All my life I've felt the secret, unadulterated thrill of owning a British Passport. The Jewel in the Crown of a dream, aspiration of generations of expectant Indians who endured The Raj. I remember the very brief story of Uncle Sadiq. He applied to the Home Office for residency in the UK so he could marry his fiancée, Nandini Sawalia. After 200 years of rule, surely the Britishers knew that Hindus were betrothed and married by arrangement. However, just like every other Brownie applicant, Uncle Sadiq went through the farce of a series of interviews, where he had to somehow persuade the presiding official with incontrovertible evidence of his spousal intimacy with his future spouse.
Uncle Sadiq failed his interview. Nandini Sawalia could barely recall the shade of brown of his face when the death blow was dealt. She shrugged her shoulders and picked up the next eager beaver's photograph, while Uncle Sadiq was blacklisted both by the Immigration Office and the entire Hindu community. The failed immigrant, foiled in his uncouth attempt to pass himself off as a Britisher.
I was one of the lucky ones. Britisher by birth. Automatic global citizen status. My Golden Ticket was worth more than a hundred of Willy Wonka's chocolate factories, though when I prayed to Shiva in eternal gratitude, it was simply for having been saved from the ignominiousness of an American accent. In spite of my dark chocolate skin, chintzy goggle-eyes, gaping like unidentified flying saucers from behind national health spectacles, and fat, wide, swinging butt, I had suitors queuing all the way down Wembley High Road.
But I was no Nandini? I was the proud owner of an English University Degree, the second Jewel in the Crown. I was done with those wimps, grinning at me with their red betel-nut smiles and lecherous tongues suspended in delusions of sexual prowess. I left those oil-slicked wannabes on the tarmac, skidding in the opposite direction, and took my undulating Indian arse off that isle and across the sea.
The Queen Bee, my mother, was not happy. A single, ethnic female, wandering the environs of Europe on her own? I was the antithesis of all her efforts to mould me into a modest, acquiescing Hindu girl. In flagrant disobedience, I leapt from city to city, traversing landscapes and lakes. I marched amongst the masters in the Louvre, smoked pot in eclectic Amsterdam cafes, kissed the girls at Gay Pride in Berlin, and danced with sweat-filled passion in the clubs of Barcelona. Where there was no barrier or sea to swim against the tide, the age of arranged marriages passed nonchalantly by.
One day, I flew to Cyprus to surprise my Greek lover, though it transpired that he was idling with the Italian branch of his family tree, so the surprise ended up being on me. Later that same afternoon, in Larnaca, I met a kind young man. He offered me a sofa at his girlfriend's for the night and then drove me to a decaying motel squatting at the edge of a desert. My trusting eyes surveyed the scene in a bemused haze, until I found myself in a room with a group of Eastern European prostitutes, who bargained with cheap red lipstick and hairnets to feel the embossed gold crest of the crown on my British passport.
Natalya, his ‘girlfriend’, shared a dormitory style room with six other girls. She caressed my Golden Ticket. I saw the lust in her eyes, blazing, flaming, melting from the hollows of her tired sockets and dripping along the cracks of the bronzed foundation that covered her bruise-stained cheeks. She told me their passports had been confiscated, a bargain made in exchange for the promise of a better life.
The envy of land, I thought. Her envy of a lonely island in the midst of a windy northern sea, for which I had little love. That island was loved by millions on the other side of the border. The grass is always greener… and all that, I wanted to say. And then it struck me. These women, barely past the age of children, were also on an island, without their passports and nowhere to go. The azure blue sea beyond the dusty and cracked windows, where thousands gathered annually to soak up the sun, was their prison. Even if they could swim, how far could they go?
I pushed my passport deep into my sack before that valiant man, who had a different girlfriend every night, drove me back to the airport in his sporty Audi. I could no longer look at his face, so I watched the bay, its shimmering water swaying like the swagger of a prostitute in high heels. Cherish what you have, I thought, because like the luck of birth, it could be gone in a wisp of smoke, just as my Greek love was gone, discovered by my surprise to have been hiding a secret girlfriend of his own on that parallel Cypriot isle in the far eastern reach of the Mediterranean.
Natalya had gifted me a scarf, the lightest of baby blues, silky soft upon my skin. I tried to decline, and the tears had welled up in her eyes. “We are only allowed out at night,” she said, “but I know the sun here is bright. Cover your hair, cover your face and go quickly to this place, your home.” She traced a finger across the gilded emblem of sovereignty in my lap, somehow believing that the Queen herself was protecting me. “It is better to cover that pretty face and exotic brown skin…“ She trails away. “Better to be a nobody. Then they don't pick on you.”