop, talking to a boy. That was three weeks ago and Mira hasn’t let her out of the house since. I said to her, ‘Mira, you have only yourself to blame. Let her mix with white girls and she will pick up white girl ways’.”
The worst thing you can say to an Asian girl is that she is behaving like a white person. We weren’t allowed to mix with white people because Mum said they didn’t have any morals or self-respect. She said whites were dirty people with dirty ways. That’s what all the women I called Aunty thought too, and everyone else in our community.
An Asian boy might have a bit of fun with white girls—”white meat”, they’d say—while he was growing up, but when it came to settling down, his family would find him a good Asian bride.
If an Asian girl went out with a white boy that was different. Her brothers or her uncles would find him and beat him up and then they would beat her, too, for bringing shame on the family. Then she would be ruined; no decent Asian man would ever want her. Everyone knew that. I knew it by the time I was eight.
My mother’s main concern was that we maintain the family’s good name and grow up to be good daughters-in-law who were subservient and knew how to cook.
Dad was very quiet. He spent all week working to provide for his family, and then at the weekends he would go to our local pub, the Byron, and get drunk. Sometimes he’d come home happy and sit down in the living-room and ask us to search his hair for nits. We’d all cluster round his chair and he’d sit there telling us jokes and stories as we raked our fingers through his oily black hair, squealing when we caught one and crushed it between our nails.
Sometimes on Saturdays I went with my dad to his allotment. I sat beside him on the grass and he told me about his farm in the Punjab and this big shady tree in the middle of his village where at the end of the day he and the other men used to sit.
“Would I have sat there with you, like I do here?” I said. I knew the answer as we had the conversation many times; but I was relishing the moment, having Dad all to myself. I leant my head against his knees and let his voice fill my mind with exotic images of the life I might have led.
“Goodness me, no. In the daytime, when your chores were done, you might have played under the tree . . . but in the evening the shade it provided was for the men, it was where we relaxed or, if needs be, discussed the affairs of the village. Your place then was with the women.”
“You liked it there, Dad, didn’t you. Why didn’t you stay?” “It was the 1950s, things were changing, it’s always important to keep up to date. I didn’t want any son of mine driving a bullock-drawn plough all his life; I dreamt of more for my daughters than the drudgery of carrying water on their heads. Besides, the British government was asking us to come, they needed workers, they offered favourable conditions. We were told we would have a wonderful life.”
But what my dad found when he got here wasn’t all that wonderful. He shared a house with other Asian men, sometimes as many as 12 crammed into one room. Landlords didn’t want to rent to them; there were signs saying No Irish, No Blacks.
My mum came almost seven years after Dad. She’d married him when she was 15, after his first wife, her older sister, died from a snake bite. She was told she had to. What must it have been like coming all the way to Derby? She’d lived in the same tiny village all her life. She never really got the hang of English furniture; when I think of Mum now I think of her sitting crosslegged on the floor, peeling onions.
She never learnt English. Dad learnt enough to get by outside, but at home we always spoke Punjabi. We ate Punjabi food, we had Punjabi friends and, although we wore our uniforms to school, we were expected to put on our Indian suits as soon as we came home. It was like you came home and shut the door on Derby and all the white people with their dirty white ways.
One day I came home from my school, St Chad’s Infants, to find Mum and Ginda folding yards of fabric into a trunk. I’d never seen anything so pretty in our house. Mum slapped my hand away. “It’s for Ginda’s wedding. She’ll be taking it to her new family. It’s for her suits.”
“Ginda’s getting married? When? Who are you marrying, Gin, tell us.”
“His name is Shinda. His picture is on the table over there.”
It showed a man a few years older than Ginda, quite good-looking.
“What’s he like?” I said. “I don’t know. I haven’t met him, have I, stupid?”
I’d grown up knowing that Ginda would be getting married because it’s what all the girls did, but I hadn’t expected it so soon. She was 16.
A few weeks later Mum said Ginda had gone to India. When she came back she was by herself but she was married. One night in our bedroom I picked up the picture of her husband, who was waiting for his permit to live in England.
