The Messiah of Green Street
"He has written a remarkable novel that resonates with the picaresque wonders of Gunter Grass' The Tin Drum, the enchanting magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the seemingly effortless balance of humanity and humor that animate the pages of a Zadie Smith or Salman Rushdie."
—Stephen Windwalker, Kindle Nation Daily
The Messiah of Green Street tells the story of Sahil, born to Bangladeshi immigrants Karim and Anjana in the deprived melting pot of Upton Park, London. This strange-looking prodigal of a boy - who can allegedly speak Arabic and Hebrew from birth - is greeted as a miracle and 'a child of the world', but the superstitious adulation of his community slowly ebbs and sours as the realities of life as a disenfranchised and dispossessed second generation immigrant take over.
The story of Sahil and his family, of their friends, relatives and neighbours is mordantly satirical, deeply poignant and very funny. As Sahil grows into adulthood and becomes more and more disillusioned with his lot, his reluctant attempts to connect with his roots, buried under the weight of slavery, colonialism and racial hatred, take him in unexpected directions on the way to his own particular truth.
Book Excerpt from The Messiah of Green Street:
1. The Beginning
Sahil wakes up in a cloud of sulphur, emerging into the modern world like a second Christ. His parents are startled by him immediately. He has strange features; a mixture of all races. The nose of a Jew, the lips of a black man, the hair of an Asian, the build of a Caucasian and the eyes of a lost Indian tribesman. He is big, too big for a new born baby. He can talk as soon as he slips out of his mother's womb, in perfect Arabic and Hebrew.
Karim and Anjana, his bewildered parents, are ordinary people. Karim is a civil servant living in East London on a meagre government salary. Anjana has been shipped from Bangladesh during the wars of independence with Pakistan in the 1970s. She is a small woman with dollops of eyes that veer downwards in the presence of her husband. He cannot see past the veiled sadness of her gaze. They have produced an extraordinary child in East London.
Karim and Anjana's chests heave with delight at the sight of their son; the golden boy who looks like a child of the world. They gasp at his multi-racial features and are proud of his speech. Speech derived from the Indian subcontinent; that vast swathe of timeless concocted land.
Asians from all over the U.K. come to see him. Datsuns full of women in saris and kids clinging to the sides of cars (crushed vegetable samosas wrapped in Tesco bags). They have read and heard about him in the Asian newspapers, radio and television channels. They come from the Black Country, Midlands, Scotland, Cardiff, Yorkshire and London. 'It's Saheeel!' the old women squeal. 'Saheeel bhai, the brilliant child!' They gather round and stare at him in wonder. He is an illustrious child - someone who will light up the world.
Now the only lights are those of cars clogging up the roads, beeping, with drivers looking for parking space. The summer heat claws at everyone's faces. Exhaust fumes pummel through the city. The hottest it's been since 1952 and sweat drips from people on the tube. The tropical conditions give rise to tension.
'Come on, yaaar. Get a bloody move on!' a driver shouts, the back of his car crammed with children and a grandmother chit-chattering.
'Oi, sister chawd. Sala kuteh!' screams another, his moustache contorting.
'What you doing, brother? This is no entry zone!'
'I don't care no entry. You have no entry!' the other driver retorts, clenching his fists.
'Bloody hell. This is free country. You don't say me this!' replies the driver with the moustache, getting out of the car and precipitating a full blown argument.
And the women scream in the back with kids fighting each other and the older Bangladeshi men shout something incomprehensible. The drivers continue to argue until the distant woo woo of police sirens spreads panic and they leave.
People continue in the shadow of the sirens, criss-crossing motorways and side streets until they reach their final destination: Stewley Road. Each person is eager to glimpse Sahil so that they can tell their folks back home. They want to peer through the veils that cover their eyes, reach out and grasp something new into their hands. They thirst for an elixir to their lives, full of cooking, cleaning and looking after children.
It makes local news headlines. The Upton Park Times records Sahil's birth prominently. 'BIRTH OF THE MIRACLE CHILD.' Asian radio stations blare with the voices surrounding Sahil's house. The frequencies zip up and down the country and reach the crackling radio of an old man in Keighley Yorkshire and the headset of Anisa dancing with her children in a Liverpool living-room.
