Manjit’s Way

Manjit

creative partner Lana Citron

reader Inez Thorn

Early 70’s, Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa, I am the meek one in the corner and will stay there until told to move.

I recall a joyous childhood with my parents, two brothers, three sisters, two dogs, two houseboys and a driver. A large house and a garden with mango trees. We’d race to eat the early morning fallen fruit.

My father was a civil engineer, working on coffee irrigation pumps across the country. My mother, his backbone, was fifteen when married. She was a woman of immense faith, as loving as she was strict. 

Raised to be Sikh ladies, we girls were taught flower-arranging, cooking, sewing and cleaning. Movies were forbidden. We had a 5 o’clock curfew. Mother prayed every morning, two and a half hours sitting crossed legged, her hair covered. Sikhs are not allowed to cut their hair and daily our elder sister, Kulwinder Penji would plait our hair before school. 

At Christmas we’d pack father’s light blue 505 saloon Peugeot and drive to Mombassa. The roads perilous with real ‘zebra’ crossing(s); giraffes, monkeys, and elephants. At the coast we swam in our traditional clothes, (western clothes forbidden). We’d sail to coral reefs and ride horses, drive to the Malindi snake parks, climb mountains and watch the East African Safari car races.

In 1971 we drove to India for my elder brother’s wedding; my first visit. We put the car on the ocean liner. Twenty-eight days upon surging seas, waves splashed against the cabin’s porthole. I rocked back and forth on the top bunk. 

We docked in Bombay, spent the night sleeping on the floor in a hall with only a quilt to cover us then drove to Punjab. 

It was shocking; the chaos, the traffic, the way people looked at us, ‘foreigners’. On a temple visit we ate food from a banana leaf not a plate. This was not Kenya. There were no toilets, only fields. Three of my sisters caught chicken pox. There were blackouts. India was at war with Pakistan, the car was mobbed and we, forced to abandon it. It was thirty years before I returned.

I am British African not British Indian. 

I wanted to be a beautician, practise yoga, go to university – all forbidden to me. Instead, I became a short hand typing teacher. 

The second time I met my husband I had a huge pimple on my nose. It was our wedding day. The first time had been in his family’s sitting room. Indian cricket world cup played on TV. I’d travelled to England with my parents for two weddings, ended up married myself. I dabbed the pimple with Dettol. It burnt my skin. Luckily, the make-up lady covered it. Luckily my husband and I clicked.

I moved in with my in-laws, bore two sons, then began to work.

To get a job I had to swap my salwar kameez for western clothes. I bought a red blazer and high heels in Marks and Spencers. Nothing would stop me and slowly, I worked my way up the ranks from temp to operational business manager. I love work, to share my skills.

Now I practice yoga and have completed a beautician course. 

I never questioned the path I was on, followed it religiously beginning in the corner and working my way forward. 

Still have my baby hair, my Sikh strength.  

Manjit

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