Category Archives: Humour

Asian humour reflecting their lives and travels to Africa

The Loneliness of the Sikh Walker on BBC’s EastEnders

He appeared a few years ago and has been often seen on EastEnders- walking purposefully in the streets and demonstrating either self-imposed silence or a specially prescribed form of ‘nil out by mouth’ regime ever since. No one has had anything to say to him and Mr Singh as a character in the soap does not seem to have anything to say to anyone else either. His sole purpose in life is to walk around at variable speeds at precisely timed intervals but with his mouth mostly tightly shut. He is generally in a great hurry with his eyes focussed on the ground in front of him. Other EastEnders characters always surround him. The costume people seem to like his colourful turbans, loose shirts and occasional display of very thick gold rings on his right hand and also the bangle that he wears.

Mr Singh is good for cultural diversity but no one knows who he is and why has chosen to remain silent for so long on EastEnders. The presumption is that Mr Singh is happy with his life in the soap. No one has ever asked him. So, why has this become a concern? It appears that he has never spoken to Phil, Dot, Ian, Shirley and even Patrick who are all of the older characters on the soap. It can be imagined that Bianca would not have anything positive to discuss with him either. Of course, Mr Singh may try talking to Masood when the latter is not running around delivering the post. Has Masood ever delivered registered letters and parcels at Mr Singh’s address? They might actually know each other but on the set they are silent friends. Dennis may have learnt a few things about Mr Singh’s community, culture and religion in the diversity lessons in school but no one seems to have the courage to walk up to him and greet him.

Where does Mr Singh live? He is also never seen in the café but he did once turn up in the Old Vic where he had orange juice. That was the highlight of his week. Mr Singh was recently seen with a female but given the absence of pertinent information it would be unfair to deduce that there is a relationship between the two or indeed was this yet another instance of impeccable timing when two culturally diverse people were seen next to each other for no real benefit?

Masood and his family have played a major role on the soap, perhaps because there is an urge to explain that he is actually quite normal and that he does not go around threatening anyone. He is also cast in a most trustworthy role as a postie where his dedication to duty must be exemplary. Masood is a role model.

On the other hand, how would Max treat Mr Singh as a customer at Brannings’ Car Sales? Mr Singh desperately needs a motor car. Would Max give him personal service? While post sale warranties are not really an issue because Mr Singh prefers to walk everywhere anyway, a car would offer Mr Singh a form of job extension. He could drive the cast on out of town trips. A picnic would be an even better idea as Mr Singh could provide parathas, samosas, chicken curry and daal, followed by ladoos, barfi and pendas and glasses of lassi to down everything. However, would Dot eat Mr Singh’s samosas? Would the Carters serve lassi at the Old Vic? Besides, Carol probably makes better chicken curry than Mr Singh’s new female friend. However, Mr Singh could be a vegetarian and there hardly any point in showing him entering the local burger bar.
If Mr Singh was suddenly to be given a voice and was to incomprehensively become a witness to the murder trial of Lucy Beale, wouldn’t Mr Patel, Miss Bagchi, Mr and Mrs Mubende and their African friends also expect to be cast into future programmes? Did they see anything when Phil’s rough friends ran out of Sharon’s bar after attacking her? Ah but Phil is not having the police looking into his stage managed affray in Sharon’s bar. However, people like Mr Singh who know a great deal about the streets of Walford should be able to help, surely.
EastEnders would indeed reflect the local diversity but the programme’s makers would have to learn a few tricks. How would they create the story-lines in which the local Hindu trader would have a distinctive role in taking over Denise’s shop? How would she earn her living after that takeover? African people in the East End could have competed against the Brazilians to portray their footballing skills in the flavour of the month that even the makers of EastEnders have just missed out on. No worries. The next football World Cup is only four years away.

Does Mr Singh have a son or a daughter? Would Mr Singh Junior want to take Whitney out? Would Whitney like to go with him anyway? There is a small problem though. Would Mr Singh even allow his son to have an affair with Whitney? There is only one way to find out. Create a son for Mr Singh and let him courteously pursue Whitney.
Returning to the question of depicting integration on the television screen, it is not just about marriage or relationships. Will Mr Singh visit Patrick in hospital? Will he go to Lucy’s funeral? Will he provide the vocal accompaniment to the loud Bhangra music often heard in the open market? Mr Singh is probably very well read and highly informed but it is not his knowledge and potential for becoming a social agent and community leader that EastEnders is interested in. No? It is his visual appearance and unique propensity to turn up at low profile events wearing lovely colourful turbans and shirts.

