Saturday, 28 March 2015

A Cat Called Michelle - by Sarah Kunz

by Amita Murray

Let me introduce myself. I am called Michelle. I am rather beautiful, rather big cat, a male cat, although my owners hadn’t realized that yet when they named me Michelle. Humans… I love to stroll around the neighborhood, enjoy the sun and pick up a bit of chit chat on the way. And I hear all sorts of things, sitting on our neighbor’s windowsill, watching all those petty and not so petty scenes going on in these peoples’ homes. And all those poor humans think I don’t understand any of what is going on. Little do they know. Its amazing really, much better than that reality TV that my people watch at home. And sometimes I’m even fed some tuna sitting on those window sills. Those are lucky days.

The other day I observed this scene while enjoying the first spring sun. I was just doing a bit of stretching and relaxing on the windowsill of our neighbor’s kitchen and let me tell you I felt rather sorry for this poor chap Ben. Actually, I have been watching those people for some time now. It used to be such fun, such a happy home always someone in the kitchen, chatting and laughing, oh I really picked up some juicy gossip on that windowsill. But lately, none of that. Some of the people must have moved out, I never see them anymore…Ah, things really have changed. The only one that’s left of the old crew is this poor fellow Ben. He is always such an enthusiastic guy, smiling, friendly chap, gives me a bite of tuna sometimes. Generous man really. Though lately he is always alone in that kitchen, no more smiling and hatting….and no more tuna if I think about it. And that day this new girl, she always looks so broody, rarely a word, just flitting in an out of the kitchen, never any tuna, never and stroking of my lovely grey fur. And oh I could see my friend Ben got annoyed that day. When I arrived they were chatting, I was surprised, it seemed to be going well, almost like one of those friendly chats like they used to be but then… Ben had turned around, stirring the stew he was preparing, telling what I thought was a rather funny anecdote of the class he had taught that day, but then…. he turned around in mid-sentence and could see what I had seen all along. Michelle had taken a phone call in the middle of their conversation (I didn’t want to tell you but yes she is called Michelle, just like me) and by now she was absent-mindedly discussing with her mum what they should have for tea. No ‘sorry, let me just answer that phone call’ or ‘excuse me but I need to answer this’. Oh I could see poor Ben, irked annoyed, in shock really. Locked in an internal battle, I could see it all on his face, the battle between empathy (‘this poor girl is new in London, lonely and really misses her mum) and offence (‘what a rude behavior’). I felt sad really, I don’t think I’ll go back relax on that windowsill anytime soon. Too depressing all of it.

The Arrest - by Caroline Bressey

by Amita Murray

Caroline looked at the table as Philips recorded the items in his packet book: “1 pipe, 1 pouch of tobacco, one handkerchief – blue, I Bible.”  He looked up at Downing.  “No watch, nothing else of value.”  It was an observation not a question.  Caroline lifted her chin, meeting the policeman’s scrutiny while she folded her hands into her pocket.

“Wait here.”

Caroline leant back against the cold bricks of the wall and closed her eyes at the slam of the door, breathing in and out deeply as Philips’ steps echoed away.  She reached out, fumbling for the handkerchief and used it to wipe the salt water from her cheeks.  She kept her eyes closed focusing on her breathing until it settled.

She opened her eyes then and refocused on the table.  He seemed convinced they were all she had to declare and he didn’t seem that interested in getting her to reveal any more of herself.  She’d heard stories, but it was late and maybe Philips just wanted to head home, maybe getting into an argument with a six foot black man wasn’t something he cared to do; maybe the cape would still be enough.  She tipped the white felt brim further down her forehead.

As the door opened she rolled her back off the wall . 

“Well Mr Downing nothing to here to keep you.”  She smiled with relief at the floor, but her brow knitted as she noticed the second pair of black laced boots.  She looked up and met his eyes.   They were more questioning than Philips’.  Sceptical?  She settled hopefully for concerned.  “This is Dr Stern, he’s one of the doctor’s at Bow Infirmary – you ever been there?”  Caroline shook her head slowly. “Well, given …” Philips paused trying to find the most appropriate word, “given the incident, it’s been decided that the infirmary rather than the cells would be a better place for you and.”  “As you’re not feeling well” Stern interrupted “better to be somewhere with medical professionals where we can take care of you.” 

