The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 23, 2002

A Sunday by the sea
Gurnam Gill

IT was for the weekend that I waited most expectantly. That is when Bhaji would invariably take me out somewhere. Either we would go sightseeing, visit new places or friends and relatives. One Sunday, it happened to be quite warm and bright. Even though it was June, the sunshine was as warm as if it were March.

Bhaji and bharjai had decided to take me to the seacoast. I was, indeed, very happy. I hadnít ever seen the sea before except in films. On the basis of those, I had once sketched out the ambience of the coastal area in one of my stories as well. But this Sunday, I was finally going to the sea. Subhash and his family were also accompanying us. Bhaji and Subhash were very close friends. Such a close friendship is not possible without commonality of beliefs and human ideals.

It had taken us about an hourís drive to reach the coast. The waves in the blue waters were rising towards the shore as if they wanted to greet the visitors. All the children set off towards ĎFun & Fare gamesí. Bharjai and Subhashís wife also decided to follow them. This is what the mothers do when children grow up. Then they donít really feel the need to follow their men. The three of us started walking along the seashore. From the way the entire place was decorated, it appeared as if some festival of the White people was on.


Bhaji was talking about the benefits of seawater, which he said, was enriched with all kinds of minerals that could easily be soaked up by the human body through the pores of its skin.

"Then, you must be coming here every two months or so?" I asked.

"No way, yaar. Ever since weíve come to England, it must be our second or third time, really. Thereís hardly any time for such things. Besides, itís also a matter of choice." Subhash had replied.

"Just as we havenít been able to assimilate with the White people despite living among them, in the same way we have been so near the sea and yet so far," Bhaji said, running his eyes into the far distance as though he was measuring the length of the other shore.

The tidal waves were rushing in towards the shore and people sitting upon the sand were slowly stepping back. A few White women, who were braless, were lying face downwards. When the water came rushing in, covering their breasts with the towels, they moved further inland and then lay sprawling upon the sand all over again. But it seemed as if the water was chasing them around, teasingly.

One Indian woman was bathing with her sari on. Her wet sari clung so tightly to her body that, despite her clothes, she appeared to have been stripped naked.

"Yaara, letís go in for a swim." It appeared as though a desire for playing with the waves had surged up inside Kulbir Bhajiís heart also.

"Let it be. We havenít ever done that. Itís quite embarrassing." Subhash had voiced his dilemma.

In the meanwhile, a statuesque white woman went swirling towards the waves, breezing past us. The sunshine had given her wax-like, oiled skin the same glow as copper.

"Yaar, how these women love to sculpt their bodies!" Bhaji said, staring at her body.

Without a doubt, she didnít have an ounce of extra flesh on her.

"Just look at our women. Their stomachs are like lumpy dough. And their thighs, sagging." Subhash suggested, by way of comparison.

"In comparison, our men too figure nowhere. We are no exceptions. Not without reason do we feel embarrassed while removing our clothes." Bhaji stopped in the middle of a sentence and then, looking at a Gujrati sitting upon the sand, he added.

"Now just look at that manís pitcher-shaped stomach. Itís as if heís sitting with a huge watermelon between his thighs. Doesnít he look somewhat like Mahatma Buddha?"

"We donít look that obnoxious! Come on, letís remove our shirts."

"All right. You arenít going to say it everyday!"

Both of them jumped into the water. I was quite keen myself but as I was wearing long knickers underneath, I became a little self-conscious. They invited me repeatedly but, on the pretext of feeling cold, I kept standing upon the shore.

After about half an hour, feeling a little cold, they too emerged out of the water.

"Yaar, it was really wonderful! We just keep feeling self-conscious without any reason."

"Such a deep-seated inferiority complex is also bad. After all, whatís so special about the Whites except their skin?"

It was already four in the evening. Feeling thirsty, Subhash expressed the desire to have some beer. But Bhaji suggested that we return home and go to the pub in the open park, close to the house.

On our way back, I got the impression as though Bhajiís complaint had largely been redressed. He neither showed any signs of loneliness nor sadness. It seemed as though he felt his life-tree had sprung roots in this very soil now. It was as if he had become a soul-mate to his own children.

Later, the three of us went to the pub in the park. Filling up our glasses, we had barely settled down when a group of White mischief-makers came and parked themselves next to us. It was apparent that they were in a mood to create trouble.

After some time, one of them turned his face towards us and asked, "Got a light?"

"Sorry, we donít smoke." Subhash was quite laconic in his response.

"But you do drink." And all of them burst out laughing.

In the meanwhile, one of them, who was wearing a red T-shirt and appeared to be a body-builder, asked Subhash, "What is your nationality?"

"British." Subhash was as brief as possible. On hearing this, all of them started laughing.

The same White man repeated the question, a crooked smile on his lips.

"Letís go home and drink. As it is, weíre tired today." With these words, Bhaji got up to leave and so did we.

Going past the counter, we wound our way out. The barmaid with black-hair smiled at us and said Ďbyeí as well. She was the same woman whose charming smile had bowled me over on the first day. But today, I couldnít even get myself to respond to her Ďbyeí and her smile, too, appeared somewhat lukewarm to me. I felt as though her smiles had no special meaning and that it was more of a habit, really.

As soon as we got home, Bhaji poured out large pegs of whisky for us. And then he started narrating to Bharjai the incident at the pub.

"I always say that you should drink at home, if you must. Whatís so special about these pubs and clubs?" said Bharjai, on hearing him out.

"But daddy, there were three of you, and fairly young, at that. Why couldnít you give them a few slaps?" Pappu piped in.

"Bastard, isnít it enough that we came home on our own, And you didnít have to carry us from there!"

"We thought, we have to show Kew Gardens to your chacha, tomorrow. So we should be in one piece until tomorrow, at least." Subhash told Pappu in half-jest.

"Though I had learnt about a good many things in England by now, there was always something that threw up a new surprise every time. Now what was this thing called ĎKew Gardens?í I was rather curious to know more about it.

Finally I decided to ask Bhaji as to what these ĎKew Gardensí were.

"In these gardens you find those species of flowers, plants and vegetation which are not native to the English soil."

"Then how have they managed to nurture them here?" I was completely bewildered.

"They have spent a lot of money and built a huge glass-house there. The plants get plenty of sunshine and warmth. The steam in the pipes running through the glass-house makes it humid inside, somewhat like the monsoon in India. In this kind of controlled climate, they have managed to grow all kinds of crops, including sugar cane, cotton, maize, banana and thousands of other varieties. Efforts are made to create the climate most suited for the plants and trees. Trees such as mango and jamun are also given the right kind of climate to grow."

I saw that Bhaji was now dead drunk, but emptying his glass, he started again.

"Balli, Subhash and I. Youíll find many more like us. We are all trees of Kew Gardens. Our roots donít run deep. We tried our best to strike roots in this climate but in just didnít happen or perhaps we didnít really know how to do so. In Kew Gardens, you do find mango trees, but they donít ever flower. And thatís what our situation is. Like the trees in Kew Gardens."

(Excerpted from the anthology From Across the Shores: Punjabi Short Stories by Asians in Britain. English translation and critical introduction by Rana Nayar, Sterling Publishers (P) Ltd., New Delhi.) Pages 193 Rs 50.