More recently another Sikh character has been seen on EastEnders. This is good news but no one knows what he has in store for him. Will he be allowed to talk? Will be even allowed to talk to the original Mr Singh?

On a serious note there has been some talk about addressing diversity in EastEnders. Should the programme really reflect the true representation of the community in Walford? Should EastEnders be recast to reflect the changing demography of viewers? Or indeed, should the majority of viewers be allowed to see the content of their favourite soap as they always have? Why would anyone want to change EastEnders now? Has the BBC done any research to find out whether potential target audiences in the ethnic minority communities would really want to watch EastEnders anyway? Besides, if we start changing EastEnders by applying these criteria, the lonely Mr Singh must find new roles in Holby City, Glasgow Girls, The Honourable Woman and New Tricks. There will be no challenge of learning the scripts. Mr Singh does not talk. That could be a problem on New Tricks as his silence may be misconstrued.

As far as Mr Singh of EastEnders is concerned, it pays to be silent. Will he ever speak or be spoken to? How would Mr Singh ever perform on ‘The Archers’ on Radio 4? How do producers of radio plays involve silent men and women?

(Great care has been taken to refer only to the two Mr Singhs, the characters on EastEnders).

The Search for High Value Items

Once the notice of expulsion was finally accepted by the Asian community, the massive task of preparations began. This little episode deals with some reactions of my mother-in-law. We rushed to the shops to buy something that everyone would need – suitcases! On arriving at the main shop on Kampala Road, we soon realised that the best suitcases and travel bags had already gone. We wanted to buy the most expensive items in order to use up our stocks of Ugandan shillings. Then, while looking at the less attractive items on sale, we noticed that the prices had been hiked to unacceptable levels. Worthless items of travelling gear had been priced to generate ridiculously high profit margins for the shops. In fact, everyone was unusually looking for the most expensive stock to use up their money rather than leaving it behind.

 We picked up some suitcases, essentially made of pressed cardboard with horrible green and brown colour patterns that reminded one of a terminally ill crocodile if that is indeed the pattern was aimed to show. It was a fake crocodile skin ‘pattern’ but somehow the owner of the skin had not taken care of his health! My mother-in-law reached out for the suitcase and then, while slowly beginning to accept the inevitable, she asked how much it cost. “Two thousand shillings, Ma Ji” replied the retailer with immense respect for the elderly lady. “What, two thousand shillings? How dare you call me Ma Ji?” The retailer was surprised but quickly resumed the sale. My mother-in-law wanted to know how much profit he was making from each sale. She was annoyed that this man was making money out of people’s misery. “So, what are you going to do with all the profit?” she asked. She wanted to know if he was going to take with him to his next life. I urged her to make up her mind so that I could pay up and leave. However, she still had one more question for the shop keeper “How the hell are you going to get the money out of the country, you rotten soul?” she asked. The shop keeper burst out laughing, “Ma ji, we are Gujarati traders, we know how to get our money out. We are not Sardarjis; we know our business” he confirmed. Mother-in-law had had enough. “Let us go and have a look somewhere else”, she commanded and walked out.

Of course the same thing happened in the next shop and the one after that – prices had shot through the roof as the traders realised that once their stock was sold, they would also be leaving!

Why Everyone Needs a True Sister

Many years ago a number of us worked on a new drama production called, “The Story of Asha, Ayesha and Usha”. It grew out my conviction around 1999 that the new Millennium was not going to offer any utopias, not even a world of perfection where no one harmed anybody and women had their fundamental rights protected. Well there are 91.5 years left to prove me wrong. I have placed a £50 note under Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London, for any reader who cares to remember in 2099 and to check it out. Boris Johnson, may need to be reminded that very important pledges have been made to upgrade the quality of life of Asian elderly and that the £50 note is intended for charitable use only. No Member of Parliament is allowed to use the money to cover expenses.

Our sister Asha grew up with four brothers and had the qualifications of a UN Secretary General but only missed her appointment because Idi Amin had reserved that job for himself,  a security adviser – to inform us when dad was in a bad mood just as we stepped in at midnight after a hockey game had ended in the late afternoon, a fire fighter– who kept all tensions away by making sure that the neighbour, a nosey massi, an elderly Gujarati lady who was everything but an aunt by making sure that she did not have contact with our parents,  a scout– she would keep a lookout for unwanted guests who would always walk in just as we were leaving to go and see an ‘educational’ but ‘ X ‘ rated film at the Norman cinema. You see, our dad had this view that every western picture was a serious threat to our tender Sikh morals and while films relating to war, famine, bank robberies, arson, car thefts, booby-trap bombing and Hiroshima were not going to hurt us in any way, it was scenes of the stuff that goes on between the shameless white women and their men when they did not even switch off the lights….That were the real threat to our outlook on life and would leave us without qualifications.

