In this thoroughly engaging, funny and moving first chapter of The Painted Ocean, British (white and male) writer Gabriel Packard writes in the raw, urgent vernacular of Shruti, a young Indian girl living with her mother in an English town. Her father has abandoned them and Shruti is doing, thinking and struggling to do all she can to hang on to her mother.
When I was a little girl, my dad left me and my mum, and he never came back. And you’re supposed to be gutted when that happens. But secretly I preferred it without him, cos it meant I had my mum completely to myself, without having to share her with anyone. And I sort of inherited all the affection she used to give to my dad – like he’d left it behind for me as a gift, to say sorry for deserting me.
And our relatives thought it was my mum’s fault that my dad walked out, so they stopped talking to us. And we were the only Asian people in our town, and my mum couldn’t speak any English, only Hindi and Punjabi and a bit of Urdu, so she couldn’t really meet anyone – which was perfect, cos that meant I’d never have to worry about her going off and making friends and spending her time away from me. But just to make certain she’d always stay in the house, I kept her having a nice time here, by always being extra well behaved and, like, never complaining when she combed almond oil into my hair while we watched the telly, even though I hated how sticky the oil was, and it sometimes gave me a flaky rash behind my ears.
And it was this freezing night, in winter, and the grass on our lawn was sparkly cos of the frost. And no one had phoned us for like six whole weeks when the phone suddenly rang. And my mum turned off her sewing machine and started tidying up, really excited, and told me to play in my bedroom, to stop me listening in. So I sneaked off to listen on the upstairs line, holding down mute, which is sort of like a magic button that makes you invisible on the phone.
‘Hallo?’ went my mum.
‘Your chacha mentioned a proposal from our community, the other day,’ went my uncle, without even saying hallo back. ‘He’s from a good family. Lives in the most expensive district of Gurgaon, so he’s not exactly serving up bread and water. Plus Gurgaon will put you out of the way of your chachis, so you won’t have to deal with their bickering nonsense every day,’ he went, speaking a mixture of Punjabi and Hindi. ‘Now, he’s willing to accept you. Never been married before, of course. But he doesn’t want a wife with her own children. So you’ll have to do something with Shruti.’ And my uncle cleared his throat, like the next words were stuck inside it. ‘They have homes where you can put unwanted children,’ he went. ‘Mushkil nahi hai, beta. It’s not that difficult.’
And I started crying, thinking about my mum dumping me in a children’s home and disappearing. But no one could hear me, cos I was still holding down the mute button.
And my mum was like, ‘I don’t know. I’d need time to think about it.’
But my uncle kept on at her about how miserable she was without my dad, and how she wasn’t getting any younger, and she was dragging down the family’s izzat, and this was her last chance, cos my uncle had called in all his favours and this was the only man who’d accept someone who’d been married before, but even he wouldn’t wait much longer, my uncle said.
And my mum was like, ‘Haan, but is there any way that he’d let Shruti come with me?’
‘No, he was very clear about that,’ went my uncle. ‘But think of the life you can make for yourself, living in Gurgaon, plus an independent house in Delhi Defence Colony, right in B Block. And he’s the only son in his family. Already manages his father’s business. No girlfriends. No bad habits. Doesn’t drink or smoke. So just say yes now – and I’ll make the arrangement,’ my uncle went. ‘An opportunity like this won’t come around again.’
‘Let’s just give it a little while and see if I start feeling any better, here,’ went my mum.
But my uncle ignored her and kept telling her to just say yes. ‘I’ll think about it,’ she went, getting a bit annoyed now. ‘Well, in any case,’ my uncle was like, ‘it’s been much too long.
Why don’t I come to England and visit you, and we can talk about it more?’
‘Oh, now you want to visit?’ went my mum. ‘Now you want to visit? You and the family all disown me for the past three months, raising Shruti on my own. And now you suddenly fall out of the sky and phone me up, and the first thing out of your mouth is I’ve found someone who’s willing to marry you. No, How are you? No, How’s Shruti?’
