Maithreyi Nandakumar is a writer, journalist and broadcaster living in Bristol. She's lived there for nearly 15 years having originally come from Chennai (still Madras then). She grew up a passionate follower of India's cricketing fortunes at the Chepauk cricket ground, playing tennis and listening to BBC World Service.
Maithreyi went to the Cardiff School of journalism, University of Cardiff for her post graduate diploma in broadcast journalism, where she reconnected with her love for writing. She also has a degree in Maths and an MA in Econometrics from the University of Madras.
One of her first jobs was to produce and present Sangam, a two hour magazine show for the Asian community on BBC Radio Bristol- winning the Race in the Media Award for Best Radio Entertainment in 2000 for this. She's since worked as a journalist with BBC Points West, as a researcher and reporter for BBC Radio 4 (including Woman's Hour) as well as BBC World Service. Highlight moment- to be sent to Lord's to cover the county finals.
While at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum she was in charge of Commonwealth FM, a community radio station with a temporary licence "bringing the world to Bristol" and other media related educational activities. Highlight moment, being invited to the garden
party at Buckingham Palace.
She's been involved in programming and organising Split Screen, Bristol's Black and Asian film festival (based at the Watershed Media Centre) for the past two years.
She's currently a beneficiary of a grant from the Arts Council of England, Southwest, for time to write. She's a founder member of Vivida, a writing group for South Asian women based in the region. She's had two short stories published The Interpreter's Tale that won the first prize in the Bristol Tales Anthology (published by Endpapers) and Marina Beach, runner up BBC World Service Short Story competition. She's also starting to write dialogue and has had a radio play (Round the Bend, BBC Radio Bristol) broadcast. She's currently working on her novel and a collection of short stories. Writers that have created an impact have to include Enid Blyton, P.G. Wodehouse from the early years to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh and more recently Maya Angelou, Anne Tyler among others.
Maithreyi has also done the occassional Tamil interpreting!
The Interpreter’s tale
1. Southmead Police Station 1 p.m.
2. Water the coriander pot.
3. Pizza for kids- won’t forget, won’t forget.
4. Fetch kids- 3.30
5. Feed the fish- kids should have done it two days ago.
Shoba skimmed through her to do list again, written last night before falling asleep. Planning was all-important to life in this country. Shoba had been on the crest of that learning curve for a long time. Ever since she’d come to their first house- a poky terraced place in St. George ten years ago from Madras, soon after her parents had got her married to Raghav.
Ten years? Since then, they’d moved up in life, and in the city. This was a beautiful house in Redland, near the green. The area was full of beautiful old trees, Victorian houses, and a railway line, that got them to nearby Bath if they felt like a day out of Bristol.
Shoba moved the chubby sandalwood idol of Ganesh in the hallway to face the right direction, and checked her appearance in the big mirror. Yes, it was as close to perfect as it gets, Shoba sighed with pride. OK, not as good as her cousins in the States, who lived in massive houses (in the middle of nowhere- Milwaukee, Wisconsin, shudder!), but this suited her husband and two children perfectly. Bristol was their home and she loved it. Most of the time, that is. There were times when she was attacked by an intense feeling of restlessness. Maybe she could paraglide down the fabulous Avon gorge by the suspension bridge, or cycle through Borneo for charity.
But Raghav didn’t ever pay much attention to her wild fantasies. He was always practical and had a simple vision of most things in life.
“You should do something from home like childminding or teaching Maths or Science to school kids. We live in a well off neighbourhood, there’s money to be made around us,” he would say, after eating the sumptuous South Indian meal Shoba cooked regularly for them- a feast of sambar, rasam, vegetables and curd rice.
“My son doesn’t want his wife to go out and earn money. All he wants is a smiling face when he returns home from a long day’s work.” Shoba closed her eyes, and could hear her mother-in-law’s voice in her head.
In contrast to her mother-in-law and her platoon of servants, Shoba’s life as the wife of a successful professional, came with the not so exciting duties of housework and endless cooking. She didn’t need a career with Raghav climbing the corporate ladder. Doing these occasional interpreting assignments suited her life just fine, she assured herself.
