The JRB presents an excerpt from Home Scar, the forthcoming debut novel by SE Bhamjee.
Modjaji Books, 2024
He stands in the parking lot as if he belongs here. As though everyone isn’t staring at him like he’s a jinn wearing a tutu doing The Hustle. He’s coloured. Or Malay, which is just about the same thing. He’s got a few pages spread out on the boot of Mr Singh’s rusty Ford Escort and is leaning over them, holding them down so that the wind won’t steal them. He’s reading.
Everyone pretends to not be interested, but like me, they’re all wondering who he is. He’s wearing a pair of stovepipes, a striped shirt with the collar turned up, nogal, and a leather jacket that looks like skin after too much use. In this heat! Moron. His shoes are shiny, but they look tired. Hair slicked back and gleaming as if his father owns a Brylcreem factory. Even with all that gloop on it, he can’t hide the kink. Proper adman hair. Mummy would not approve. Luckily my own hair straightened as it grew. I want to suggest a hat. But instead I seek out Rabia and we go to my mummy’s car.
While we wait for her, we discuss our weekend plans. It’s finally Rabia’s big day. We’ve decided to party on our own since Aunty Joobie is not the party-throwing type. There’ll be a Saturday matinee at the bioscope and a trip to the roadhouse for toasted cheese sandwiches and milkshakes. It’s mos not halaal, so we can’t eat the meat stuff. I plan on surprising her by baking a small birthday cake. Mummy has agreed to chauffeur us around since we have no intention of walking to town ever again.
Mummy is taking her time coming from her classroom, making it very hard for us to keep hiding our (un)apparent interest in the newcomer. We feign deep conversation, all the while making a show of not watching Mr Singh go up to this man-boy (he can’t be older than twenty, but his mannerisms contradict that). They pore over the papers on the boot together for a bit. They trade words, and in spite of myself, I’m curious. What are they saying?
‘I wonder what’s going on there.’ Rabia’s whisper is theatrical and I give her the Will-You-Shhh Look.
‘Psst … The trick,’ I whisper through clenched teeth, so my lips can’t be read, ‘is to make as if you’re just scanning the parking lot. Looking for someone, see. Then looking their way just a little longer than you need to.’ Who knew I could be so cloak-and-dagger?
‘Ja. Ja. Smartarse. But aren’t you dying to know what’s going on there? You think Mr Singh is involved in … politics?’ She drops the word into the end of the sentence and leaves it there like a bomb. It tick, tick, ticks. We shift about. It might go off at any minute and send a shower of Secret Service police raining down on our heads.
‘Definitely. He’s probably a secret ANC member and they’re plotting to overthrow the government with papers.’ Deadpan. Sotto voce. Teasing Rabia is so much fun sometimes.
‘What?’ Rabia’s eyes bulge.
‘Oh. Okay.’ She exhales. ‘But you must admit, it all looks very suspicious.’
Just then Mr Singh catches me looking at them.
‘Hey, Asma, waiting for Madam Patel?’
‘Yes sir. Is there a staff meeting on?’ I’m trying not to look at him (the Brylcreem Baron), but I can feel his eyes on me and my face starts to burn.
‘Not that I know of.’ Mr Singh studies Rabia and me. He seems to be weighing things in his head. Calculations done, he calls out again.
‘Girls, come on over here. I want to show you something.’ He beckons with his hand.
‘Yikes!’ Rabia looks ready to run. ‘What if it’s banned literature, Asma?’ she hisses.
‘Nothing we can do. Just come.’
We close the distance between the two cars before I can properly process what’s happening. And even though I’m studying the tip of my dusty school shoe, willing the line of black shoe polish off my white sock, thinking I delayed my leg shave for far too long, I balk at the weight of his gaze on me. I peek at Rabia. She looks ready to throw up.
‘Girls, this is Ghaarith. Gabriels, right?’ He looks to the man-boy for confirmation. Ghaarith nods. ‘Ghaarith, this is Asma and this is Rabia. Both of them are among the brightest of our Standard Nines.’
‘Umm … Hello.’ Ghaarith? Is that a Muslim name, I wonder. Should I have made salaam? Aaack!
‘Assalamu alaikum,’ I hear Rabia quaver next to me. ‘Walaykum salaam.’ He doesn’t smile.
He is Muslim! And I said, ‘Hello’! I feel like I’m the jinn now and that I’ve just tripped while doing The Hustle. Where’s an earthquake when you need one?
‘Well, girls, can I trust you two?’