‘You’re my niece, and—’
‘No, don’t pretend that you miss me,’ went my mum. ‘You just want to get me married again. That’s all you care about.’
‘You don’t talk to me like this,’ went my uncle. ‘Maine duniya dekha hain. I’ve seen the world. And I know what’s good for you.’
‘I told you that I’d think about it.’
‘You’ll think about it,’ my uncle was like. ‘What else is there to think about, you stupid girl?’ And there was a rattling sound, and then the line went dead.
And my mum was like, ‘Hallo . . . ? Hallo . . . ?’ and then she hung up.
And then there was silence coming out of the phone, and then that sad flat oooooh that means the other person’s gone, and I just sat there for a bit, sort of letting it suck the sound out of my ears. And then the tone changed to that other note, a bit brighter but still sad, that means you’ve gotta dial a new number.
And I had to think of something to make my mum stay living here with me, instead of going off to India. So I was remembering through the stuff that she’d told my uncle on the phone. And the main thing was that she wanted to see if she’d start feeling any better. And if she did, then she’d stay. And if she didn’t then she’d run off without me. So what I’d have to do was make her feel better, and then keep her like that, so she’d never leave.
So I went into the loo and splashed cold water onto my face, to wash away the feeling of crying out of my eyes and to make my brain clearer, to help me think up a decent plan. And then I walked downstairs, where my mum was clattering away on her sewing machine – making little girls’ dresses that she got paid like 35p for each one – and sitting in front of the electric heater, which was just three glowing orange bars inside this rusty little cage – when she could’ve been off in India, with a new husband, and another big wedding, and all her family being kind to her again, and her izzat sorted out.
And she noticed me and turned off her sewing machine and sat me down next to her.
‘Shruti, there’s something I need to tell you,’ she went.
And she took my hands into her lap, and she gripped them hard, almost like she was trying to squeeze the words into me through my fingers, or like she thought I was gonna start floating away if she didn’t hold onto me tight.
‘Okay,’ she went to herself, ‘I’m just going to say this.’
And she explained that she’d had a marriage proposal from a man in India, and she was thinking about it. But I wouldn’t be able to come with her if she accepted, she said, so I’d have to go and live in a children’s home.
‘But this would be good for you,’ she was like, ‘because if I can marry him then I’ll ask chacha to pay for you to attend a boarding school back here in England. And then you can get a good job and a nice husband. And you’ll have a better life. Wouldn’t you like that, Shrutu? Wouldn’t that be better?’
‘No,’ I went. ‘I just want to stay living here with you.
’ ‘But this will be good for us,’ she was like.
‘It won’t be good for me,’ I went, burying my face in her arm, and hugging onto her tummy, to show her how sad I was, cos I was hoping that would make her change her mind.
But she just went:
‘If I had a well paid job here and I could support us, then I’d stay with you. You know I would. But we’re living in poverty,’ she was like.
‘I just can’t give you a good life, the way things are.’
‘I don’t care about that,’ I went. ‘And when I grow up, I can get a job, and I’ll look after us. And stop saying “good” all the time. Cos none of this stuff’s gonna be good for me.’
But no matter what I said, she just kept telling me that I was too young to understand. So talking to her blatantly wasn’t gonna stop her leaving – I’d have to, like, take some action, or whatever. And I’d have to do something pretty serious, to make her wanna stay here with me instead of going off to have a perfect new life in India. And I was only eleven so I couldn’t get a job now or give her any money, or anything major like that, so I’d have to just do a million little things, instead, and hopefully they’d all add up to make her happy enough to wanna stay – which wasn’t much of a plan, but I had to at least try something.
And first of all, I was thinking, I could clean the kitchen, just as a start. But I walked around it, and everything was spotless, even the pressure cooker, where she cooked the dal that dribbled everywhere when she dished up our dinner, at night: it looked like a little model of a house from the future, with smooth rounded walls and a glass ceiling and no doors.
So then I was thinking that maybe there was something I could do for her with speaking English, cos that was the one thing I could do that she couldn’t. And I was the third best at reading in my class, on Red Level Five, plus I’d already started writing the note to the teacher, if I was poorly, to explain why I wasn’t at school. And there was this pile of letters in our hallway that had come since my dad left, about three months ago. But my mum had never even opened most of them, cos she couldn’t read English, so what was the point.