Caroline felt bile rising at the back of her throat and she focused once again on the breath in and the breath out.

New Year's Eve - by Caroline Bressey

by Amita Murray

New Year’s Eve is always pretty shit, really.  It is.  The nightmare of finding somewhere half decent to go, navigating the transport options,  finding a taxi home even if you can afford it.  And after six years in London it doesn’t get any easier.  Laura can hold her own, drink along with the best of them, but there comes a point when not taking recreational drugs becomes a serious problem on a night out.  People love you but they can’t have a conversation with you – even wasted it’s nice to know you can still talk to someone.  New Year’s Eve is always shit, but this one is more painful than most.

Laura can hear kids from the estate shouting at each other in the street below, friendly taunts roaring  into excited cheers as their fireworks light up the sky above them all.  Laura turns up the bottle of red into the stew, it mixes with the smokiness of the chorizo as she pours what’s left of the bottle into her glass.  She stirs and watches the chicken turn an intoxicated ruby under the yellow glow of the cooker light.

The bell rings.  “I’ll get it” and Laura can hear Carrie tripping in the hall, “fuck!”, and then the catch lifting on the door, “Hi!!” The girls chatter in the hall while Emma takes off her coat and then she appears in the doorway, another bottle of prosecco in hand.  Laura smiles and takes it before being wrapped in Emma’s arms.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay.”

A New Life in London - by Tariq Jazeel

by Amita Murray

She’s staring at the reflection of herself in those large glass panes. This sleek, postmodern architectural edifice, the fittingly imposing headquarters of Fraser & Partners here in the middle of Battersea, a building she worked in for so many years. She can see herself, now so different from who she was then. 

It was all so different when she rocked up to their offices on Great Portland street back in 1991, straight off the plane, jet-lagged weary, but so eager to start her new life here in London. You could shower straight off the plane back then, those showers at Heathrow airport offering the promise of fresh new starts for countless new arrivals. She had checked her luggage at Victoria station, carefully removing her pristine A4 sized portfolio, her ticket she hoped to a career in architecture in London.

Standing here now, staring at her reflection in those glass panes, she caught a glimpse of herself approaching the sliding glass doors of the old Great Portland Street office 24 years ago, Fraser Associates as it was back then. She was perhaps naïve, perhaps too innocent, but she somehow had a firm belief, a conviction, that rocking up at the Fraser Associates studio, clutching the one existing hard copy of her architect’s portfolio would be her ticket to a new life here in London. She remembers vividly, even today, that split second 24 years ago just before those glass doors opened when she saw herself reflected. Exuberant, hopeful enthusiasm tinted by a concealed tiredness faintly visible to only those who knew her intimately. But no one here did. The glass doors opened. Her new life began.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Kicking Off in São Paulo - by Tariq Jazeel

I can hear the hum of a multitude, the sound of thousands of people somewhere as I approach. Helicopters overhead, São Paulo’s signature sound amplified, the burst of a police siren close by, but not within sight, at least I don’t think so. It’s confusing. There are people, everywhere. Some with banners, some with anonymous masks incongruously balancing atop their heads, groups of three or four, individuals like me, some laughing, all in high spirits. All heading in one direction. To the square. To Praça da Sé. It’s the perfect place for public demonstrations of this magnitude, its wide open spaces and grubby street furniture, rusty benches, wraught iron railings, and overflowing dustbins, all offset the imposing turn of the century neo-gothic cathedral occupying one whole side. Then as I round the corner, as my eyes expectantly set sight on the Praça, there’s an eruption of singing, chanting, a chorus of a thousand voices, rising, then fading, then a new chant, like a well orchestrated football crowd, only more urgent somehow, more vital. “Hey FIFA, pagar a tarifa”  There’s a buzz of electricity, of energy, enveloping the square, and there are people, people everywhere. Thousands of them, clustered, but the clusters have merged, and there’s just a swathe of bodies covering what seems like the whole of the square, punctuated by banners, banners written in Portuguese, only some of which I can read, Brazilian flags, some cheekily annotated, waving, fluttering above this seething mass of politically charged bodies. I’m on the outskirts, mouth open, stunned, scared, excited, energized, confused. What next?

