Written by Sriram Natarajan
Introducing the second of a four-part series entitled Bristol Encounters, written by Sriram Natarajan. For the editor’s preface, please read Bristol Encounters I.
A whole universe away from the river’s edge is Stapleton road, stitched into the fabric of Bristol like a shred in a patchwork quilt. It is my first time venturing this far out from the city centre and I notice a fascinating diversity emerging in the communities, even as the houses grow more tedious and rundown. ‘Been called one of the most dangerous roads in England’, Stan tells me later. Why though? How this easy association between immigrant communities and criminality? As I cross West Indian store, Polish market, Halal butcher and Chinese takeaway, conversations, gestures and a flurry of movement expressed in the exuberant forms of ‘minority’. That awkward word. This is immigrant town, and in every face I see a piece of myself, sense a union in the differences that is perhaps just camaraderie built on a shared bewilderment and struggle to situate in this new world. It doesn’t matter where you come from then; you are the deterritorialised peoples forging anew some sense of self-identity and somehow, as I think these thoughts, I am made more acutely aware of the brownness of my skin.
As I walk on, I know I’ve crossed invisible borders, flying back and forth between cultural memory and an emergent worlding – a juxtaposition of the past and present. In Stapleton road the tables are turned and the ‘white man’ is the uncomfortable outsider. This is ownership, a necessary appropriation of place and time… and why do I feel so different from my same self in some other place, such as hoary Clifton? Looking again around me, I’m suddenly aware of what people’s glances might mean. Is there in their eyes a question, or does the colour of my skin instantly dissipate suspicion in the barber, the grocer, or the wiry gentleman entangled in/of the wooden bench? Have I unwittingly morphed into a new self, shaped by floating significances that only unfold as I make my way through? My brown skin is my passport into this world, and I am at home though I have no idea where I’m going. Suddenly, sharply, in a way I could never imagine, I become ‘one of them’, whatever that might mean. Just meanings projected onto my appearance – I am Ethiopian or West Indian or Arab or Label or Migrant or Refugee or Terrorist or “He a good fella but he problem is he a junkie. Dem drugs take the best of us”. I am old Auntie Hilda’s good for nothing boy who said England would make him a man. And what a man, playing Rasta music as he races past the saree store – his next score, his next dream, his next crumbling self.
Linton Kwezi Johnson warned us all that ‘Inglan is a bitch’, and an angry Youtube commenter retorted, “Well if she sucha bitch, why so many people prepared to suckle her dry?” Fair question. What brought them all here – hell, what brought me here?
Despite my absolute newness I can pretend like I’ve always been an old Bristol Brown. I play parts, I am an actor. Pull up the hoodie – in Whiteland that would make me a threat, but here I’m just one of the boys. Here like a chameleon I can don new identities and speak in tongues. I understand perfectly conversations behind the counter at the Pakistani off-licence – I can play the Trini man to perfection and say things like “Watch out de Uncle, he causing such a bacchanal jompin’ arond so!” I’m leading real and fake lives all at once.
What is it in the undifferentiated facades with the same old store signs? Yetexotic colours burst out through the glass shopfronts, leapfrogging past the dull greys and mauves to challenge this enforced, suburban anonymity – a repetition to dull the senses and strip our memories. There is no reason why you should remember that street, is it not just one amongst countless others here in the UK, meant to fill in the gaps between the ‘real’ places? Rundown and overrun by ‘outsiders’ – who make it their own inside – so that after a point it becomes hard to separate the insider from the outsider. It exists as it does in that place, an inside and an outside, there without being there.
My coloniality is something I struggle to escape. The years of images fed to me in textbooks and stories have now acquired a life of their own, playing out visions of the independence struggle as if I’d always been there. I used to wonder as I passed through Harrington Road in Chennai, my city,who it had been named after. It doesn’tmatter now because nothing remains except the echo of old names ringing out across continents. Now I stand outside a building in Easton and see the board for Mubarak jewellers, a shop sign seemingly lifted straight out of an alleyway in Parry’s corner in Chennai (named after Thomas Parry, a Welsh merchant who built one of India’s largest confectionery companies). The force of these deterritorialised namings and migrating significations shakes me out of reverie.
Oh they have a thing or two to say
About the Somalis and the Indians
And those little people
Can’t quite tell where they’re from
Surging in with their cabs and kabobs
(Nothing better after a night out though)
Oh you’re a one, Auntyji!
Nothing ever but loving kindness
Extended to you
And you don’t even want power plants
Identity is an illusion – you say
You’re quick enough to hide behind it
Lash out as you please
Against the hands that feed
Here I am – fool
Lost in murky storied dreams
The London sun covers her face again
In shame at my insistence
On playing out the massacres
Where I’ve died a million times over
(It could be a film)
We had nothing to do with it!
My English friend cries
And once again, I’m thrown out of gear
Unbecoming this behaviour
What is history then?
But a woodflower path
Shouts and screams from the past
Trampled under the feet
Of countless kings and queens
It was all real – or was it?
I haunted those battlefields
From my textbooks
As my ancestors haunt me now
Right and wrong
Mere words I’m forced to abandon
And yet grace comes in unexpected ways
Gentle hands bring me back
Hands that ward away
This illusion of memory
This façade of identity
Now with just a latté
From Café Nero
“Here, take a sip of this.”