So I sneaked off and brought the letters up to my bedroom, and I started opening them up, one by one, and trying to read them. And inside were all these bills off British Gas and British Telecom and the Electricity Board, and it looked like they were all gonna cut us off, but I couldn’t see how to stop them. So this would be even better than I thought. Cos this was a chance to make my mum super-happy with me, by working out how to save us from this, like, disaster of the lights getting cut off and then surprising her with the good news. So I stuffed all the bills into my PE bag, ready to show my teacher the next day at school, to ask for help.
And it was so foggy, the next morning while I was walking in, that I could only see halfway down the road, and after that all the garden walls and the pavement and everything just faded into white.
And I showed all the bills to my teacher, at morning break. And she took me over to the corner where we have storytime and sat on her comfy chair and put a big storybook on her lap and spread the bills out on it. And she read them one by one, shaking her head slowly, and fidgeting with her necklace. And in the end, said she knew what a difficult time I was having at home and asked me if I wanted to live with another family who could look after me better, a foster family.
And I went, ‘No, thank you,’ but out with my words came all this crying, cos I was so frightened I’d get taken away from my mum. And the teacher lifted me onto her lap, so I was sitting on the storybook – like I was a giant picture popping out of the pages – and she wrapped me up in a big hug and was like, ‘Oh, sweetheart, I know what you’re trying to say. It’s okay,’ she went. ‘It’s okay.’
But she must’ve thought I was crying to tell her I was unhappy at home – which wasn’t true – cos she sent this social worker round, after school, to trick my mum into saying she couldn’t look after me properly. And we were all sitting there in my mum’s living room, with the social worker filling in the spaces on this Emergency Intervention Checklist form she’d spread out on the coffee table. But luckily she couldn’t speak any languages that my mum knew, so I had to translate, and I was trying to save us, by covering up all my mum’s stupid answers, like when the social worker asked her what her biggest difficulty was, bringing me up on her own – my mum said, in Hindi, that the family’s izzat was ruined cos my dad had left her. And blatantly that just made us look like weirdos, so I told the social worker my mum’s biggest difficulty was helping me with my homework.
And then my mum started telling me to ask the social worker whether we’d have to pay any money to have me taken into a children’s home. So I just ended up answering the questions myself, and blanking my mum, cos she wanted me to be taken away, it looked like. But after I began ignoring her, my mum started this stupid gentle wailing and rocking, and going, ‘please, it’s okay, please.’ And that made it look like she couldn’t even look after herself, let alone me. And all I could do was act ultra- normal – normal enough for me and my mum – so I sat up straight and crossed my arms, like we had to do in assembly, to show that we were being good.
But then the social worker started all these trick questions, like she went, ‘If there was an emergency, who’d phone the police or call an ambulance?’
‘Me,’ I was like. ‘And I know how to use the phone, so we’d be fine.’
And the social worker went:
‘What if you cracked open your head and fainted? Who’d call an ambulance then?’
And I didn’t have an answer. And the air in the room went dead. And I knew they were gonna take me away from my mum. And I started crying, but in a normal English way – just sitting there quietly sobbing, with tears dribbling down my cheeks – to show the social worker that at least I was normal, to show her that I’d been brought up well, to maybe change her mind about taking me away. But my crying made my mum start wailing and rocking even more, and tapping her bunched-up fingertips against her forehead and then her heart, like a stupid beggar off the streets. And she was too stupid to see that that kind of wailing might be normal in the village where she grew up in India, cos it’s just what women do there when they’re really upset, but over here it just made her look like someone with mental problems, and that’s blatantly what this social worker was thinking.
And while me and my mum were sitting there, crying, the social worker was writing in this zip-up folder, about why they had to take me away, and basically saying that she was, like, the prince who’d come to set me free, and my mum was, like, the witch or the monster holding me prisoner. When really it was the opposite – the social worker was the witch, coming to capture me. And I hated the way that everyone would believe whatever she wrote on her form, a million times more than anything me or my mum could ever say, and we were basically trapped inside whatever story the social worker wanted to tell about us.