Asha was also an ambassador- who went with our parents to see three extended families which had so many sons and daughters that someone was always getting married or someone was always having a baby. Why was that so important?  Our parents wanted the relations to know that their children cared for the extended family; an emotional blackmailer– who drove us nuts if we did not slip a 10 shilling note into her chemistry textbook, a smuggler– who made sure that all the nice samosas packed in newspapers were reserved for us in a rusty bucket hidden under the table when we went to the Gurdwara and a hockey player- who executed tasks to a precise finish each time, leaving the players of the opposite side holding their painful ankles, rubbing their groins, pressing their exploding ribs and massaging their swollen fingers after she had complied to our instructions and at each command, raised her stick in the air but always below the regulation height.  The “instructions”, which could be issued at anytime in a hockey match had one common factor – she was only brought in to inflict pain and injury on the good players of the other side by deftly swinging a hockey stick or hitting a ball so hard at close range that the players would hold up their sticks in the air in utter disbelief while the balls found their targets. Many an important hockey tournament was won when Asha was playing in our team and it did not surprise us as much as the local newspapers when we finished the hockey season at the bottom of the fourth division; Asha got married that year. We did not let any of the major companies know that their share price would almost quadruple if Asha even as much as sat in their reception. She was a source of immense good luck but offering her a job was of no use – she used to get bored so easily that once she even demanded we have a hockey practice in board room of IBM where dad’s company had been called in to fix a film screen much to my dad’s displeasure. Was IBM going to screen those nasty films in their Board Room as well? The world was changing so fast…IBM managers were shown sleazy movies as a part of their training in salesmanship.

But it was none of the above qualities that really mattered. In fact the tasks she achieved above were so ordinary that I have use a thousand words instead publishing a single picture. The real achievements had started when Asha was just under nine years old. A departing English colonialist had left a car behind when it was still being repaired by a local garage. The garage owners knew that they were not going to be paid and so they decided to move it out of the workshop to create space for the cars of other English colonialist civil servants who always paid their bills in time, mostly by bringing in bottles of scotch whiskey that had been brought into the country in a large white crate with the words ‘medical supplies’ tastefully painted on the side of the crate. A Red Cross which had its arms longer than its only leg had also been added in a hurry; the red drops of paint had dripped downwards, leading to concerns that Dracula had come to Kampala.

So Asha and some of us decided to check out the abandoned car. It was fast becoming a wreck- its windscreen wipers were used by the farmer to clean his kitchen windows, one of the seats was used by the neighbour’s house worker when he had the rare occasion to take a long rest on Wednesday afternoons – an auspicious time for all Indian women who went to the temple for ‘ladies only’ prayers much to the annoyance of the local cinema manager who had also programmed to screen ‘Ghar Ghar ki Kahani’ at the same time. You see, the elderly mothers-in-laws who went to see this film also found it so gratifying that they were not the only ones who had their sons’ wives beaten regularly. It was the story of every household with daughter-in-laws. Anyway, we decided to check out the car and I was given the first “ride”, except that the wheels had been stolen and the car was carefully placed on building blocks, with the overhanging ends of each axle carefully placed on a block of timber over and above the cement blocks. My “drive” was short but interesting. Then two other brothers took a long time having their fun at driving the car at great speeds. One of them felt that by placing the car on high blocks, the garage owner had deprived us budding rally drivers of a feeling of movement. Far too many screeching brakes had been applied to no effect – the car did not even move a little to its side when cornering. So Asha was asked to push the car, which she did so quickly that the car fell off the blocks. Brothers nearly fell out of the vehicle, with one lying in the legroom of the back seat, with a cardboard flap advertising tampons almost covering his face. We slowly collected our wits and found that thankfully no one was hurt. A missing turban was found under the driver’s seat. There was some smell of oil but that was only to be expected on a race track, you know.

