CW: Racism, racist slurs, mental health, panic attacks, depression
Here’s an isolated incident for you.
I’m seventeen years old and I’m cycling to the local Woolworths to buy the CD single of Regulate by Warren G and Nate Dogg. I pick up two copies, one for me and one for a friend, scraping together £2 in change in order to pay for them. I grab my bike from where it’s chained up outside the Maccy Ds and I cycle back up the high street to the pedestrian crossing. Seeing the roads clear, I cycle out on to the road.
A car hits my bike and I fall to the ground.
The car screeches to a halt and the driver gets out to assess the damage. Bystanders run over to me to see if I’m okay. I’m fine. Bruised. Scared. The CDs feel uncomfortable in my back pocket. I’m asked if I’m okay. I nod. I’m shocked more than anything. I manage to get to my feet, with the help of a passer-by.
Didn’t you see me, you blind paki?
the woman says, inspecting the front of her car, ensuring there’s been no damage. Watch where you’re going next time. I might not stop.
She gets back into her car and drives away at great speed.
I walk my bike home. The wheel is bent and it’s un-ride-able. It takes me an hour to do the ten-minute journey. I’m shaking. I’m cold. CD1 has survived impact and I listen to Regulate on repeat for two hours straight when I get home. I tell my mum and dad. Mum is worried and puts me to bed. Dad tells me to be more careful on the road.
I cannot sleep.
My mind keeps playing loops in my head. I’m cycling the same stretch of road again and again. I’m watching the same shoe fall down the stairs again and again. I’m stirring the same bowl of Frosties again and again. These are mundane, repetitive loops, but they’re all my brain can process.
I have a panic attack the next day when a school friend suggests we go for a walk. I can’t breathe. My mouth is dry. My feet feel hot. The loops in my head feel heavy, like my face is being pulled into the bowl of cereal, my body is falling down the stairs, I’m flying through the air as I fall off my bike in slow, repetitive motion. My back is inflamed, my leg grazed on both sides, from the road and from the chrome of the bike frame.
The words stick with me. I’ve never heard them said before. Not in real life. Not aggressively. I’ve heard them in films. I’ve heard them on Kaliphz records. I’ve said them to Gujie friends as a joke.
The word means something different from when me and my cousins use it on each other. We mean it to mean, you’re so backwards, you’re fresh from the desh, you’re uncultured, a savage. You’re being a real paki about things. But when we say it, for some reason it’s harmless and funny. It now no longer feels harmless and funny.
I start to feel like a paki. My body begins to reject everything it considers paki-like.
Bhangra clatters cheesily in my ears, making me cringe. Bollywood films become too long and too melodramatic. Gujarati words have the same rhythm as bud-bud-ding-ding.
I have saved up money to buy a new bike. Dad offers to take me shopping. I decline. Getting back on a bike feels impossible.
I decline invitations to go out, to go to the cinema, to go bowling, to go check out the record shops in Harrow town centre.
Inside, in my house, listening over and over to the Regulate CD that survived is where I feel safest.
I start coming up with excuses to call mum from the school payphone, just so I can confirm what time she’s going to pick me up. Whenever she answers the phone, whether she’s at dad’s warehouse or the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, where she works, she sounds weary of me. It makes me more agitated about working out arrangements for picking up. If I have to wait for more than ten minutes for her to arrive, I get cold sweats. Friends take the train but it feels too exposed to me.
Getting a train home from Harrow town centre one day, I panic as my friends run up the stairs, realising we are on the wrong platform. We’ve heard the whistle from the platform attendant and the doors are about to close. They’re all faster than me and make it to the top of the stairs. I worry they’re going to get on the train and I’ll be left behind. I pretend to trip. I exit the barrier and phone my dad to come and pick me up.
I eventually find a Saturday job in Dixons in a shopping centre, and it helps. I start to spread my wings. I start to take buses and trains by myself again. I feel confident walking the streets without my mum and dad picking me up. I don’t feel a flash of panic every time I leave the house. I look forward to hanging with my new colleagues, discussing rap, comics and episodes of Friends. With money comes freedom of sorts — CDs, comics, t-shirts, KFC, my material possessions mount. Mum asks if I should save for university.
I get offered a place at a university in East London. I opt for self-catering halls because my independence has given me a degree of cockiness with regards to my cooking abilities. I visit the flat in Hackney Wick. It’s 1998. We’re pre-Hackney gentrification. The area feels like everything I’ve ever wanted in London — it’s multicultural, loud, exciting, strange, busy, and not mostly only white, like my school and the shopping centre where I work. I can’t wait to move in.
I’m on tills.