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Why We're Confused and Fascinated with African Beauty - by Amita Murray

Self-Portrait in Mirror, by Armet Francis

Call me stupid, but it took a passionate discussion of the relevance and place of hair and hairstyles as cultural markers from my black students, to bring it home to me just how complicated African hairstyles are. Actually, I still don't completely get it. But my students explained to me and an open-mouthed, very diverse undergraduate classroom, that if they let their hair grow unfettered, it would simply grow out and up. That it takes taming, straightening, weaves, relaxers, braiding, hair extensions, and many, many hours to create the beautiful, complex confections that they wear to class. It reminded me, too, of how normative ideals of white beauty impact people of non-white heritage - the hair straightening, the face bleaching, the tucking in, epilating, waxing, narrowing, tweezing, anorexia, liposuctioning, lip-pulling in, that happen behind the scenes to conform to mainstream, capitalism-prescribed aesthetic and performative norms. As market research firm Mintel suggests, black hair could be a $500 billion dollar industry.

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Why Scarves - by Nazneen Ahmed

by Amita Murray

To the woman who growled at my headscarf on the train.

During our shared journey you repeatedly tried to catch my eye in order to start what, I don’t really know. You glared, you grimaced, you pulled grotesque faces. Would you have leapt across the seats and worn out commuters to punch me if I had risen to your jibes? Would you have ripped off my scarf?

Part of me wanted to look up, defiantly, and ask you what you wanted. A fierce pride boiled in me when I saw that hate in your eyes. But then. Part of me thought of my tiny son waiting at home for me, how if you got off at my station, you could easily find out where we lived. So I kept my eyes down.

I noticed you drawling to your companion and saw you were drunk. Did alcohol dissolve the barriers of politeness that might have kept that hate locked within you, for no one to know? What is it about my scarf that enraged you so much?

Because my scarf denotes my Muslimness. You hate me because I am Muslim. I smiled wryly on the train. Because I have a secret, one that you will never know.

I am Muslim. I wear a headscarf. But the secret I wouldn’t want you to know is that I do not wear my headscarf because I’m Muslim. I wear it because I have alopecia. I have no hair to conceal. I conceal the fact that I have no hair.

My sisters who wear the hijab wear it as a shield, as a crown. My scarf is a shield also, from cruelty, from ignorance. My scarf is a crown to what I have lost, to what I have survived.

But I also have grown to love my scarf because now I am seen as a sister. My scarf marks me out, as it did to you, as a member of the fold and family of Islam I once drifted away from but found again during my darkest times. You hate my scarf, and you hate what it stands for. But I love my scarf, and I love Islam.

So I would never want you to know that I don’t wear my scarf to cover my hair in a “Muslim” way. I am proud of my scarf and I am proud of being Muslim. They give me a strength that no amount of whispering, under-your-breath hatred could ever break. You do not understand it. In the spirit of sisterhood, I pray that one day you might.

Rucksacks and Awkward Bodies - by Nazneen Ahmed

by Amita Murray

The lobby is a faded olive green with chilled terracotta coloured linoleum on the floor. Stacks of shoes – including my DMs – line the shelves on the walls and lie scattered about. Some pairs look like they’re about to make off in different directions where they’ve been knocked or kicked around. I’m the last one into the main hall because as usual I’m fumbling with my laces. I really don’t know why Velcro is seen as an unacceptable footwear fastening choice for adults.

I catch up with the others, overtaking families and spindly elderly women, careful not to step on the hems of the flower-bright saris. Entering the main hall, I’m hit by a heavy, almost-familiar scent of Indian food. Not the sharp, onion-heavy cooking of the North, but a softer, rounder smell. Steam from huge vats wafts across the doorway. A long queue awaits patiently, very British-like, as food is served on bendy paper plates by men and women standing in a military line behind tables.

