Uncle Rakesh Sings the Blues
‘What do black people use as toothbrush?’ Uncle Rakesh asks Raju, giggling. Raju searches through his database of known racist jokes. It contains ‘0’ results.
Either Uncle Rakesh is about to tell a new racist joke he’s cribbed from the murkier edges of the internet or he’s started making his own up. Either way, Raju shakes his head and walks to the back of the shop where an issue of Esquire magazine is opened at a revealing interview with Daisy Lowe. Raju is not reading the words in the interview. He is imagining nipples on the ends of an airbrush job.
‘You do not want to hear the punchline? Uncle Rakesh bellows after him. ‘Political correctness gone mad. I told his papa to not send him to university, send him to work with me.’ Much as Uncle Rakesh is whispering, it’s a stage whisper and Raju can hear every word.
Raju tries his hardest to minimise conversation with his Uncle Rakesh, knowing that they are landlocked together till September when he can escape back to Manchester and the freedom that comes with being as far away as possible from people like Uncle Rakesh. Raju muses to his girlfriend - incidentally black but that’s not why he’s upset at the constant anti-black-people jokes - that it’s crazy he has to leave London to go to Manchester for a more Metropolitan life. Here in their newsagent in Kingsbury, the heart of the Gujarati community where cassava chips, mango juice and Kingfisher supplement aisles of spices, specially imported rices and tasty exotic fruits teeming with insects, it’s like being stuck in an alternate reality where Indians hold the dominant power in the suburbs, owning everything, looking down on everyone.
Raju is sick of telling his uncle not to tell these jokes around him. Raju is sick of the rebuttals about political correctness. Raju is sick of the challenges to prove Uncle Rakesh wrong in his opinions about black people. Raju has never heard his mum or dad say anything as overtly racist but he has been in a room where Uncle Rakesh has moaned about the stupidity of his African neighbours and they’ve nodded along, their silence tantamount to complicity.
He winces whenever Gladys and Patience, two Kenyan ladies who live across the road, come in for their weekly cassava, scotch bonnets and mango juice and Uncle Rakesh calls them both ‘darling’ and ‘sweetie’ and smiles sweetly as he takes their money. He never handles the money directly. The money is placed on the counter and then the change is placed on the counter. Raju watches this transaction and wonders what Uncle Rakesh thinks will happen if he brushes black skin (maybe his arm will shrivel and he will decrease in intelligence) and what Gladys and Patience think of the pantomime. Maybe where they’re from, Kenya, where Indians are prevalent, there’s a precedent, an unwritten code of superior conduct they acquiesce to, and have transmigrated over to this corner of North West London’s suburbs.
Some kids walk into the shop, fitting all the key performance indicators of Uncle Rakesh’s and the Daily Mail’s biggest fears. They are all of a feral underclass type - tall, various hues of black, wearing oversized t-shirts proclaiming allegiances to everything from Nike to Arsenal via Eminem. They talk loudly, swapping stories about girls they’re interested in with slang like bruv or cuz or yagetme. Raju can hear the world through their mouths easily but Uncle Rakesh is anxious and follows them to the drinks cabinets as they discuss what each one is having and who is paying what, displaying disregard for the shortest member of the group and for the brand Pepsi. Uncle Rakesh pretends he is checking the cashew nuts but they’re so freshly stocked he falters and drops the packets on the floor. The boys turn and laugh at him, they know his game, they’re used to the hovering of his sort, his type, his lot – scared, suspicious and officious.
Raju watches all this at the back of the shop. He has moved on from Esquire and Daisy Lowe’s pert bottom and on to lifestyle tips for women suffering from piles in a woman’s glossy, the only unread thing on the shelf.
‘Yo, gimme a pound for this Lucozade!’
‘Lucozade! Blaaad, get somefink cheaper… Gatorade’s half the price…’
‘Your mum’s half the price.’
‘What? That don’t even make sense.’
‘Yeah, it does. It means your mum’s so bad at being a prostitute, she’s doing a half price sale.’
‘You gonna give me this pound or what?’
‘Allow that, blud. Let’s get a Lilt six pack.’
‘Lilt’s rank man.’
‘Always the same joke. You’re the same joke. Come, man. Be an originator.’
Raju smiles. They all eventually settle on their original choices. The Gatorade-pusher relents and hands over a pound.
The teenagers head to the counter, hand their money to one guy, the tallest and loudest, and he holds the coins out to Uncle Rakesh to receive. Uncle Rakesh looks at them and looks at the counter. They don’t know the ritual. Come on. It’s obvious. Put the money on the counter. Put it down. There. That’s what it’s there for.
Uncle Rakesh’s arms are uselessly by his side, unable to gesture or do anything to propel this transaction towards its inevitable conclusion.
The tallest, loudest member of the group doesn’t take too kindly to Raju’s mute uncle’s refusal to handle his coins.
‘What? My money ain’t good enough here?’
‘Sir,’ Uncle Rakesh addresses anyone he is afraid of as sir. ‘Sir, please… the counter.’
‘Oh right, so my money’s fine but my palms ain’t?’
‘Sir… I don’t want any trouble.’
