The Canadian Art Database

Sarindar Dhaliwal


Harbour Magazine of Art & Everyday Life, Vol. 2 #3, Spring 1993
[ 3,032 words ]

Violet arrived in Glasgow in the early summer of 1960. She was a healthy, milk-fed, heather-scented girl of seventeen. The Scottish Transport Company had placed posters all over the county of Argyllshire advertising jobs on the city's buses. She had longed for months to escape the mauve of the low hills surrounding the village along with her father's intractable grumpiness and her mother's righteous Catholicism. She was grateful for the economic pretext of a job to flee the confines of Inverary and her family.

Violet loved being a clippie. Running trimly up and down the winding stairs of the moving bus made her feel athletic, efficient and in control of her world. The camaraderie of her co-workers was a new and comforting experience; it felt like adulthood.

She would wake early to the clouded Glaswegian mornings, the pavements still filmy with rain. The smell of the underground was like rotting leaves after a storm and the powerful draughts caused by the whooshing of the trains still unnerved the country girl in her. Glasgow, despite its overwhelming greyness, seduced her with its purple façades looming with granite steadiness in the perpetual drizzle. At the bus depot before the shift began, Violet would join the other girls for a cup of tea and a cigarette in the condensed warmth of the café across the street. Outside the world dripped endless rain. Violet is still fond of the rain today. She associates it with that first summer of sweetness and freedom.

She shared a flat with a cheerful girl named Margaret who came from Blairgowrie. The two would play Jim Reeves records as they tried on the shiny, flesh-coloured nylons (costing all of two and eleven pence), practising painting their lips with pearly orange lipstick to the crooning. They bought most of their groceries piecemeal from the cornershop on Mary Hill Road. Violet liked going in there because the odour of the spices made her imagine that she was entering a foreign country. As she pushed open the door the little musical bell would tinkle, summoning the proprietor from his back storeroom. He was often in there with his cronies speaking a strange language which to her ears sounded like double Dutch or gibberish. She never was to become familiar with Punjabi, learning only a handful of words over the next decade. The smell of whiskey would waft forwards into the shop mingled with guffaws of the men playing cards or just talking and drinking, sitting on upturned soft drink crates.

One day she was in there buying a bunch of bananas. She had laid her gloves on the counter, white cotton with blue trim they were (in those days the girls wore gloves everywhere). The grocer playfully inserted the tips of two or three bananas into the fingers of Violet's gloves and an involuntary giggle escaped her. She looked at him closely for the first time. He smiled. His eyes were hazel brown and slightly hooded. Violet has always liked men with heavy eyes since, assuming that their characters are similar to Saroop's.

After that, each time she was in the shop she was intensely aware of his presence. She was disappointed when he wasn't there and she was served by his assistant. She found herself blaming him for being out, causing a little grudge to rankle in her bosom until the next time she saw him and he would tease her over some trivial change in her appearance. He would take her out in his Rover, (a spacious car with lovely lines that you don't see too often anymore). 28 years later she can still remember the license plate number, but she can't remember the two or three items she needs on her daily shopping excursions or the messages that Niall asks her to do once in awhile. Niall, Violet's son, doesn't ring her up as regularly as he should. Violet suspects that he lives with that Jennifer girl he met at the Communist Club. She phones his apartment quite late some nights and early other mornings. Usually no one picks up the phone. She lets it ring and ring, thinking maybe he is in the bathroom or perhaps he is just turning the corner of his street and he'll be home in another dozen rings.

She returned to Inverary in the autumn of that first year to visit her family. When she spoke enthusiastically of her friendship with Saroop and the outings in the elegant car, her father slapped her across the face, sharp and hard. He took her suitcase, throwing it out of the door. 'Go back to the black bastard,' he screamed at her as she numbly retrieved her clothes from the front lawn. It had never occurred to her that Saroop was a different colour to her. She knew he came from a different world , one whose customs amused, perplexed or angered her. She didn't even realize that the child she was carrying wouldn't have the same skin as her sister's children. Saroop greeted her with open arms and a generous heart. He bought her the biggest lily-white towel she had ever seen. It was soft to her cheek. She was enormously upset when a few years later someone stole it from the washing line that reeled out from the kitchen window.

Violet and Saroop would sit by the open fire in the flat eating toasted, crusty rolls with butter-soaked insides. A warm and perfect memory. Violet began working in the shop, leaving the baby with a woman who lived in the same close. She would come home late in the evenings and cook Saroop his favourite dishes: liver and onions, shepherd's pie. He didn't seem to hanker after curries.

Violet began wearing a gold band. Maybe it was her imagination but she thought as soon as people looked at her and the baby on buses, in shops, their eyes swooped to her left hand and a shameful blush would rise, making her cheeks tingle.