She noted three new grey hairs with a pang as she put her face close to the mirror. Purpose, that’s what she needed. Surely she could soon identify what hers was.
Shoba snapped the seatbelt on and nudged out, waiting for a car at the other end of the road to pass through. They would have to park on both sides of this narrow road to make it extra difficult, wouldn’t they? If ever there was a downside to life here, this was it.
* * *
The Southmead patrol car happened to be on the M32 when they got the call on their radio. This was the first time they’d dealt with an immigration case at their North Bristol station. Normally, it would’ve been Trinity Road in the inner city that would have dealt with it. The duty constables were now heading back with three refugees in the backseat, one of them a young woman.
It was the noise that was unbearable, on the hard shoulder on the M32, just outside the city centre, that cold October night. The wind was cold, as they stood shivering- it made their eyes hurt. Two men and a woman- all in their early twenties, stood with their backs to the traffic. As the cars hurtled by, they felt the ground shake beneath their feet.
They’d been travelling with a lorry full of mattresses from Dover and the driver had kept yelling at them, not to make themselves too comfortable.
“The lorry driver said the police will come to get us”, said Muthu to his friends for the tenth time. Senthil was holding Eswari who was throwing up, from the exhaustion of the past few days.
“Thank you so much for coming,” Sgt. John Stevens greeted Shoba with a firm handshake and led her through dull yellow and grey corridors, to the police lock up. Inside, Shoba could only hear the noise of banging iron doors and angry shouting. She looked straight ahead- her heartbeat accelerated.
“Do you understand my Tamil?” she asked them first, her Madras accent quite different from their Sri Lankan one. They nodded their heads and smiled. Her accent reminded them of the Tamil films they watched from India. Shoba spoke to each one of them and went through the formalities with the policeman.
“Could you please tell them that they’ve been arrested?” the Sergeant said to begin.
They were inside the prison cell.
“You’ve been arrested,” she repeated dutifully.
And then it was made clear that the police were entitled to keep them under arrest before they sought legal advice and applied for asylum.
“Could you ask them how they arrived here?”
“In the back of a mattress lorry.”
“Where were they before that?”
“We were driven onto the ship.”
“Do you know where from?”
“Germany, Suisse, Afghanistan, Libya, Cyprus, Russia, and before that Colombo- we were blindfolded most of the time, so we didn’t see much.”
Muthu and Senthil said that they’d been targets of the many terrorist groups in Sri Lanka- people their age would get bullied everyday to join the guerrilla army. They lifted their trousers to show their scars- a long weal where a burning rod had been used to hit, and circular ridges of flesh from the cigarette butts pressed on their ankles. That’s why their families had sold everything to send them away from all the troubles, so that they could make a normal living in another country.
“Do they have passports or any papers?”
“Did they go through an agent to come here?”
“Yes, they each paid 2000 pounds to a Russian agent- once in Colombo and again in Moscow.”
All through this, Shoba noticed that the girl Eswari was keeping absolutely quiet, while the other two were happy to explain their situation. She was tiny with a dark brown complexion. She had long curly black hair tied into a bushy ponytail. She was wearing a thin cardigan over her salwar-kameez, and she didn’t seem affected by her present circumstances at all. Shoba looked at her directly, to see her expression.
Why did she choose this risky trip, Shoba wondered with some admiration. There was no fear when they made eye contact- no smile of acknowledgement to a fellow Tamil speaker, and a woman at that. Shoba shivered slightly, unnerved by her impassive face.
“Could you also tell them that they can have tea and coffee from the machine?”
“Do they have any special dietary requirements? We have chicken for dinner tonight.”
That’s when a look of mild surprise passed over Eswari’s face. Shoba sensed that she found this courteous hospitality most unexpected. No restrictions, they said, they could eat chicken.
She wanted to ask more questions, ask her if she’d been involved in the civil war, and was she a trained fighter? This was not the time and it wasn’t her place.
Sgt. Stevens escorted her out, thanking her profusely.
“So, you are not from Sri Lanka then? You speak such good English.”