Ginda said: “He came to meet me at the airport but I didn’t recognise him. He doesn’t look like that picture at all; I reckon it was doctored.”
It was the same when Yasmin got married. A picture appeared, a trunk got filled, she went away and she came home alone while her husband waited for his papers.
By my teens I had three sisters married. Every few months Mum would decide it was time to pay a visit to one of them. My sister—whichever one it was—would be perched on the settee with her baby and the complaints would start.
“I can’t stand it any longer. He is a difficult man. Baby was crying while we were eating, I wanted to go to him, but he wouldn’t let me. Yesterday he shouted at me because he said his dinner wasn’t hot. What can I do? Every day there’s something. Why should I put up with it?”
“Because you are his wife,” said Mum. “It is your duty to look after your husband and to please him.”
“But he gets so angry.” “This is his house, he can behave as he wishes. Stop that crying, crying does no good. You must learn how to calm him.”
“But I don’t see why . . .”
“It is not your duty to see. It is your duty to have a respectable marriage and to uphold the good name of your family. That is the very least that your father and I expect.”
Mum was more than a match for her daughters. They stopped trying to make themselves heard and sank back into the corner of the settee as tears rolled down their cheeks.
AT last the subject of my own marriage came up. I was doing my maths homework when Mum showed me a picture, ever so casually. “Do you think he’s nice? He’s the man you’re going to marry.”
I felt as if I had been slapped. I just looked at Mum. She laughed and put the picture away, so I thought perhaps she was joking.
Over the weeks she became more insistent. She kept saying I should be happy that she had found me such a good husband and that it was my duty to marry him. I got more and more frightened. I kept thinking of my weeping sisters and the bruises I’d seen on them. I used to lie awake and dread the thought of my husband beating me, and Mum and Dad refusing to help. I felt as if my life were sliding out of my control. When I said, “Mum, I want to finish school and go to university”, she just laughed.
My white friends had started talking about going to college or university. When they said, “Is it true you have to get married when you’re really young?” I’d say no. I used to wonder if other Asian girls in my class were going through the same thing as me, but I never dared ask them because I’d been so indoctrinated not to talk outside the family.
I fantasised about asking a teacher to help, but it would have flown in the face of everything Mum ever taught me. And even if I had been brave enough to tell a teacher, I didn’t think they’d understand. Robina stayed in India six months when she went to have her marriage, and when she came back the teachers never even asked her where she’d been.
The photograph of the man I was supposed to marry was on the mantelpiece, leering down at me when I came home from school. He was ugly as well as short, he looked much older than me and he had a stupid haircut. I still didn’t know his name, no one bothered to tell me.
Gradually my trunk was being filled up. Mum even bought my wedding dress without me, a red glittery thing that I refused to look at. She couldn’t care less that I didn’t want to get married; she had already married five daughters and she didn’t see why I should be any different. Ginda and Yasmin backed her up; they used to say, “Teri fol laga ya”, which means, “Why are you any different, have you got flowers attached to you?”
Even Robina was on their side. “Just do it. It’s what we’ve all done,” she said. But my mind flashed back to a night before she left to meet her husband. She’d gone missing. Dad found her hiding behind the shed. I could hear her sobbing. When we were in bed, Robina whispered that she’d been hiding because she was scared of getting married.
Dad didn’t say much about my marriage. Sometimes when he’d had a drink he’d stroke my cheek and say, “Come on, putt. Don’t try to fight this; it’s what we all do.”
One night it all got too much. Mum, Ginda and one of my aunties were all standing over the chest, admiring the wedding fabrics. It seemed so real and close that I had to do something. I said, “Mum, I’m not getting married. I’m going to finish school and go to college.”
Mum was so angry that I could speak to her like that in front of an outsider that she whacked me hard on the arm with her heavy sewing scissors. She was screaming and crying and saying to my auntie, “Look what I have to put up with; I have to carry the burden of seven daughters and this one has no shame.”