I’m filling in for Chris who’s at lunch. I’m usually on the small electronics desk, trying to sell personal CD players, trying to upsell minidisc players. I’m standing next to Jackie. She is like a ballet dancer on the tills. She up-sells batteries, does due diligence to the salesperson’s commission, smiles and never lets customers feel like their terseness is rude.
I’m slower than her but I try my best. I’m 17 and desperate to impress. I turn 18 soon. A man approaches the counter and looks up at me. Seeing me, he steps out of the queue.
Are you okay? I ask. Can I help you, sir?
He shakes his head. I’ll wait for her, he says.
I can help you sir, I tell him.
No, he says firmly. I would prefer someone who speaks English.
Not realising the implication he’s making, I persist, naively.
I speak English, sir. I was born here, I say.
That does not make you fucking English, he says.
He puts the Gameboy games down on the counter next to me and he leaves the shop, shaking his head.
What did you say? asks the assistant manager, running over to me.
I phone mum and ask to pick me up that night. She complains about the lack of parking by the shopping centre. She says to meet her outside the bingo hall, circumventing the one-way system. I run the entire three minutes to her car, looking around me the entire time.
What’s wrong? she asks, as I get into the car, panting, furtively checking all around me.
Nothing, I say, almost losing my temper.
I feel the panic again. The compulsion to always know how I’m going to get home. To know what my exit strategy is. To cocoon myself in television and gangsta rap and comics and protect myself from the outside world.
I call up the university admin office the next day and decline the halls of residence offer. I stay at home. The Metropolitan line trains become my safety net, the semi-fast to Watford my protector. I bury my head in paperback after paperback so I don’t have to make eye contact with my fellow commuters.
In the third year of university, I make the move. I opt to stay in the halls my friend Chen lived in. They’re in the centre of town and they feel like familiar ground because of the few times I’ve been to visit him.
I make friends.
We stay in each others’ rooms most nights, talking about music, playing bad guitar, sharing our favourite Bill Hicks routines. I start smoking in secret. I live the life of a first year two years too late. I neglect my studies. I’m starting to feel happy again.
I’m standing in line to see the late night set at a comedy club with my friend, Matt. He studies maths and I study law. He likes poetic Dylan and I love protest Bob. We come together over stand-up.
I light a cigarette and step out of the queue to blow the smoke away from others. When I step back in, shoulder to shoulder with Matt, still talking about the song Hurricane, I hear someone whisper to her boyfriend behind me.
Check out this paki, pushing in.
I’ve been drinking and so feel combative. I turn to her, my stomach filling with bile, my skin, glinting brown metallic, almost coppery.
I don’t know what I’m expecting to find, I realise now, remembering the MC Hammer-like finesse with which I swing my body around, that I haven’t planned for her to be beautiful. I don’t know why.
But there she is, stunning.
And it takes me out of the moment.
I lose myself for the most pregnant of pauses in the clear Bahamas blue water of her eyes. In that second, she turns to me, to see what I want. There isn’t a hint of embarrassment about her. She doesn’t look caught out. I realise, too late, that maybe I have misheard.
Critically, too late.
What did you call me? I ask, loudly.
Excuse me? she says.
She is immediately defensive, her hands crossing in front of her chest.
Her boyfriend leans towards me.
Bruv, he says, with faux congeniality. I don’t know what you think you heard.
You called me a paki, I say, ignoring him. I heard you.
She looks at her fingers and turns to her boyfriend, shaking her head.
I wasn’t even referring to you, she says. I wasn’t even referring to you.
Sorry, I say, and returned to my conversation with Matt, convinced I have misheard her.
I walk into the comedy club and pretend to laugh along.
Matt and I walk home in silence. Neither of us reference the conversation. I start hiding in my room, pretending to be out when people come knocking for me, listening to conscious rap on my headphones and writing poetry. I live on the ground floor so hear my friends come and go past my window. I don’t leave the halls of residence for three days after my final exam.
The following week, I decide to leave halls a month early. My exams have finished. I’m mooching about. I take down my room, carefully folding my Miles Davis and my Three Colours Red posts into a roll.
I call dad to come and collect me when I know my friends go for a celebratory trip to Camden Market on a Tuesday afternoon. I don’t tell them I am leaving.
My first act, when I return home, scared, is to get my cousin to shave my head.
Years later, a nameless troll, on Twitter, threatens to set me on fire because our political views differ. When I complain about this in a group later, someone tells me to not worry, it’s just one idiot.
This is just an isolated incident, he reassures me. It’ll all settle down.
I look at my friend, quietly, and realise that he does not know me at all.