And after she finished writing, she told me they were putting my mum on a watch list, for ‘giving undue responsibility to a minor’, whatever that meant, and they were putting my name on the county register of vulnerable children. And she said that they’d check up on us every four months and that my mum had to learn English, and if the situation didn’t improve they’d take further action. And she zipped her folder shut and told me to explain everything to my mum, like translate it for her.
But I didn’t want Mum to freak out completely and make the social worker decide to take me away after all. So while the social worker was putting her coat on, I just told my mum that there was no problem and we were free. And my mum started doing that embarrassing Indian head shake from side to side and going, ‘yes yes, thank you, thank you.’ And I was telling her in Hindi to just keep quiet, cos she was making us look like weirdos again. But she wouldn’t shut up. So I told her to cook something for us all, or it would be rude. And when she disappeared into the kitchen, I quickly showed the social worker to the front door, where it was almost dark outside, even though it was only five p.m., cos it gets dark so early in the winter, and there was this freezing drizzle swarming around the streetlamps.
And when I closed the door, my head felt like it was floating off and filled with poisonous gas swirled in with that laughing gas from a dentist, cos I was so relieved that the social worker didn’t take me away, but I was dreading her coming back in four months, to check up on us like she said she would, and getting me then. And just opening the front door quickly had let all the warmth escape out of our living room. So I sat down on the carpet next to the electric heater, shivering, and trying to warm myself up on the metal flavoured heat.
And after that, I started noticing on the news these stories about families who’d had their children taken away by social workers just cos, like, the little boy told his teachers that his dad once shouted ‘I’m going to kill you’ at him during an argument, and it took years of the parents going through the courts before the social workers would bring the boy back home. And there was no way my mum would know how to get a lawyer and fight through the legal system to rescue me, like that boy’s parents had done.
And there was this joke going round school that went, What’s the difference between a social worker and a Rottweiler? You might get your child back off a Rottweiler. And I made my friend tell me that joke, over and over again, cos it gave me this horrible electrical fear that my brain sort of enjoyed feeling and hated feeling at the same time. And I kept asking my friend whether she thought that was true about social workers never giving the children back after they took them away, cos talking about that joke was the only way I could talk about Social Services without letting on what had happened to me at home. And blatantly my friend didn’t have a clue about social workers, cos we were only eleven, so in the end I forced her to ask her parents about it and report back to me. But they just told her she must never, ever talk to a social worker, and if she did, she’d end up in an orphanage. And everything was just secretly freaking me out more and more that I’d get taken away when that social worker came back in four months.
And obviously I learned that I couldn’t trust my teacher, and I never showed her any more letters. (I’d just phone the help lines on the bills when I needed advice, and they taught me, like, how to start paying off the money we owed to British Gas, down the Post Office.) And when I had to write stories at school like ‘What I did at the weekend’, that just was another way for my teacher to spy on me, so I’d just invent stuff to make my mum sound normal, like I’d write that my mum taught me how to bake a sponge cake in the oven – stuff I remembered out of these Simon and Elizabeth books we learned to read from in infants.
And even though I was really good at protecting my mum, she used to get frightened and cry sometimes when I went off to school in the morning, cos she thought I was gonna get her into trouble with the social workers again. So I was always looking for ways to keep her calm and, like, contented. So I started sneaking into her bed every single night, and I’d cling onto her, like a baby koala, resting my head on her shoulder, and we’d sleep like that, which was super snuggly and warm, plus it was useful, cos if Mum started crying, I could make her feel better by hugging her extra tight. And sometimes I woke up in the morning with flowers printed on my cheek from where it was pressed against the stitching on her old salwar kameez she used to sleep in. And she told me that in her old village in India, waking up with flowers on your cheek like that means you get one wish. So I’d always wish that my mum would stay with me forever.
