A powerful story of mingling cultures and disconnected family ties, by Shanaiya Singh-Ali.
By Shanaiya Singh-Ali
Once when I was four, my mother set up an experiment. ½ a cup of water, ½ a cup of oil, and an empty glass. I poured the water and oil together, expecting the inevitable outcome that they would dissolve into an oily mess.
I was bored. I thought the experiment was pointless. As the two liquids met, I watched wide-eyed, as they separated. No oil in the water, no water in the oil. I stirred vigorously, only to realise that no matter how hard I tried, they would not mix.
This experiment is exactly how life is for a child of a Muslim father and a Hindu mother. That child is me.
It’s 2 pm on a Sunday afternoon when we pull up to The Grey House. Realising we had an empty day, we decided it was time for our quarterly visit. The tyres of our Audi sweep the rough concrete of the driveway like fingernails on a chalkboard, and the silence inside the car pierces my ears. During this time, my mother and I briefly make eye contact - her face is unreadable, but her shoulders seem tense. “Shanaiya, please enter the gate code”, my dad tells me. I can never quite remember what it is, so I have to double-check. Our car drives in and the large, black cell door slams to a close behind us. We will be here for the next three hours.
I’m unsure whether to knock or ring the doorbell when we arrive at the door. I don’t know if the bell has been fixed since the last time we were here, so I conclude that knocking is the safest option.
The door is opened by The Big Man and hugs are exchanged. We are used to this scene by now. Walking past the formal lounge and the spare bedroom, I enter the kitchen and the smell of oil-drenched samosas fills my nose. It is only here we are greeted by The Small Woman, who is cleaning. She is always cleaning.
We all go to sit down - this is a regular part of our routine - however, I instinctively slow down my steps, and as I’m halfway to the couches I hear, “Shanaiya, would you please start passing around the samosas? Thank you, betiya.” My mum calls me this, and hearing The Small Woman’s pretentious imitation roll off her tongue as if it actually means something to her makes me more uncomfortable. “Sure thing,” I reply.
Once I’ve finished passing them out, there’s one spare seat left but I can’t sit in that one. Dadi Dadi, my great-grandmother, used to sit there. Now that she’s passed away, his house feels empty and melancholic without her in it, and I could never bring myself to sit in her seat. For this reason, I perch myself upon the toy box full of my cousins’ toys. There are no toys stored for my brother and me here. The tough, wooden surface is uncomfortable to sit on, and my back aches, so I lean against the wall, munching away at my samosa. The samosa is made of aaloo and the grease suffocates my taste buds. I won’t say I don’t slightly enjoy it, though. The flavours linger on my tongue like rare family gatherings and childhood memories, the nostalgia feels like bliss.
I have to pretend to be interested in conversations about the latest family drama, their most recent trip to Fiji, and how the distant ‘uncle’ I’ve never met before is doing. Most of this is lost on me anyway because it’s said in Hindi, a language I’d probably be more fluent in if I was around it regularly. The thought that they’re using the language barrier purely to leave me out crosses my mind. Eventually, the discussion turns to me, and in English, I communicate my recent academic successes. The Small Woman blankly says she is proud of me, whilst The Big Man sits stiffly in his chair, expression unchanged. It’s hard to get a reaction out of him.
After we’ve served our time, we say our goodbyes and part ways. My sweaty hand grips the plastic bag with all the food The Small Woman has packed for us in takeaway containers. We glide out of their street and The Big Man and Small Woman fade into tiny dots. My fingertips trace the condensation-covered window, drawing two halves of my heart; one part that’s still with me, one part that I left behind at The Grey House, hoping something would be different the next time we visited, and I could connect the halves again. But it never is, and I don’t expect it anymore. Sometimes I wish we visited Dadi and Dada more often. I know that water and oil will never mix no matter how much you stir the two together, yet I consistently root for a different outcome. I wonder what might’ve been if our family were whole.
We enter the driveway to my home and I know the gate code like the back of my hand. I let out a sigh of relief. The performance is over. My dad and mum wrap their arms around me, just because. As my little brother meanders up the stairs, he sees he isn’t part of the group hug and runs up to us, his hands stretched wide. In my home, oil and water remain unmixed, but unlike The Grey House, we have found a way to co-exist in perfect harmony, and we have a home overflowing with love and acceptance. I stop worrying about my family being whole - all I’ll ever need is right here.
Betiya - daughter, term of endearment
Aaloo - potato
Dadi and Dada - Grandma and Grandpa on your father’s side
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