We’re here to find Mr Samaddar. Apparently he’s here… somewhere. I don’t even know what he looks like, but I find myself searching nevertheless. Maybe he’ll have something specifically Samaddar-y about him that’ll single him out from all the other South Indian elderly menfolk here, dressed in their thick woolly jumpers and chinos and sport socks.

It’s us who really stick out here, in our sombre academic tones of blue and black and grey, with our rucksacks and awkward bodies. My feet, benumbed from walking about stone cold stone churches all morning, begin to tingle back to life because this place has the miracle of underfloor heating. I reflect that churches could learn a thing or two about design from mandirs. We make a space on the floor and sit down, creaking our legs crossed, and await the appearance of Mr Samaddar.

One, Burgundy. Two, Plum - by Nazneen Ahmed

by Amita Murray

She walks up and down Whitechapel High Street going from stall to stall with her list. She settles on one. The scarf seller eyes her up with the predatory interest that comes with brand new, lost-looking customers. But her stiffness, her concentration upon her list, don’t make her seem lost. He continues to observe her, biding his time to intervene with the “sell”, but curious too. She’s different.

She pulls out scarves, one by one, inspecting the colours and patterns. She carefully pushes them back, not quite satisfied, sometimes glancing back down at the list. She pulls out a couple more and he decides it’s time. “6 for 10, sister, 6 for 10” he encourages. She nods dismissively, going back to inspecting the scarves.

He wonders briefly if he should try some Sylheti on her, on the offchance it might bring down that wall and he could begin what he did best, selling those things no one really needs but buys and wonders about afterwards. But maybe not Sylheti… Somali? Should he whip out some Arabic? She’s hard to place. Facially, there’s something different about her that he can’t quite identify. Her scarf is different to his regular Bangladeshi customers’ hijabs. She wears it high, two layers, with a thick braid to one side, like hair. How strange, to cover hair with something that looks like hair.

She begins to collect scarves that meet her approval, checking them against her list. One, burgundy. Two, plum. A couple of patterned ones. She pauses between a deep blue and a slighter greener shade, opting for the greener one. A final one, black with a multi-coloured pattern. She looks up and speaks in a stumbling posh Bangla, clipped with British edges, as she hands over a crisp £10 note, folded into three.

Yeah, not from here. He turns to put her scarves in a bag, feeling strangely vindicated.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Of Bikinis and Spiced Chai - by Amita Murray

Detail of a photo by Ray Moller

Bollywood dance video director Rohit Roy is sitting in his Mumbai office, chain-smoking his way through a medium-sized Guatemalan tobacco plantation, alternating between yelling into his shiny iPhone, and answering my carefully non-threatening research questions. 

"Fuck man! People want to see a girl in a bikini, I'll show them a girl in a bikini! What's the big deal, man? I'm liberated. We're all fucking liberated. It's modern day India, man. When is the last time you had a hair cut?"

I hit the pause button on my cassette player and clear my throat. "I, uh..." I splutter.

"You're doing a PhD in California? You can make so much more dancing in my music videos. Why are you doing a fucking PhD?"

This is an excellent question, one I ask myself nearly every morning, at lunch time, and then again before bed. I think it is a rhetorical one, but I try to compose a suitably cheery answer in my head. His phone interrupts again, and he loses interest in the question. His hand apologizes to me. I beam reassuringly. My smile says that I don't mind that he's kept me waiting for three hours for this interview, that this is the seventh call he's taken in the last twenty minutes, and that his second-hand smoke is reducing my life span, as we speak. 

I stare at the peeling paint on the lower third of the office walls, from when the monsoon floods hit Mumbai in the summer, at Rahul's ray-bans branded on to his forehead, his Lacoste t-shirt and the cardamom-spiced chai in his hands. His phone conversation finally comes to an end. 

"So," I say, "tell me more about this woman in a bikini."