In late February (a little before Niall's first birthday), when the tail winds of winter were still whipping through the closes, a shadow fell across Violet's cosy world. Saroop was vomiting every day. He tried to hide it from Violet, sending her out on messages or returning surreptitiously himself to use the bathroom. It took her some time to identify the acrid smell that she now noticed in both the flat and the backshop. She begged him to see a doctor, but he was reluctant and made excuses. His feet swelled up. Violet would massage his legs at night. Finally on the 21st of April (she remembers the exact date) he was taken to the Royal Infirmary out at Langside. A week later they transferred him to the Victoria General Hospital.

Violet visited once a day. She had to take a taxi to and from the Victoria because she was never able to find someone to watch the shop for more than an hour or two. Sometimes she would take Niall with her, though he was barely walking yet. A staff sister phoned her from the hospital saying that the doctor wished to speak to Saroop Singh's wife. Violet went to meet with the doctor. She felt twinges of guilt — she was an imposter — but, well, his wife was in India and Violet knew she didn't speak any English. The tussle with her conscience plagued her in the lonely nights. She reassured herself that at least she wasn't committing a double sin. She was living with a man to whom she wasn't married, but she wasn't taking a man from his wife. She convinced herself that Saroop wasn't legally married to his wife, not in the eyes of the church or the law. In India they didn't have marriage certificates or even record the weddings.

She would bring Saroop Lucozade, which he loved, and small, seedless green grapes. He never appreciated flowers. Violet wasn't supposed to tell him that he was dying. In later years she resented that. She should have been allowed to talk to him, discuss the future of the business, to get phone numbers of close relatives. She broke down one day in the shop and told the boy who delivered the bread that Saroop was in the hospital and doing poorly. The next day when she went to visit, that boy was standing by the bed praying. He was something to do with the Salvation Army. She must have been a strong person in those days. Just a slip of a girl, but she had coped with so much: the baby, the shop and the fear. In her dreams Saroop would die and she would be lost, dragging Niall behind her. The days were long and identical. Opening and closing the shop, crying away behind the garam masala. The trips to the hospital crystallizing into a memory studded with the same landmarks seen out of the taxi window, the particular nurses she grew to know, the popular songs played on the radio those weeks. It was on a Wednesday that they told her he had a fortnight to live but ten days later (a week on the Friday) he was dead.

Violet had to phone strange Punjabi men in London to tell them that Saroop had died. His father-in-law and two cousins came up from the south the next day. He looked peaceful in the coffin. They had dressed him in a costume that Violet associated with the dentist. She didn't realise that he would be cremated and had thought that she would she see his face one more time again. She was the only woman at the funeral.

Violet still visits the crematorium every June and fills the vase she had left in the memorial room. She kept some of his ashes. They were in a box tied up with her old school scarf on a shelf in the cubbyhole in the back office at the shop until Balbir Singh took them away somewhere because he believed that her attachment to them was morbid. Balbir Singh was Saroop's eldest son, who arrived in Scotland two months later. Meanwhile, Violet had looked after the shop and stayed in the flat, not knowing what else to do. Neighbours urged her to leave with the week's takings — she wasn't going to get anything once Saroop's family arrived. But she couldn't. He had been a lovely man. The good die young they say. He had been kind to her and Niall. She loved him. And now she was grieving so, her heart felt detached from her insides. Everything seemed unimportant and she couldn't muster any enthusiasm for the things that happened to people, people around her in the neighbourhood, even people in the newspapers. It was like living a thin, ghostly existence. She felt that nothing would ever change, that Niall wouldn't grow bigger, that the summer would never end. But it did and with the falling leaves and the dusk descending earlier and earlier she showed Balbir how to do the ordering, accounts and the general workings of the shop. Sometimes she even laughed.

She liked Balbir. She was his only friend in this country; he relied on her. He told her that his wife, three children, mother and younger brother were coming from India, but she and Niall were welcome to stay — the flat that once held three would now sleep nine. When Violet first saw Biloo, Saroop Singh's wife, she thought how ugly and old she was. Violet apologized at once to God and Jesus for her unkind thoughts, but she couldn't imagine Saroop in the arms of a Biloo of even twenty years ago.

Gradually Violet, Niall, Biloo, her sons and Balbir's wife and children melded into a strange but close family unit. Violet and Balbir worked at the shop all day. At night she would climb the worn, lye-scrubbed stone steps to the flat where Biloo would be waiting with two chapatis and curry for her. Biloo was the mother hen. Her days were demarcated by the needs of her family. She moved slowly, administering to their wants, cooking, cleaning, chiding and nurturing. She had a passion for washing clothes and would go through the flat picking up everything she saw. She washed the clothes with the same motions that she used to knead the dough for the chapatis. Many guests had been caught, trapped under the quilts while their clothes fluttered on the line from the back window. Those days were warm too in Violet's memory. The children playing in and around the shop, constantly eating baps, chocolate bars, crisps. Going to search for Niall and Balbir's children in the closes, at twilight. Calling for them to come out from behind the high dykes which partitioned one back lot from another. They would be with the ginger-haired, grimy faced local children screeching, hiding and seeking amongst the dirt and broken glass of their playground behind the shop. Constant activity and the lights blazing on Mary Hill Road.

