I am in the queue to checkout at the food hall. I have taken off my jacket which is now resting in my hands. The bitter cold every local takes for granted has not pervaded this massive market.
I look around. No one looks back. The rest of the world is far too absorbed in conversations, both direct and digital, to pay a five-foot-one-inch Indian girl any notice. It is not like Indians are unheard of in these parts. I overhear words, but this time, I am able to decipher their accents. Five days of hearing nothing but foreign voices (bar your father’s and grandmother’s familiar speech) can do that to you.
“Do you want me to pick up a sandwich for dinner, or do you prefer to go to Prêt?”
“Let’s see. . . I need some almond milk to make a protein shake, I can’t stand readymade. . .”
“I’m fresh out of grocery; I reckon I should pick up some veggies.”
It is easy to slip into this world and pretend I live in London. Part of me desperately wants to. Thirty seconds into this city, being ferried into Central London in a Mercedes-Benz, tattooed cab driver speaking in a Scottish accent, I fall in love. I am fickle this way, I suppose. Mumbai took me a day; New York an hour – but London took no time at all.
But somehow, standing in this colossal replacement for the Nilgiri’s down the road, I sense I do not truly belong here. Not yet, at least. I fiddle with the change in my hand. My eyes fall upon rows and rows of packed dinners, with glamorous names I’d expect to find only on a fancy restaurant’s menu card back home. Everything has kale in it, for whatever reason. I snort. Mom would be thrilled if I took a fancy to greens.
The queue moves forward, and I notice the cashier is Indian too. He’s wearing a red sweater, chatting with a customer as he bills her fruits and cereal. He doesn’t bat an eyelash, and she has no problem understanding him. The lilt of an Indian cadence has long since left him, and I do not know if I should be in awe of his ability fit it; or mourn the loss of something precious.
How does he do it every day of his life? My parents’ disappointment at my inability to speak more than conversational Tamil hits me hard. I silently loathe my distaste for non-festive Indian garb. My grandmother always gives me a reproachful look when I eat pasta instead of sambar rice. But what do I know? Maybe he goes home to a Gujarati-only household. Maybe his daughters learn Hindustani music. Maybe he does everything he can to cling on to whatever is left of the place he grew up in; pictures instead of family, memories instead of moments. Maybe he clings on to his culture like an anchor, the only thing steadying him in a torrential western current that has taken him away from home.
The thought gives me comfort. It is so easy to lose something in trying to become everything.
Suddenly, I am at the front of the queue. He takes my fruits – raspberries and blueberries are small joys not easily found in my part of the world – and puts them in a bag. He smiles at me, and I smile back. “There you go, darlin’.”
“Lovely,” I say, in an imitation of a British accent. Perfection will take a little while longer, and for once, I am grateful. There is something special in my own intonation. There are trickles and traces of my mother, my father, my grandmother. Her grandmother.
There are days when I may have to dilute my accent. There are days when I may even have to disguise it. But right now, I am glad I roll my ‘r’s the way I do. In my skinny-jean-wearing, always-texting, Grey’s-anatomy-marathon life, my voice is the only thing my grandmother will find just a little bit similar to her own.
I clutch my grocery bag and head out to join my father. The air is chilly, and I immediately put my jacket on. But the locals do not care, strolling along the pavement in thin T-shirts, each with a different voice, and a different place they call home