And when I was watching telly, one evening while Mum was cooking the dinner, I saw this advert for Indian films on Channel 4 at like three in the morning on Wednesday nights. So one by one, we started taping over all my dad’s England vs India cricket videos with Late Night Bollywood, and my mum loved it, and each film made her start telling me millions of stories about her old village where she grew up, where her aunts would pour huge churns of milk into this saucepan the size of a bathtub and squeeze, like, thirty lemons in there to make it curdle into paneer cheese which they’d strain through a giant square of muslin- cloth, holding one corner each. And there was always the melted-butter smell of ghee on roti, and the farmer smell of dung, and the puttering sound of the toka engine, outside, chopping up fodder for the cows. And the children used to run into the fields and meet by this old bamboo-and-straw scarecrow that was dressed in a turban and coat. And as soon as they got there, they’d say, Let’s meet up again in ten minutes by the kup huts in the next field. Cos meeting up was a game in itself, and it made them feel grown up to have an appointment to keep. And she had a million stories like that, and I loved being able to make her happy by giving her someone to tell them to.
And every Wednesday night before bed, we’d look at each other scared for a second, just before we programmed the video to record the next Bollywood film, cos it felt sort of dangerous like my dad was gonna tell us off for recording over his cricket matches (which was mental cos he didn’t even live here, any more). And I’d usually have to talk my mum into it, by promising I’d tell my dad it was my fault we taped over his videos, if he ever came back. And my mum would get this excited look on her face, cos she was gonna wake up with a brand new film in the morning, which she loved, plus she probably got that naughty exciting feeling of breaking the rules. And I’d stick Sellotape over the little hole on the video cassette that stops you recording over important stuff, feeling horrible inside, cos my dad hardly left anything behind, apart from these videos, and we were wiping over them. But I had to do it anyway, for my mum. Cos we couldn’t afford to buy blank tapes to record on.
And we’d watch the Bollywood film the next evening, with my mum squirming along to the music, next to me on the sofa. And sometimes I’d hide my head under her duppatta scarf-thing she wore round her shoulders, playing luka-chuppi peek-a-boo like I used to when I was little, cos I loved being able to feel like a baby again, around her, cos it felt so warm and safe.
And it was probably just time going past, and not the videos, but my mum started being happy again. And she was always singing Bollywood songs, plus she’d hum the jingles from the English adverts that we’d recorded mingled in with the films – like, Now hands that do dishes can feel soft as your face, with mild green Fairy Liquid – cos we’d watched those adverts so many times, we’d grown to love them, which sounds weird but it was true. And even when they stopped showing the adverts on the real telly, they never changed on the videos, which was something else I loved, cos it was like we had our own little secret space of history that never moved forward and never went away. And we’d have these long conversations about, like, how Amitabh Bachchan looks the most handsome when he’s on a motorbike, like in Shahenshah or Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (and obviously in Sholay) cos he’s blatantly doing his own stunts there, my mum reckoned, which shows how brave he really is.
And I was still worried about the social workers coming to take me away, or my mum secretly disappearing to get married in India and leaving me forever, or my dad coming back and going mental at me for taping over his cricket matches, or my uncle coming over to steal my mum away, cos the phone bills showed these long lists of international calls to him, while I was out at school. But even though I was worrying a lot of the time – at least my mum was happy, which was the main thing, cos hopefully now she’d stay.
And eventually we recorded over my dad’s last tape. And in the background of the film, when we watched it the next evening, I felt like I could hear that spooky empty sound of people clapping from far away, like on the cricket matches we’d taped over. But I had to pretend to enjoy the film completely, cos I didn’t wanna ruin it for my mum. And I knew that I was only imagining the clapping sound, anyway. But after we finished watching the film, I opened the front flap of the video cassette to see if I could see any of the cricket matches, left on the tape inside. And the tape was shiny and black and tight from the two wheels pulling it from opposite directions. And I could feel one of the wheels inside was heavier from the tape wrapped all around it, and the other one must have been empty. And obviously I couldn’t see anything on the strip of tape showing in the front of the cassette – not the green and white of the cricket match and not the millions of different colours of the Bollywood film, just this black little reflection of my face.