The clan in St. George's Cross flourished. Cousins, brother-cousins, old school friends emigrated from the villages in the district of Jullunder, and were quickly absorbed into the neighbouring tenements. Children were born and spoke their mother's tongue with lilting Scottish inflections. Violet was accepted and Niall treated like the other Indian children. Sometimes a newcomer, with oddly cut, thin clothes and homemade sweaters would look at Niall curiously and thoroughly, no doubt thinking, 'Ah, there is Saroop Singh's son.' Violet thought them rude. Over the years the branches of the family grew across the Atlantic to southern Ontario. And like sturdy young growth, Toronto sapped the life from Glasgow, whose decrepit buildings were crumbling seedily into the middle seventies.

Balbir Singh began to drink. The shop was once again full of swarthy men meeting in the back room. But they weren't like Saroop's friends. Violet didn't trust them. She suspected they stole — boxes of butter, cartons of cigarettes. Balbir lost interest in the business. He no longer polished the apples, making them shine, or tidied the onions by removing the loose skins. The lovingly arranged pyramids of exotic tins — bitter melons, lady fingers, and mango slices in heavy syrup — remained undusted.

He pined for the flatlands of India. He berated himself for slipping away from the tenets of the Sikh faith, for cutting his hair, for failing to send money to his relatives back home. In the empty peace of the flat while the children were at school. Violet minding the shop and his wife and mother out shopping for tea towel bargains, he would ruminate on the past and invent dreamy futures. He would take down his turban from the top of the cumbersome, mahogany wardrobe and stand defiantly before the swinging mirrored doors. Turning his head this way and that way, admiring his profile, fantasizing that he was an upright, young officer in the Indian Army. Imagining conversations with his former fellow students from the Ludhina Agricultural College (Balbir, of course, having magnanimously furnished them with their airfares from New Delhi). How impressed they would be with his life here, his air of smartness in the white grocer's coat he wore when serving in the shop. The amber glow induced by alcohol helped him forget the nagging worry of debts and daughters to be married off.

It was in a similar liquor-fogged state that, one sleety November night, stumbling homewards from a drunken celebration, Balbir failed to see the headlights of the motorcar. The squealing of tyres and crash as the car hit a parked van cut through the sleep of his womenfolk like a high pitched Muslim dirge. A policeman returned Balbir's shoes the next day. They had been found a few yards from the body but forgotten in the ensuing chaos, blood and wailing.

Balbir's wife, with practical sense, took her children and joined her brothers who were settled in Canada. There was a flurry of letters between Niall and his adoptive siblings, but communications declined during his teenagehood. Now it has faded to solitary Christmas cards that Violet posts every December featuring puffy robins perched smugly on silver glittered pine branches. Balbir Singh's children own sports cars and attend university while Niall kicks stones outside the dole office.

Niall eventually moved out, leaving Biloo, her younger son and Violet alone in the flat. For Violet, the cheerless yellowed walls rang with echoed laughter from the past and she thought she heard voices in her head: angels, devils, Saroop and Balbir. She began to go to Mass again, tentatively fishing out the responses to the litanies from her memory. The stillness of the church soothed the teeming in her brain.

At the death of Balbir, Biloo had been demented with grief and had not combed her hair for over a fortnight following the funeral. Though pressed by the family to follow her daughter-in-law and grandchildren to Canada, she refused to leave the melancholy city that had claimed her husband and first born son. She focussed all her attention on the other lad, who chafed under the weight of her expectations and what he perceived as her madness. This country, she moaned, is full of disasters waiting to befall him. Cancer, knifings in pubs. When he was out (which was more and more frequently) she stood in vigil by the telephone squinting at the numbers, painfully dialling the ones she knew (she still could barely read), trying to locate him. She wanted to be sure that the brain haemorrhage she was certain was hovering above his head hadn't descended yet. She took to waking at dawn and preparing the boy's breakfast even though he would not be up himself for several hours. Waiting patiently at the table, humbled by tragedy, staring at nothing while the tea formed a milky scum as it grew colder.

Biloo's maternal monologues mingled with Violet's Catholic songs as life in the flat on the Mary hill Road entered another era.

Harbour Magazine of Art & Everyday Life , Vol. 2 #3, Spring 1993

Text: © Sarindar Dhaliwal. All rights reserved.

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