“Thank you, I was educated in English.” She gritted her teeth as she maintained a polite expression.
“Maybe you could leave your number, so that we could contact you directly?”
His smile was too friendly, she noticed. She shook him firmly by the hand, dismissing the earlier frisson of excitement as she left the sterile, harshly lit police station.
She decided to drive out of Southmead towards the inner city into Easton to pick up some Indian groceries from St. Marks Road. And I won’t forget the pizza. She kept thinking about Eswari and her courage in embarking on the kind of dangerous journey like she had.
“Oh stop it,” she told herself off. “War isn’t glamorous. Travelling illegally isn’t glamorous.”
“Take me home with you- you beautiful gurl,” cried an old Jamaican man in a suit as she slowed down on Stapleton Road. Shoba gave him a big smile and a wave and went into Bristol Sweet Mart. She always looked up to the ceiling to appreciate the art in this shop. Luscious fruit and vegetables painted with rich colours- all the more tempting to buy the real thing from the fragrant shelves.
She picked up huge bunches of mint and coriander (the supermarket pot didn’t last for two days), the different dals she needed, the special raw rice from Tanjore in south India, two bottles of pickle- baby mango and grated mango- she always bought more than she intended. At the till, she caught up with all the news of the people who ran this family business who she’d come to know well. The shop owner had just returned from a holiday to Kenya.
“I’ve not gone back since we were kicked out of Uganda in ’72. It was an emotional journey. I came to Bristol with two pounds in my pocket,” Salim told her. Shoba knew how hard they must have worked to reach this stage with this successful business, and was pleased for him.
She’d met so many people in Bristol who had such powerful stories to tell. “What’s my story?” she asked herself as she turned on the heating in her car, and switched the radio onto GWR FM.
“An uneventful childhood, comfortable circumstances, an arranged marriage- and even that is not half as weird as people imagine it to be.” Was that it? So boring, so bland.
Even Through the darkest phase
Be it thick or thin
Always someone marches brave
Here beneath my skin
Shoba was moved as ever by the lyrics to this song. She drove straight to the school to pick up Sudhir and Kalpana and the friend she was bringing home.
Eswari had turned into a really good cook. OK, her food was more to a non-Brahmin taste- she tended to use a lot of garlic in everything, but they didn’t mind. Even Raghav was impressed with her quiet discipline with the children. They went for walks, played board games together, taught her to say “Awright me lover?” Shoba would see them all huddled on the sofa in the evenings when she came home from the library giggling over the Simpsons.
Shoba and Raghav now had time to do things- they could go out to the theatre, go to London to see visiting musicians from India, and have an active cultural life again.
Her friend Clair thought she was mad to take Eswari in.
“Are you sure you can trust her?”
“Its called instinct.” Shoba had replied confidently- “I can tell she is reliable and hard working, and doesn’t interfere with our personal life. Once she sorts her papers and learns English, she’ll be fine. She’ll do well for herself.”
“Charlotte seems to like her too. Is it all right for mine to come to yours tonight?” They arranged for the kids to meet up and Shoba went back to her study to work.
Shoba had since managed to identify a career path for herself. She’d chosen to do a management course in Human Resource development and it was going really well. She was making use of the time much more effectively, thanks to having Eswari around. She still felt uncomfortable when she was given that piercing look by her. They didn’t talk about her past at all. Eswari didn’t answer the simplest of questions about her family, so Shoba kept their relationship businesslike. She also realised that this was different from having the kind of hired help people did back in India. There was mutual respect here, none of the usual suspicion that Indian housewives had towards the person who came in to cook and clean.
Eswari lived with them in the spare room up in the loft. Shoba had been called back by Social Services to interpret for her, and seen her sharing council accommodation with men she didn’t know, and had sensed her discomfort. She seemed really bored- she didn’t have anything to do all day except watch TV and go to college once a week for free English classes.
Her two friends Muthu and Senthil had been relocated to Swindon and Gloucester and she was left behind. Shoba had hit upon the idea to bring her home. Raghav had been quite sceptical, but six months on, they were both congratulating themselves on their decision.