It was then that we suddenly remembered that Asha was nowhere to be seen. The nasty thought hit me that she might be actually lying underneath the car with her eyes shut. Doors were swung open in great haste and on coming out we looked towards the front and back and again to the front looking for Asha. But there was Asha with tears in her eyes. I ignored one brother who was asking me why we were looking for Asha at the front when she was supposed to be pushing the car at the back. On closer examination we discovered that when the car was heaving backwards and forwards, she had forgotten to move her foot out of the way. My brother asked with great feeling, intense care and love “Why did you push the car so hard Asha? You should know that it was placed on these blocks”. Asha replied in a strange voice that she wanted to give us a real feeling of speed. Why was she not wearing her stiff school shoes? How could you push the car from the side? When pushing a car to start, you always pushed it from the b-a-a-ck and the axle would not have dropped on her foot. It was her fault. Soon the technicalities were sorted out but it suddenly dawned on us that it was getting dark and that our parents would be waiting for us at home with very hot vindaloo and supposedly, a tasty chicken curry.  That was the real challenge of the evening; not the curry but how we could get Asha through the back door of the house without dad finding out that she had been injured.

More  on  this very soon.

Can you speak Gujarati?

Would you try to act as an interpreter without knowing anything about the issues being discussed?  

 

I did, and I was only ten years old.

A good friend sent me a test which would decide whether I could speak good Gujarati. I promised that I will take that test.

 

When in Kampala, in the mid 1960’s I used to accompany the neighbouring massi (an elderly aunt) and her newly arrived bahu (i.e. daughter-in-law) who had arrived from India, to the Missionary run Mengo Hospital in Kampala. The bahu had some women’s problems. Now both massi and bahu could not speak to the English doctors. I was recruited on my mum’s expert recommendation and at the hospital I managed to ask all of the doctor’s questions in Gujarati and then relay the answers to the doctor in English, not for a moment understanding the connections with the daughter-in-law’s acute sensitivities or even getting embarrassed myself. I was only 10 years old and did not know anything about the “issues” involved! I did all the interpreting so well that even the doctor smiled at me. They say that ignorance is bliss but in this case ignorance was exploited.

 

Consider this. The doctor asked the poor girl to go into the private examination area, which was basically a high level mattress stuck in a wooden tray, in the corner of the room, surrounded by two long curtains. The girl did not move. The doctor politely waved his hand slowly and stopped at the opening of the curtain. ‘Please step inside, I would like to examine you’, he told her. The bahu could barely speak and looked at me. I also waved my hand skillfully and added that she was to be seen by the doctor. She asked where I was going to stand. I stood still outside the curtain. She then looked pleadingly at the mother-in-law who said with informed authority, “Jao beta, jao” and the young girl slowly walked into the area behind the curtain.

 

The massi and I stood outside, expectantly looking at each other and then at the curtain.  I do not what the massi was thinking but I was quite ready for another question from the doctor. Instead massi and I heard a few deep hums, with hushed words from the girl. “Ba! Aa boley chey ke sarlo utaru”. Massi, always quick on the uptake said, “ Koi baat nahin, beta…utari dewo”. Just as I realised that I had been left out of the loop, I asked Massi “Sarlo kiya hota?” The massi ignored my question and looked away. When she looked at me again she realised that I was waiting patiently for an answer. She explained that it was an undergarment by showing me a tiny bit of her own; it was basically a large underskirt.  The doctor completed his examination and came out from behind the curtain just as the massi’s sarlo was being hidden away. I will not discuss the bahu’s confidential medical case here…

 

It only occurred to me a few years ago that I would have been dropped from that role if I had been a smarter child. In today’s culture, exposing a child to questions relating to a woman’s body cycles, anatomy and her mental health would be labeled as ‘abuse’. So any talk of speaking Gujarati sends my mind into a spin!

The Story of the Limes

The first travel note seems to have gone all around extended “Rafikiland” in such a whiz. I am reminded of the DHL adverts on the telly in which parcels travel at nearly the speed of light. A private note to some friends is now competing with Harry Potter for international attention.

 Kampala is now the place to be for rat runs, that is how taxi drivers have created new routes to get from one place to another by avoiding known areas of congestion. So, if you want to go to Kololo from Norman Cinema (now a church), you no longer take the straight and narrow way to Bombo Road past those sleepy upside down bats. Besides the bats are too busy to worry too much about your slow progress. So, to go to Kololo, you go downhill to old the Chor Bazaar (where you could buy your car light which had been stolen on the previous day), past the old rainwater sewer at the bottom of the valley. The sewer itself has benefited from extensive upgrading by Chinese contractors- the walls are now steeper to allow even more rainwater to gush past the old Ramgharia School on its way to Nakivubo.  Back to my journey to Kololo, we went up towards the Sikh Temple in Old Kampala (Rashid Khamis Road) and past the Temple, did a right turn and then a beeline to end of the road to reach one end of the Makerere Hill Road. Then we went down to Aga Khan School and the new university and started the climb to reach the Makerere University’s main gate only to slide effortlessly into Wandegeya before going past Mulago junction to Kololo. That took 35 minutes and we were only on the outskirts of Mulago. The trip to Kololo was abandoned. 

