In the last few years of his life, my father, still married and living with my mother, bought his own food, cooked his own meals and always ate alone. It was just the two of them and they lived as housemates, though they never talked about living in such a way. In fact, they rarely talked agreeably. They shuffled around the small kitchen avoiding each other, tutting when something wasn’t where it should be. The tuts were their conversations. He had a small area in the kitchen cupboard allocated to his spices without rights to look anywhere else. He didn’t really care about food, but over the years, had shown keen interest as a way into her heart. There had been times when he taught her how to make an Indian dish. She was attentive and quiet but it didn’t last. She took the information and made it her own when relaying the recipe to others. But one day and only for one day, this all changed. After years of tolerating a stagnant relationship, he erupted and made a last attempt to impress with a culinary showpiece. But I’m rushing ahead.
My father was a man you could easily overlook. Feeling this, he spent his whole life wanting to be noticed, acknowledged, revered. He was a quiet and even-tempered man, who rarely lost his temper but when he did he always ended by making the same statement: ‘You will never come to my level’. By this, he meant his academic level. He was Indian and she was Irish. His upbringing, though lavish, was permeated with the demand for him to be someone, not simply a wealthy someone. The predictable professional roles were stated: doctor, lawyer or like his father, a senior civil servant. His culture and family influence determined he should be somebody and he chose to be an academic.
Mumtaz Hussain Khan, B.A, H.Dip. Ed (Hons), M.A., Ph.D (TCD), was a small, balding man in his mid thirties when he was sent by his parents to Catholic Ireland to attend Trinity College, Dublin. Being overlooked began as the second eldest in a family of 13 children. His Muslim family favoured the eldest and the eldest was also a boy; a handsome, tall and successful boy. This older brother was also sent to Europe and attended the London School of Economics. They were destined to do well. For my father outward success couldn’t endure with an inner voice saying, you’re no good.
He said there were two Indians in Dublin in the early 1940s. Him and one other. Being well-off, dark, exotic, unusual and single gave him a certain cachet. Free from the matriarchal gaze, he was his own man and was noticed for his outward difference. He dressed smartly; starched white cotton shirts, three piece worsted suits, trilby hat and highly polished black leather shoes. As the years went by, the hat gave way to a Karakul, favoured by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. This was later replaced, when he no longer cared, by a thin neck scarf tied around his head, like a cartoon drawing of someone with a toothache.
My mother, Lillian Hickey, attended his Ph.D graduation at Trinity College, Dublin through the friendship he had with one of her brothers.She too was small and refined and from a large Tipperary family. Both came from countries dominated by religion, both experienced British rule, and both grew up knowing their surname signalled their religious alignment and their tribe. Ireland was the first nation to gain independence from the British Empire and India, the second.
She was a single woman in her early thirties when they met, caring for an ailing mother for whom she had given up a career in nursing. She was stylish and also pre-occupied with appearance and status. A possible match made in heaven.
He offered the potential for a sophisticated life. A life befitting a woman of the Hickey clan and in the short ceremony of marriage, he left his Islamic faith, converted to Catholicisim and vowed his children would be brought up Catholic. The only concession she made was allowing us to have Christian and Muslim names. In half an hour, he left all his heritage and culture behind without any chance of finding it in Dublin, in the 1940s. His parents, displeased at his decision, never renounced him but never acknowledged my mother or us four children. Blue airmail letters would frequently arrive, which I smelt and touched running my finger over the ornate pattern of Urdu. As a young child I viewed them as secret code.
Around 1940 after leaving Trinity he taught briefly at the prominent Dublin ‘High School’ but with no immediate prospect of a permanent post, he hit on a business opportunity.
Perhaps it was to emulate his elder brother who was forging out a good living touring the UK with a large exhibition of Indian Arts and Crafts.
The business idea was a toy shop and bicycle park on St. Stephens Green in the heart of Dublin in 1941.
Although Ireland was neutral as the World War ravaged Europe, the country was severely hit by shortages of all sorts, most notably petrol for cars and trucks.
Pedal power became the necessary travel for thousands of Dubliners commuting daily to and from work. He offered these cyclists a safe place to leave their bikes whilst at work. The charge of sixpence a week was popular and the money and good times started rolling.
They signalled their financial success by dressing my two elder brothers in clothes from Arnotts, a leading Dublin department store, employing a maid to help with household tasks and the boys were enrolled at the prestigious religious primary school at Muckross Park. Life was good.
But then in 1947, India was torn apart by Partition and my father rushed to his family’s aid as they fled Delhi for Pakistan. The shop was sold to fund the trip.