“I have to leave for London tomorrow- I will be away for a couple of days.” Eswari knocked on the door, popping her head through briefly.
Shoba had heard her talking on her mobile in rapid Sri Lankan Tamil, which truth be told she found very hard to follow. Eswari had a network of people she kept in touch with on a regular basis. Sometimes, she heard her on the phone as she went up to bed after studying late. She must be homesick, Shoba thought, taking pity on her. And she hadn’t had a weekend off in a long while now. And it was Easter weekend anyway; maybe they could do something special just them as a family.
“Can you do some shopping on the way back for the house? The kids love okra, vendakkai- Indian vegetables are so much cheaper in London.”
Eswari nodded her head and closed the door. Shoba thought that was a bit odd- she would normally wait for some money.
“Na vaarain. I will return.” Eswari mumbled politely. Her backpack looked particularly heavy, as Shoba stood by the door worrying about her frail frame carrying the heavy burden.
“Go and come back carefully,” Shoba called out as Eswari left to trudge to the coach station.
“It is nice to have the house to ourselves. Without Eswari lurking in the corners,” Raghav announced with a relieved sigh.
Shoba secretly agreed with Raghav, but wouldn’t say it loud. She twirled the glass of white wine that Raghav had poured out and admired the light that caught the crystal. The kids had gone to bed on Saturday night, and life was good. Things were falling into place nicely, just when she’d given up all hope for her own personal future. She cuddled up against Raghav on the sofa as they settled to watch a film.
How could everything disintegrate so completely? Shoba was least prepared for what awaited her Sunday morning as she heard the news on Broadcasting House.
“Police are still trying to identify the woman suicide bomber who blew herself up inside a petrol station in West London last night. Police say that initial reports suggest that the manager Mr. Selvadurai who was killed in the explosion could have been on the wanted list of Tamil guerrilla groups in Sri Lanka. CCTV footage of the garage minutes before the explosion showed an Asian woman walking in with a backpack.” It had happened last night and had been all over the news- when they’d been busy watching the DVD.
“Oh my God, Oh my God.” Shoba couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Raghav looked and felt shaken. Eswari, they realised had come to this country on a mission.
“I told you we shouldn’t have trusted a Ceylonese girl. It was a girl who blew up the Indian Prime Minister, how could you forget?” Raghav was shouting at her.
“But Eswari didn’t wear a cyanide capsule round her neck- I didn’t think she’d be a terrorist.”
What did this all mean for them? Words like ‘aiding’ and ‘abetting’ sprang to mind and they felt their heads reel in complete shock.
The police would soon be here- Shoba ran up to the loft and came back with empty boxes under the bed- parcels she’d received at this address. How had she done that? She must have taken her credit card to use it for her nefarious activity. And Shoba had respected her privacy and left her alone, had never been to her room either.
Shoba stood in the middle of the hallway and stared at the fish for a long minute- bright orange creatures slithering gracefully in the dense green of the fish tank.
She could see Sgt. Stevens looking stern and grim as he removed the handcuffs from his pocket to tie Shoba’s wrists together behind her back. She felt a bolt of shock go through, as she watched her kids crying helplessly.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you in my lock-up.”
Shoba realised that life, as she knew it was finished, over. Why, oh why did I ever think I was bored by it all? Why couldn’t I just count my blessings and carry on the way I used to?
The doorbell went, followed by loud banging. Shoba steeled herself for the worst, with Raghav close behind her. She pulled the heavy door open with a grim expression on her face.
The black umbrella in front of her face was dripping wet. It was raining hard and she braced herself.
A carrier bag was stuck in front of her nose, from under the brolly as she heard Eswari say, “You need to take the okra out and dry it on a newspaper, it will rot otherwise.” She removed her trainers immediately as she walked in, touching the idol of Ganesh and pressing two fingers to her eyes- a pious gesture that came naturally to Eswari.
Shoba and Raghav were left standing by the door with the rain lashing into the house- ashamed and shocked at their own hysterical reaction. It had been so easy to jump to all those conclusions. They watched open mouthed as Eswari hefted her bag from her shoulders and carried it by hand upstairs to her room.