I have said previously that central Kampala has no buses. It is the day of the matatu – white Japanese minibuses with chequered flag-like lines on their sides. I realised very quickly that the chequered lines have a purpose – to facilitate race-driving ambitions of the matatu drivers. They come tearing through the traffic and screech to what should be a sudden halt at the junction; except that they have merely slowed down and have no intention of stopping. If your taxi is in their way, you have to stop. Since the road is already congested, the matatu driver sticks the sharp angular side of his minibus between your taxi and the car in front. Full marks for guessing who joins the gap in the road when the traffic moves. In the meantime, the young matatu driver (all of them are very young) is constantly revving his engine to remind you of his intentions…Louis Hamilton is tame compared to the matatu driver.

We went to Nakasero market to buy some limes to make a cooling drink. It took half an hour from the old Bombay Stores corner to go downhill to the market. At the junction of the Allidina Visram Street, it was the matatus that had created the right of way, going from left to right and vice versa. When you finally reach the market, there is of course no parking space available but cars are parked three to the kerbside anyway. The best way to shop is to let your driver go in circles, looking for a parking space that he will probably never find, while you enter the market with some trepidation – a ‘school’ of totos (shortened version of  ‘mutoto’ or children)  have started walking with you. You wonder whether they know where you are going! You even wonder whether you know where you are going. They will try to meet your every need. Inside the market I was offered padlocks, flimsy toy aircraft that would split into two after one crash landing, agarbatti, spoons, combs, scarves, hairnets, ladies underwear, a ruler and a screwdriver. If there was any connection between the last three items, I am afraid I did not match the vendors’ imagination – I was only looking for limes.  All the ‘alleged’ limes actually looked like small lemons. When you asked for limes, you were offered more lemons. Then a cheeky little boy said, “This is lime” with great conviction. I was reminded of Einstein and the apple. He was holding a large yellow lemon with a skin as thick as a crocodiles tail.  Finally we did see some overgrown limes and made arrangements to buy six of them. The best price, according to the top toto was Shs 3000/- “Only for you sah, reeeally, sah!” I looked at him with suspicious interest but in an inquisitive, penetrating way. I saw rich talent, was there the beginning of a rogue trader who would be trading in hedge funds and currencies and probably making horrendous losses in 20 years time? On the other hand he could be a future president of Google or even the country when he grows up…. He burst out laughing, responding to my serious scrutiny. The rest of the school of totos also enjoyed a jolly good laugh. ” Do you think I am a muzungu?” I asked. Twenty totos replied in unison,” Muzungu!, muzungu!”. The price of limes suddenly crashed, faster than sub-prime mortgages. The limes were on offer for Shs 800/-. Six hundred is what I offered and they accepted. I took out a Shs 5000/- note but they did not have any change. One of the totos offered an ingenious solution – why don’t I go into the main market to buy other things and then come back to them with exact change? Very slick. This was too much. In the meantime I thought about my taxi driver who must have been on his 1645th round of the market still looking for a parking space. I dug deep into my pockets and found £3.15. I offered that to the chief toto for six limes. He promptly declined. I knew that he was thinking of Ugandan Shs 500/- coins, which are now the main unit and looks amazingly like a £1 coin. I begged to explain that each £1 that I was offering them was equal to Shs 3000/- at the bank. My hopes began to rise when the totos suddenly became very receptive to the proposal – they were in for a quick mega profit while I was getting tired. Then they had a quick consultation amongst themselves and the chief toto announced with great dignity,” We want dollaas”. I pleaded that £1 equals to 2 US dollars. They were not interested. I was starting to give up the idea of buying limes when the taxi driver bust on to the scene – he had found parking after 43 minutes. The driver asked them something with a terse question in Luganda. They accepted £2 for six limes. The taxi driver protested, reminding me that I was being robbed. I told him to leave me with the “deal”. Those were the most expensive limes that have ever been traded in East African history- six limes for Shs 6000/-. My new “rogue trader” was happy, I was happy but the taxi driver was sulking. After reaching my hotel, the Sheraton, the limes were cast aside. It was time for a cool 5.6% Nile Beer. I put the dusty limes in the fridge and was seriously reprimanded. It was also not a smart idea to reach out for another beer when we had spent the afternoon looking for the limes.

I hoped that my newly discovered entrepreneur, who was not more than 12 years old, was safe at home. I wondered whether he had realised the profit he was sitting on.