Radio Scotland - Days Like This

Hardeep Singh Kohli

AJ and Patjal

Hardeep Singh Kohli


A pair of socks. Grey knee socks. With a red and blue stripe around the top. That's how Pickle and I met. 1974. August. Hillhead. The West End of Glasgow. The first day of the local primary school and Pickle's mum and my mum found themselves at the back of the school hall, two immigrant wives with five year old sons and no knee socks (the ones with the red and blue stripes around the top). The only ones without knee socks. That wasn't the sole defining factor of the two families: we were the only brown faces in the room. Pickle Pathak and me, AJ Ghujral, and our mothers. Like Morcambe and Wise's mothers; or Caesar and Brutus's mothers; maybe even Lennon and McCartney's mothers. Was there ever stronger grounds for bonding? A pair of grey knee socks. That was one thing about the immigrants; poor they may have been, but their kids were always going to look the part. You could always tell the immigrant kids: they had every item on the school uniform list, no matter how insignificant, they had to have it. It was a pride thing.

Registration over on the fateful day in Hillhead in the nearly mid Seventies our mothers left the school hall with fresh plans to acquire knee socks. But not before one of them won the battle to invite the other round for a sweet hot cup of masala tea. That too was another astonishing aspect of immigrant life. It was "lift crisis culture". In the ordinary run of play, in India, the Pathaks and the Ghujrals would never be friends. Their lives would run on two non-intersecting paths. There would be no familial concurrence, no shared existence, no pooled resource. The Ghujrals would be the middle class aspirant affluent aristos of Delhi society; the Pathaks would probably run a small radio repair shop in a small street in a small town inhabited by small people. In the inevitable wave of the TV and VCR revolution they would probably be destroyed; then Manji, Mrs. Pathak, would be forced into domestic service, as would the boys. Pathak Sahib would cultivate and develop a fantastically self-destructive drink problem and come home every evening drunk and bitter and full of regret, and visit his personal despair through his fists on his wife. But here in the great melting pot of British Immigrant culture, finding themselves stuck between floors in the lift of life with each other, the Pathaks and the Ghujrals were forced to meet and bond.

And they met and bonded.

Playing in the one room that the Pathak family lived in, I was painfully aware that Pickle and I had no great desire to be friends. I felt Pickle smelled. It was a feeling rather than a conclusively substantiated fact. Nonetheless, I felt he smelled. This was both harsh and fair. Pickle carried about with him the aroma of curried fish. It was both pungent and subtle. At first I found it difficult to establish where exactly the smell originated from. The entire room and all its belongings seem to share the same sharp aroma. And what an aroma; it was unmistakably, marked by a rare and exotic quality. It was a smell that did not readily exist on the radar of west End of Glasgow smells; yet the nuance, the layers of the smell offered a certain complexity, a challenge that did not at first suggest fish. There was essence of bay, a suggestion of turmeric, the merest hint of cardamom. That smell was a conundrum wrapped in a mystery shrouded in enigma. Notwithstanding this esotericism, Pickle was smelly. And smelliness is next to Oh My Godliness. To be friends with such a child suggested more than just social liability.

Therefore, not being part of the cure, I realised on that very first day that I would have to become part of the problem. I would have to join the inevitable massed rank of smell detectors and with a cruelty children share with malign dictators, I would conduct the slagging of my "friend" on a thrice daily basis: morning break, lunchtime and afternoon break.

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