He returned a year later to very little and the prospect of even less. A third boy had been born. He took to sales, travelling around rural Ireland in a time of recession. When this brought little reward, he set up in business with two family members running an ice cream van. It was seasonal and therefore unsuccessful financially for a family of 5. Bills were mounting up and the mortgage on the smart home could not be met. They decided to emigrate to England but to do it alone. My three brothers were moved to Temple Hill in Blackrock, Dublin, an orphanage run by the French Sisters of Charity. They stayed there for almost two years. During this time, my brothers had no contact with our parents nor had any information of their whereabouts.
In London my parents took casual work with Lyons Corner House and eked out a living.
In early 1951 their fortunes dramatically changed for the better. My father was offered a lectureship position with the British Council initiated by Patrick Gordon Walker the then U.K Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations.The theme was, ‘The Influence of British Education in India’. He travelled around Britain in a chauffeur driven car and stayed in the smartest of hotels.
My mother, pregnant with me, returned to Ireland and a few months later I was born. My brothers were taken from Temple Hill and we were once again a family.But the lecture programme ceased when the Conservatives regained power so my father also returned to Dublin.
They scraped by taking any work, sales, cleaning, anything to keep food on the table but Ireland was economically very poor post war and opportunities were limited. By 1954, our circumstances had seriously deteriorated and the decision was made to emigrate again but this time as a complete family.
Nothing changed for the better in London and he continued to work at anything he was offered. My mother, never one to be idle, went to work as a cleaning lady in smart homes. She became bitter and frequently accused him of being a failure which provoked him to boast about positions he had held and the level of his education. The theme of their rows became repetitious.
So that early inner voice of never being good enough was reinforced by her. The more she took over, the more he retreated. An unhappy marriage was endured despite his mother’s attempts to lure him back to Pakistan by offering to build him a school and finding another wife.
As the years rolled by he retreated to his room. She took over the house and the kitchen was her refuge. It was smaller than an average garden shed but it was her control tower, her laundry room, ironing room, sewing room, entertaining room and office to tally up the household accounts.
They used silence as a weapon and the silence once lasted a year. In the non talking times, he would try to hurt or needle her by screaming support for any team playing against Ireland in rugby or football when shown on TV. She would shout correct answers to a TV quiz and loudly say to the walls of the room, ‘ see, no need for a Ph.D.’.
In the talking times, my father would sometimes spend hours in London doing what, we didn’t know. Once home he unwrapped gifts; gifts for her and sweets for us. The gifts, a coat or a hand mirror, or a pair of shoes were not her style. ‘Garish, common, take them back’, she would say. He re-wrapped them, stowed them in a suitcase and said little. Other times he would return with small bags of spices. A little chilli powder, a few expensive cardamom seeds, some thin, fresh, green chillies. Hard to track down in 1960s London. He’d tell her how far he had travelled to find them, discuss the cost and how he would use them. The chillies went into his suit jacket pocket and reappeared on his dinner plate hidden under her swanky cooking; leg of lamb en croute or a prawn cocktail starter when flush with a bit of money. Despite being an accomplished cook, she rarely cooked the food he loved.
There weren’t many moments when the power swung back to him but when it did, it involved him taking over in the kitchen. Sometimes he made a mince curry and she made an onion, tomato and chilli relish. Once he made the Indian carrot dessert, Gajar Ka Halwa, which they discussed for days beforehand. He was determined to impress her and win back her respect. She’d never heard of the dishes so had no opinion, or more importantly, any knowledge as to their creation and couldn’t tell him he was wrong or that he’d failed. These were his stand alone moments.
These forays into the kitchen were like a dance of courtship then one day he’d reached a moment of not caring anymore about what she thought or said, he took back power. He returned from another day roaming London, entering the house hidden by a large bouquet of spinach swaddled in newspaper in one hand and a bag of chickpea flour in the other. ‘I’m making spinach pakoras’, he shouted. For once he had agency. The chickpea flour, yellow, gritty and unlike our ordinary white flour covered the work surface. The usual order of kitchen life had gone. He asked where things were as if a traveller in a foreign land and I watched, confused, worried, yet excited. He mixed the ingredients into a batter while a large pan of oil gave off blue smoke. He worked quickly and chaotically. No recipe book but an air of certainty surrounded him. Everything would work. Drops of perspiration stained his collar. My mother, his assistant and pupil, did whatever he asked. Then, a huge spinach leaf was dipped in batter, pulled out and plunged quickly into the hot oil, as he shouted, ‘Lilly, Lilly, get the plate’. A crispy spinach pakoras, bigger than my hand, laid waiting as another one was precariously placed on top. After a dozen pakoras, the cooker was turned off, he sat down, pulled a cotton handkerchief from his suit breast pocket, wiped his face, looked at us and was amazed at what he had done.
(c) Sheereen Khan