‘My money’s is good as anyone else’s. Take my money, let me buy the drinks and we’ll leave okay?’
This is a considerably calm comment on the conflagration from the kid, considering his cohorts are cooing ‘cunt’ in the background, shouting and arguing and hectoring Uncle Rakesh. The din grows. Raju is rooted to the spot. He doesn’t know what to do, how to calm the situation, how it will end. He’s stuck, halfway up the left hand aisle, the one nearest the door. The din rises, the boys start to scream and swear and get angry and get upset and get riled and get ignored and get the same kicking down every adult gives a teenager when faced with their opinion – they are ignored and they don’t like it and it’s only soft drinks and they’ve done nothing wrong except banter loudly and now they’re staring in the face of a man with hate and fear in his pupils and the sensible thing is to walk away and the tallest and the loudest starts to place his drink back on the counter but his friends are upset, one of them drops his can on the floor, piercing a side spraying sickly sugary drink over the floor level display of crisps and another of the group follows, except this causes specks to fly on to the rowdiest one’s trainers and the aggression gets internalised, misdirected against each other and Uncle Rakesh is confused, he doesn’t understand the language, won’t empathise with the boys, hates them, wants them out, but wants their money, just on the counter, they are at an impasse and Uncle Rakesh can see customers hover in the doorway and turn away from the noise and he is losing money, good money, money from good honest Indians and he loses it, he fills himself up with the bile behind every racist joke he has ever been taught, every fear he has had about black people, every jealous thought he has had about other ethnic communities, every confusion of hierarchy of age versus lack of understanding with teenagers and he throws his hands up in the air and shouts…
‘GET OUT OF MY SHOP, YOU BLACK BASTARDS.’
The air is pregnant with possibility. There is the briefest of chills, the most passable of calms before the boys react. They could go in a variety of directions. Shouting, hitting or leaving in indignation. Raju’s uncle has to stand behind the words he has chosen and his hands are on his hips in defiance but his brow is sodden with worry. He realises what he has done. Raju creeps up towards Uncle Rakesh because, even though the stupid twat deserves whatever is about to happen, he’s still Raju’s uncle.
The can hits him square on the forehead. It smacks against the middle of his forehead, making a dull patting sound, like someone’s bumped a radiator with their hip, the dull pat careening the top half of his body back - snap. Whiplash lurches him back then forward as he strains to steady himself. The blood rushes, the blood gushes, the blood flows freely down through his thick eyebrows, caking each hair together into a noodle soup, in the crater of his eye, along his nose, to his lips where he licks away the shock. It is silent. Raju runs towards him as he places his hands on the counter to steady himself. The kids, between smirks, that’s how we do’s and grimaced nods, turn and leave the shop in a laden silence. They’ve made their point. They’ve left their change on the counter. They’ve taken their drinks. They’ve not waited for change. This is not how the papers expect these stand-offs to go. There should be more violence, more hitting, hoods up, more stuff taken, a possible looting. Uncle Rakesh’s fear turns to relief turns to righteousness. The can of fizzy drink has patted off his head, clipped the side of the counter and is now violently convulsing on the floor, between the toes of Uncle Rakesh’s sandaled feet.
‘THAT’S RIGHT! RUN! GANDOO KALA JUNGLIS [IDIOT BLACK JUNGLE BUNNIES]’ he shouts. Raju runs up to him, grabs his arm, kicks away the can of fizzing drink and shushes him. ‘WHY?’ he shouts in Raju’s face. ‘WHY SHOULD I SHUSH? THEY DO NOT RESPECT ME. THEY RUN AROUND STEALING, HURTING. LOOK AT MY FACE.’
‘Uncle,’ Raju says in a calm quiet voice, quiet so he has to concentrate to hear him, which will calm him down. ‘You called them black bastards. They were angry.’
‘Are you saying I deserve this?’ he demands, pointing to his forehead. Raju tears open a pack of 50p tissues and presses the wad gently against the cut, which is thin and spindly, rather than deep and damaging. ‘You will put 50p in the till later,’ Uncle Rakesh says blankly. ‘What is wrong with toilet paper? You are a waste. You like to waste.’
He takes the wad from Raju and stares at the door, which Raju crosses the shop to close. Uncle Rakesh calls out after him and says Raju can look after the shop and clean up the mess while he goes upstairs and gets himself a plaster. Raju shakes his head in frustration.
The afternoon passes quietly and without Uncle Rakesh. This is the longest he has had off from the shop for months. Raju is slumped on the counter, watching the world avoid the shop while he picks apart what just happened. Uncle Rakesh probably deserved that, he thinks, but then he feels like the can-throwing was not justified by the black bastards comment. Fair enough if he’d dropped the N-bomb. Raju is torn. Maybe gleeful. Maybe happy. Maybe the comeuppance he has been hoping all these years to be the one responsible for has arrived.
Raju closes up the shop as usual, sweeps half-heartedly to hip hop on the radio and feels his sides tingle, his fingers throb. He looks at the rows of cans that line the open refrigerator, seeing the boys stood there in shadow from earlier. He feels the compulsion to pick the cans up and throw them around, at the windows, at the counter, at the door at the bottles of wine, at the crisps, at the floor, at any given surface that is within his trajectory. His fingers lurch towards the cans, his eyes won’t move away from them, his mind is fizzing with bubbles, the bubbles of anxiety and need. Upstairs he knows Uncle Rakesh is waiting for him, waiting to project all his anger on to him.