Ginda wouldn’t talk about my marriage. As far as she was concerned it was inevitable. “Nothing is going to change, Jas,” she said. “Grow up and face facts.”
I felt she had abandoned me. Gin had virtually brought me up. She used to bathe me when I was little. She had reassured me when I got my first period; Mum had never mentioned it. Now, it seemed, she was too caught up in her duty and the community and the family’s reputation to care about me.
The best thing in my life was my friend Avtar. Her family were chamar. My mum always told me that chamars are the lowest caste. They are the people who pick up dung in the fields; some call them untoucha-bles. My family are jats; back in India jats are landowners and, no matter that the only land my dad owned in Derby was the patch of grass behind our terraced house, being high caste was a very big thing for us.
I don’t know why Mum condoned my friendship with Avtar. Perhaps it was because she had strict parents and protective brothers. But she even let me visit Avtar after school. One day Avtar took me into her living-room when one of her brothers was there, sprawled on the sofa balancing a cup of coffee on his chest. He didn’t move at first, just looked at me so long and hard that I felt myself blushing. Then he stood up and gave me a lazy smile.
“Hi, I’m Jassey,” he said. Once he was gone Avtar burst out laughing. “That’s my good-looking brother. No need to ask what you thought of him: you should have seen your face!”
I started going round to Avtar’s as often as I could. Just being alone with Jassey felt like the most exciting thing I’d ever done. I’d never been alone with a male who wasn’t Dad or Balbir. I’d never had a conversation with a boy, not even at school. But Jassey was relaxed and friendly. As I was about to leave one evening he suddenly said: “Will you go out with me?”
Without giving it a second’s thought I said “yes”. Leaning forward suddenly, he dropped a quick hot kiss on my lips.
The first evening with Jassey was magical. Avtar called for me, and at the top of her road Jassey was waiting in a purple Escort. He’d rolled the passenger seat right back so that I could lie back and no one could see me. He knew to do that; in the Asian community lots of girls and boys have to hide their romance.
I was 15 and I had a boyfriend. In the hours I spent with him I could forget about my duty and my family’s honour and the man whose picture leered down from our mantelpiece. The school holidays were only days away, however, and that made me very nervous. Every year a couple of Asian girls would disappear from school during the holidays. I had a vision of myself clinging to my bed, refusing to leave the house. I overheard Robina talking to a friend. I only caught snatches—”sleeping pills . . . carried onto the plane . . . woke up in a taxi”—but I knew what they meant. Surely Dad wouldn’t let them do that.
One evening I told Mum desperately: “You know my marriage? Well, I can’t go through with it. I can’t go away. I’ve got a boyfriend. I’m seeing someone here.”
Rearing up, she grabbed me by the hair, thrust her face into mine and screamed: “You will stay in your room. Go there now. Don’t think of coming out. I should never have trusted you. You will not go anywhere on your own.
“Chanan!” She jerked her head to indicate that Dad should follow me and, raising a shaking hand, mimed the turning of a key in a lock. He followed me up the stairs.
“Dad, please, don’t let her make me marry him.”
He stood there looking sadly at me. Then he gave a weary sigh and shook his head. I heard the key turn in the lock as I flung myself face down on my bed.
For the next three days that room was my prison. I heard Dad screwing a bolt onto the outside of the door. If I wanted to go to the toilet I had to shout out and whoever came to open the door would stand outside the bathroom. Lucy brought me food but she never said much. I heard Mum shouting at her: “Who is he? Where did she meet him? Don’t try to protect that prostitute.”
At first I didn’t register the rattle on the window. When it came again I saw a trickle of tiny stones slide down the glass. Peering out, I saw Jassey’s Escort opposite the house.
He waved and my heart lurched. He pointed up to me, then to himself and then made out he was running. I smiled and shrugged. It seemed impossible. Where would we go? What we would do? Who would I be without my family?
A few days later Mum said I was to come into town with her and Robina. Everyone was out and she didn’t want me alone in the house. As we made our way up the street I became aware of a strange person shadowing us. I wasn’t sure if it was a man or a woman. It was wearing women’s clothes but the hair was a wig and whoever applied the lip-stick must have had their eyes shut.