The frequencies bring the same news into everyone's houses. The news of the miracle boy who can speak. East London is never the subject of miracles or clever children. It is more likely to be the next place for the discovery of anthrax, tuberculosis or heroin consignments.
Newsroom south-east - beep beep - with Sunita Mistry, the television presenter unfolding on television screens. She is dressed in a burgundy blazer, dashes of colour across her cheeks.
'We bring you news of an astonishing discovery in one of the poorest areas of London. In Upton Park, a baby called Sahil has been born and already quite miraculously can speak!' reports Sunita, surrounded by old ladies, children and youth in baseball caps looking for television exposure.
'At the moment, the Karim family isn't answering any calls. Nobody's emerging from their house, but as you can see there's a lot of hysteria over this phenomenon!' she shouts above the noise, in her quasi-falsetto voice.
Crowds gather opposite the Karim household, a Victorian terraced house with old chimneys popping out of the roof. The shadow of the big mosque spreads out from the corner of the road.
Sunita's brown skirt hangs over her thin legs. She waves the microphone perched in her hand at the white-haired Haji sahib who gazes on gormlessly. 'What do you think, sir, of this unique baby?'
'Me think you media bloody biased, you know,' he says, with an apocryphal smile lighting his lips. Sunita's eyes widen and she smiles uncomfortably.
The microphone swings towards an old lady with a bindi and craggy skin. 'No, sorry, me no English no English,' she says, waving her fingers dismissively.
Then the microphone carries on its natural arcing movement to a Bengali woman in her thirties; she has a blank look, eyes to the floor in deference to the power of mass media. Meanwhile, an Asian boy with a baseball cap on the wrong way starts making faces at the camera; another pinches Sunita's perfectly formed bottom.
'Ouch!' yelps Sunita, staring at the perpetrator with eyes that say I-want-to-cut-your-balls-off-and-if-you-do-that-again-I-will. The boy moulds himself into the crowd like an urban chameleon. The television camera pans out of the mayhem. Sunita Mistry scrunches her face and looks for someone who can speak English. Her stomach rumbles, making the sound of popping bubbles; she is embroiled in the confusion around her.
A bearded old man saves her. He bursts towards her, eager to broadcast his opinion, his tweed jacket flapping behind him like a pigeon. He grabs the microphone. The camera man focuses on his wrinkled face and big nose.
'I would like to say this is a great sign. An important sign of what will happen soon in the world. This child must be looked after, he will be bhery bhery special!'
'Where have you come from, sir?' Sunita asks, putting on her serious face for newsworthy items.
'I have come all the way from Egypt to see this miracle!' the man says, clasping Sunita's hand. She feels his coarse flaking skin and grimaces. Before she can ask his name, he has disappeared. Again, the dizziness of the crowd envelopes her.
Filming has to stop for awhile. A convoy of three cars is coursing down Green Street, the fresh face of Mustafa Aslam shouting through a loudspeaker. A big white van leads the procession; everybody turns their heads to watch. Posters with anti-racist slogans are stuck on the cars, the bonnet and tail-lights. 'No more National Front! No more racist attacks!' says one, a smiling guy driving the car. A group of Asian men huddle in the background, handing out leaflets about a forthcoming demonstration. Various roll-up smoking apparatchiks sell political newspapers; action against a recent racial attack. A Pakistani teenager was beaten up by a group of thugs and left for dead in West Ham park. His parents were shocked and enlisted the support of Mustafa Aslam, a local community leader who looks like an Indian reincarnation of Che Guevara.
The din from the loudspeaker echoes down the street as people watch from their houses. 'We mustn't put up with this abuse. Stand up for our rights!' Meanwhile, a black man with tufts of cotton-hair is strumming on his guitar singing: 'Lord Jesus - hallelujah!' His discordant twangs are muffled with his religious mutterings. His bespectacled grandmother buffets his activities, screaming about the virtues of the bible. She holds the book in her hand, the look of fire in her eyes. 'You will all repent! Repent. Christ is our Lord!'
Near the zealous Christians, a paraplegic guy sits outside the local supermarket in silence. A cap lies in front of him with a few coins inside. Shoppers pass by with plastic bags full of shopping, a few of them surveying the camera focused on the Karim household, wondering what is going on while others catch the Christian music and the rest glance with pity at the limbless man.