He decides to teach Uncle Rakesh a lesson he won’t forget. This is the wake-up call he needs to integrate into his surroundings and new community. Raju takes the bins out the back and creeps through an alley to the side of the shop, where they keep boxes of uncollected old newspaper supplements, to the front of the shop. He stands outside the shop looking up at the flat above, knowing that Uncle Rakesh is stretched out on the sofa by the front window, probably watching the street. Raju is standing too close to the front of the shop to be seen. The street is empty, commuter-less, the traffic taken to the busy high street of pubs and restaurants two streets away. Raju takes his smart phone out of his pocket and plays a raucous Odd Future track; it’s music spilling with nausea and anxiety and vicarious violent wish fulfilment, played at that tinny volume that only phone speakers can muster. Raju picks up a fistful of gravel and pebbles from the detritus that separates his uncle’s newsagent from a row of houses and he throws the handful up towards the front window. They glean and clatter off the surface of the window and Raju can sense the curtains ruffling in confusion and panic and he presses himself against the door of the shop, knowing he can’t be seen. The music still does its muffled best to create a soundscape of nausea and aggression. The slight summer breeze carries the noise upwards. The window upstairs rustles with eyes. Raju knows they’re there.
Faintly, he hears a sound, ‘Raju?’ His uncle is calling for him. He creeps through the side alley again, breathing out against the stench of ablutions, snapping his phone off and slipping in the backdoor. He flushes the toilet, next to the back door, for effect, locks the backdoor under cover of a refilling tank and replies ‘YES’ positively. He smiles to himself, proud of his larks, proud of the fear he has probably caused in his uncle, the panic striking his heart.
Raju takes his shoes off and creeps up the stairs, deciding to burst in and surprise his uncle, he stifles a laugh, which induces a flashback of the trajectory of the can as it struck Uncle Rakesh on the head. He remembers his mouth, spitting bile and saliva, mincing and frying around the bulbous words ‘black’ and ‘bastards’. Raju holds the handle that leads into the flat above the shop, he pulls the door tight against the frame to forego the inevitable squeak, he gets some spring in his toes, and in a fluid movement, pushes the door handle down, the door open and his body propelled through it.
‘What?’ Raju shouts, as if he’s stormed up the stairs worried.
The brown monolith flings itself towards him, striking him in the chest and bashing him against the door, but he grabs the handle to stay upright and as the door swings on its hinges, he misses the top step of the stairs and stumbles back, down, deeper and down, bashing knees, elbows, the back of his head, all in an effort to protect his knees, elbows and the back of his head, and he manages to stop himself flying down the entire staircase, halfway down, his arms and legs useless, tangled and folded, his head a fug of knocks and rocks. He looks up at the top of the stairs. Uncle Rakesh has picked up his auntie’s rolling pin, girth-heavy, a heavy cylindrical fist off the floor and brandishes it, peering around the door for protection, checking it’s him.
‘Raju?’ he asks, scared.
‘Uncle,’ Raju croaks, dictating his need for help.
‘Raju, they were outside. They were coming back to finish the job. Did you hear them?’ he asks, whispering, conspiratorially. ‘I phoned the police. They laughed at me.’
‘Uncle, I’m hurt, I can’t stand up,’ Raju replies. His legs are throbbing with pins and needles, the bones bruised from bashes. His elbows are scuffed and he can feel the summer breeze wipe itself across the gashes on exposed pieces of his skin.
‘Stay there, Raju,’ Uncle Rakesh says. ‘Just stay there. It will be fine.’
Raju looks up at his uncle and sees him for what he is, a scared old man trapped in a home, in a prison of his own creation. Raju remembers his dad telling him about how Uncle Rakesh used to be in a blues band with a guy at college, a guy called Bevington who played the guitar and sang whilst Uncle Rakesh played the harmonica and clapped. He had been everyone’s friend whilst Raju’s dad had been the butt of everyone’s, Uncle Rakesh-included, jokes. But he is trapped and there is nowhere for him to go. He is either upstairs or he is downstairs. Raju inspects his left elbow, which absorbed most of the fall and feels around the circumference of the biggest cut. It hurts. He can feel it hurt and is glad something is telling him what to do, something is playing with his synapses. Raju pulls himself up, looks up at Uncle Rakesh, limps down the rest of the stairs, and stopping past a can of Lilt, which he picks up and presses to his forehead. Uncle Rakesh calls out after him, weaker, wimpier, more distant. Raju switches the lights off, opens the backdoor, heads down the side alley to the street where he turns his head left and right, presses on to both his feet to test out how bad his knees are. They’re bad but they’ll survive. Raju heads home.
Nikesh Shukla is the author of Meatspace, Coconut Unlimited, The Time Machine and co-author of Generation Vexed with Kieran Yates. He hosts The Subaltern podcast and has been artist in residence at South Bank Centre.