My Roots in India

The Ganges at Varanasi by Alan King and Phillip Azevedo

With the summer behind us and the kids back at school, I’m getting into the groove with the novel again. The second act of The Voyeur is going to be submitted to my online writer’s workshop over the next month. Initially, it felt unfamiliar to be diving into my novel again: the peril of taking a sojourn mid-project. Now, it feels good to be back in the saddle, making the connections and letting my fingers stitch together the lives of my lovers word by word.

It also takes me back to experiences of my childhood. The Voyeur is set in Mumbai, and I am drawing heavily on my heritage to make the setting believable. London is my home. I was born here, but my great-grandparents were born in India. I could have based my first novel in this city I know so well, with its sirens and lights, Victorian buildings and melting pot culture. But there was no mistaking the scene in my head that inspired The Voyeur was rooted somewhere more exotic than my immediate surroundings. In it, a haggard old Indian man stood with his nose pressed against the window of a mansion. It was hot and humid, and the air was dusty with sand. At the other side of the window stood his former lover, unaware of his presence.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus), Mumbai, by Alan King and Phillip Azevedo

India is both familiar and alien to me. I still have distant relatives in Gujarat, though I have never visited that state. My mother’s side of the family speaks Gujarati. It’s a language I can get by in, but my anglicised accent illicits smiles from whoever hears me speak it. My parents played Hindi songs often growing up: Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle, Jagjit Singh, Lata Mangeshkar. Some songs still hold powerful memories of long car journeys, family circles with everyone taking turns to sing or concerts at Wembley, where the audience would dress up in their finery to watch Bollywood stars performing elaborate dance routines.

Even now, over 30 years after moving to the UK, my gran and mum have a far greater repertoire of Indian dishes than European ones. It is much more likely to find Indian programmes blaring from their televisions than English-speaking ones. Our children, too, are enamoured with Bollywood movies. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Bodyguard are firm favourites. I love how despite their primary reference points being the UK and Germany (from my husband’s side), they still feel comfortable in Indian culture. The clothes, food – they scoop up their curry with torn pieces of chapati as well as me – and music are to them normal, not extraordinary.

The Ganges at Varanasi by Alan King and Phillip Azevedo

My memories of India itself are vivid. In my early teens, my parents, brother and I did a fortnight’s whirlwind tour of the Golden Triangle – Delhi, Agra, Jaipur – and Goa. I remember the bitter tang of the malaria tablets on my tongue, the soreness of my arms after the jabs. I remember the swell of the Ganges and my dad being very careful about us drinking only bottled water. We ate panipuri – a hollow ball of thin fried pastry filled with water, chutney, chaat masala, tiny potatos, onion and chickpeas – bought from stall holders when the moon hung high above our heads. We visited vast palaces in Jaipur and I felt the peace although my ears were filled with the sound of an old school Walkman. I remember sliding around on the marble floor of the Taj Mahal in Agra, our shoes covered by protective cloth. We took an elephant ride, its face painted in splashes of colour.

Woman crossing the street, Mumbai, by Alan King and Phillip Azevedo

In my mid-twenties my mum and I went to Mumbai for a friend’s wedding. Though I was older, I have fewer intact memories of that trip. My mum and I wore heavy fabrics to the wedding despite the heat. Child beggars swarmed taxis as we travelled, begging for change and the jewellery around my neck felt redundant, worthy of shame. I remember luxurious wedding venues, emaciated packs of street dogs roaming the streets and meeting old friends from India, who seemed to have aged quicker than we had over the decade that had passed. Sometimes I lose sight of whether the memories are mine, or built up from the snapshots glued into family albums.

Another decade has passed since I’ve visited India. My gran still visits regularly. Our son’s godmum moved to Mumbai with her husband last year. I love hearing about her experiences of the city: the food, nightclubs, festivals. She recently told me how her journey was delayed because of a cow herd in the middle of the road. Close friends of ours, Alan and Phillip (Alan was my boss in an old life. He and Phillip now a fantastic foodie website called Kandabites), toured India earlier this year and kindly let me use their photos in this post.

The Ganges by night photographed by Alan King and Phillip Azevedo

The Voyeur has become a vehicle to explore my own thoughts about the country, from the rich heritage to sexual politics and family relationships. I know enough about Indian culture and the country not to have to research every little thing, but not enough to limit my imagination. My own feelings of being an outsider there come out in Akash and Jaya’s story. I’m excited for you to read it.

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