Sunita hunches her shoulders in revulsion. Nothing in her Bristol university and convent school background prepared her for this. Gosh there are so many Asians here! she thinks, as she flicks back her flowing hair.
Sari shops, Indian jewellers and restaurants thrive on Green Street. Grocery shops with every conceivable type of Indian food brim on to the streets: bindi, mitai, paan, pickles and hot peppers. Dark-skinned Bengali grocers chew on their paan, having animated conversations with shoppers. Old men with toppees release dollops of red, fiery spittle from their supari-stained mouths. Young Asian men blast electro from their cars with their speaker sound-systems booming fuzzy electronic bass-lines. Girls dressed in salwar kameez pace up and down the street, shopping, eating, armed with children or purring for young men who are spiky-haired upstarts chatting street talk.
It is never quiet on this road, nor will it ever be; shops stay open even on Christmas; nobody celebrates it so why should they close? Sahil's birth has just made it busier; as if it is Eid-ul-fitr or Diwali. Diwali, when the sky pops with firecrackers and the streets smell of sulphur. Eid, when Pakistani and Bangladeshi flags adorn the roads like floating carpets. But now, in the intoxicating present, the streets are teeming with curious observers, who from a bird's eye view, are nothing more than colourful ants.
The observers continue to head towards Sahil's house with determination. But they are to be disappointed. There are no opening doors at his house. Instead, only motionless orange-coloured curtains. And they watch with consistently high levels of expectation, craning their necks, children clambering on the shoulders of adults ...in the hope of seeing Sahil. Irate crowds shout to attract the attention of the inhabitants of the house. 'Arre Karim sahib. Karim bhai!' It doesn't work and they curse the Miah family under their breath.
'Came all this bloody way from Bradford, to look at a house and no child! Haai Haai!' Anarkali the Leeds jeweller moans, as she leads her two children down the street to her car, sandals slipping off her feet.
'They bloody advertise on the radio, all this thing about nice boy who can speak! Travel for miles, then you see nothing,' Akbar from Northampton, says to his young daughter who has the face of a sulking monkey.
'I live next door, and I haven't seen them for dust,' says a wide-eyed Mrs Sullivan, clutching her broom in her house that smells of maritime memories. 'Whole thing's quite a mystery.'
'And what kind of family are they?' Sunita questions, trying her best to smile through gritted teeth.
'Very nice. Keep themselves to themselves,' she says, bemused eyes covered by thick NHS spectacles. Her brown collie is yelping in the background, irritated no doubt by Sunita's inquisitive nature. Sunita flinches at the Collie then smiles serenely at the camera.
From over-sized teeth to buck teeth. The crowd around Sahil's house disperses. One by one the people decide that they have waited long enough and they droop away like dejected flowers. Millie, the restaurateur from Cardiff, Anni and her kids from Surrey, Harbijhan, the orange-turbaned businessman from Dulwich via the Sindh. 'It's the concept of the miracle child, I find interesting; the one who can speak as soon as born; bloody weird that!' Harbijhan says, before peeping at his Rolex watch and skidding away in his BMW. He has carved out time from his busy business schedule to be here and is not impressed with the no-show. Many more cars splutter away, narrowly swerving around dangerously protruding bonnets with cassettes playing Hindi songs that float in leather interiors. And moustachioed men shout and the older Bangladeshi men scream something incomprehensible and the kids shout in the back. The Muslim devout among the crowds catch their prayers at the overflowing mosque, wrapped in white robes, smelling of rosewater, silently making their way to the green building. Rows of sandals and shoes lie in piles of leather and rubber. The adhan, the call to prayer, rings through the streets from a crackly loudspeaker. The fiery imam Mukhul Feroz Abbas cautions worshippers against believing in superstition; and men kneel in the direction of Mecca and pray in synchronised movements. Allahu Akbar!
The urban sun swoops down from its lofty position in the sky precipitating a cool breeze. The shutters rattle down the shop windows, the street's iron eyelids signalling sleep. There is a moment's pause. Quiet even. The aroma of bhuna gosht and dhal seeps from houses with the clink of plates signalling evening meals. And families sit round dinner-tables dipping rotis parathas and naan breads into steaming bowls of curry.
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