I thought I felt a hand touch mine, and I twitched away. A couple of seconds later it happened again but this time I could see the person’s face. It was Jassey. My fingers closed on a folded piece of paper. I read it in the bedroom back home: “I want to help you. We could go away together. I will look after you. Look out for me at 11 tonight J xxx.”
If I ran away, would it make them understand? I went downstairs and announced: “Mum, I’ve changed my mind, I will get married.”
The ruse worked. The front and back doors were still locked but I wasn’t so closely watched. People were pleased with me. But I could tell from the preparations that they would be sending me away any day. I overheard Mum discussing flights.
“You can’t marry a stranger,” Jassey said when I managed to phone him. “I’ll look after you.”
I hid a small suitcase under my bed and gradually packed it with a few clothes, a photograph of my dad and one of Ginda’s eldest son, David, because I loved him very much. At the last minute I put in a panda that Robina had made at school in needlework.
One night at 2am I tiptoed to the bathroom, keeping as close as possible to the walls so the floorboards didn’t creak. I’d pulled the sheet off my bed and now I knotted it tightly to the handle of my suitcase.
I flushed the toilet to disguise the noise of the sash window scraping open, then I ran the tap as I gingerly lowered the case down into the garden. The sheet wasn’t quite long enough and I suffered agonies before letting it drop. It landed with a thud. Frozen, I waited to hear Mum stamping out of her bedroom. After a couple of minutes’ silence I sank down onto the toilet seat and sat there with my head in my hands until my pulse slowed down.
In the morning I woke with a start. Mum had gone to work and I could hear Dad in the bathroom. I hurried into the garden. The case was gone. My sheet was neatly folded behind a stack of seed trays.
I spent the next few days feeling as if all my energy had been sapped. I was ready to go but I couldn’t imagine going. This was my home. It was what I knew and who I was. I looked in the mirror and fancied that I saw myself dissolving.
Then I was woken one morning by the sound of the front door slamming. I looked at my watch: it was late. Mum would have been at work for hours; Dad would be asleep after his night shift; it must have been Lucy going out. Had she remembered to lock the door behind her?
I went downstairs and gingerly tried the handle. The door opened. I closed it again as quietly as I could. I knew I had to seize this opportunity. Upstairs, I tore a page out of one of my school exercise books.
“Dear Mum and Dad, “When you read this I will have gone but I can’t say where. I’ve tried to explain things to you but you won’t listen so I can’t stay here any more. I’m too young to get married. I want to go to college and make you proud of me. I want to have a life.
“Don’t worry about me because I’m going to be okay. I love you both very much and hope I will see you again soon. Your loving daughter, Jasvinder.”
Once it was done I told myself to wait a while. Jassey was at work and didn’t know I was coming. It would be better to wait until the working day was over, but I was terrified that Lucy would come back. The house seemed deathly quiet. Even the street outside seemed dead and empty. At about midday I couldn’t stand it any longer. I got up and ran.
It might sound very romantic, but Jassey and I were not Romeo and Juliet. I wanted to teach Mum a lesson. I wanted her to say, “Oh, all right then, come home; you don’t have to get married. Finish school. Go to college. Do all the stuff the other kids are doing.” I must have been mad.
Jassey and I ended up in a dingy room in Newcastle. I longed to call home and in my mind I ran through the conversation I’d be having many times: Mum answering the phone, calling across to Dad, “It’s Jasvinder. She’s safe!” Everybody crying, telling me I was forgiven and that everything was going to be all right. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Even when I made that call and Mum slammed down the phone on me, telling me I was dead in her eyes, I did not realise how long the shame would last.
Seven years later, when my sister Robina burnt herself to death, my mother still said to me: “Don’t come here; don’t show your face here. You’ll just make things worse.”
[Extracted from Shame to be published by Hodder & Stoughton on January 25 at £12.99. Copies can be ordered for £11.69 including postage from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0870 165 8585