As a young woman, my mother did not want to marry or be a mother, but she went on to have six children and also an amazing journey, which brought her to England. Kamal had to leave what is now Pakistan because of partition, and was packed off to live with grandparents in Mumbai – her mother had died and her father travelled to London to do his bar exams. Unable to return to India because of the political turmoil, my grandfather ended up in Nairobi with an uncle. Eventually my mother was sent for. She went reluctantly, leaving behind an extraordinary, fun life in Mumbai, spoiled by grandparents, home help and a chauffeur.
In Nairobi, a marriage was arranged for her to a handsome Punjabi who, after serving in the British Indian army, had settled in Nairobi as a civil servant. Her reluctance to marry soon disappeared, as she embraced being a mother.
In 1963, my parents made the monumental decision to leave Kenya. My father was keen to create a distance between him and my mother’s very successful but overpowering family but, more importantly, he believed life for Asians would become difficult after independence. My father, with my eldest brother, Anil, were the advance party who headed to Birmingham. Their mission was to call us if they thought England had the opportunities my parents wanted for their children.
Three months later, we got the green light from my father and almost overnight locked up our sunny, spacious house in Nairobi, gave the keys to my aunts and flew away into the unknown.
Seeing my father at Heathrow with the biggest bars of Cadbury’s chocolate is a sight I can still recall with clarity and warmth. For me, the journey from Heathrow to Birmingham was an adventure despite the grey skies and strange, smoking chimneystacks. What a stark contrast to the sun and familiarity we had left behind. My father had not managed to get a pen-pushing job but was working hard in a dusty foundry. My mother got on with the job of making our shabby, very small terrace feel like home and in making sure we were performing at school.
At the time, we were the only non-white family in school and in our neighbourhood. Mother never openly complained – she was just glad to have all her family together. With six growing children and money tight she, too, got a factory job at Cadbury’s where she was one of the first Asian women to work on the shop floor. Childhood was sweet, in many ways. Our house was always full of children from all backgrounds, either hoping to get a broken up chocolate biscuit or a chapatti and dhal. I was happier eating baked beans and chips.
Published on The Guardian website Saturday 5th November.