‘With what, sir?’ Rabia squeaks.
‘This.’ I blink. Mr Singh is speaking to us and this is the point where I have to come up with some kind of response that doesn’t convert my feeling like an idiot into being one in Ghaarith’s eyes. Why that matters to me, I don’t quite understand.
Mr Singh hands me a sheet of paper.
It is entitled ‘We Blacks’, by someone named Steve Biko.
‘Born shortly before 1948, I have lived all my conscious life in the framework of institutionalised separate development. My friendships, my love, my education, my thinking and every other facet of my life have been carved and shaped within the context of separate development. In stages during my life I have managed to outgrow some of the things the system taught me. Hopefully what I propose to do now is to take a look at those who participate in opposition to the system—not from a detached point of view but from the point of view of a black man, conscious of the urgent need for an understanding of what is involved in the new approach—“black consciousness”.[…]
Apartheid—both petty and grand—is obviously evil.’
Is it? I wonder, standing there, burning under the scrutiny of two suns, both of which feel too close.
Rabia and I meet later that afternoon. We talk of nothing but Steve Biko. We pore over the page Mr Singh gave us. I’m constantly distracted by a mental image of Ghaarith’s gold eyes. Even with that distraction, Rabia and I are forced to conclude that Steve Biko speaks the truth.
Today we need to walk home. Mummy has an appointment with the optician straight after school. It’s hot. The surface of the road, the tops of cars, everything dances in the heat. March is not supposed to be a slice of Jahannam. I feel a trickle of sweat between my breasts.
‘Urgh! I could just die!’ Rabia swipes at her slick upper lip.
I adjust my bag from one shoulder to the other and roll up my shirt sleeves.
‘I know! My mother chose a crappy day to leave us to the mercy of the summer from hell. Remind me again: why didn’t we buy ice pops?’
‘Cos I’m on a diet, mos. And you’ve sworn to be a loyal friend.’ Rabia sticks her tongue out at me.
We’re still two blocks from my house, which means three from Rabia’s, when a car pulls up alongside us. It’s a pale-blue Corona. It’s so shiny that I imagine the owner as having bulging biceps from polishing it all day. A head pops out. It’s Ghaarith in the passenger seat.
‘Salaam alaikum. Do you ladies want a lift?’
The driver snorts, then chokes on his laughter. I want to laugh too. Maybe it will untangle my insides.
Rabia and I exchange glances. I look down the road where the tar looks melted. Rabia follows my gaze. We reach the same conclusion simultaneously.
‘Phew! Ja, please. That would be great.’ Rabia speaks just as I’m about to.
The car pulls to a stop by the kerb a few feet ahead of us. Before we can open the door, he’s out of the car, opening the left-hand side door for us. We slide in.
The driver is a coloured guy with a gleaming gold earring in his left ear. His hair hangs in fat dreadlocks past his shoulder. I almost feel like asking, ‘Where’s the ganja, my china?’
‘Er … this is Samwell. Samwell, that’s Rabia. And Asma, was it?’ His brow, which seems sliced in half from a cut inflicted by childhood, flexes over one golden eye.
‘Mr Singh had loads of good things to say about them.’
‘Oh, Mr Singh can exaggerate sometimes,’ Rabia’s voice is high pitched and I’m not really sure that it actually came out of her mouth.
‘So, how come you ladies are walking? Don’t you normally go with Asma’s mother?’ Ghaarith has turned around to look at us and his gaze rakes over me as he says this.
I spontaneously combust.
‘Um … Asma’s mother had an appointment in town.’ Rabia sits up a little straighter.
‘Is Asma mute?’ Ghaarith again.
This time Samwell doesn’t even try to contain his laughter. I’m so naar. I wish his car had some kind of James Bond gadget that would just expel me from it. Whee! Up into the blue sky and gone forever. I suck in a deep breath.
‘Not mute. Just hot and bothered. Thank you for the lift, Samwell.’ Me, praying all the while that my voice doesn’t wobble. Samwell nods.
‘Don’t I get a “thank you”? I’m the one who convinced Samwell to stop. He just wanted to drive past. Said Indian chicks are too snobbish.’
Samwell snorts again.
‘Does Samwell have speech difficulties?’ I know that sounded flirty, but I couldn’t help myself.
‘No, hey. Not eintlik. But like Ghaarith said, Indian chicks aren’t high on my list of priorities.’ Samwell sniggers.
‘Oh, wait, you missed my turn.’
Samwell checks to see that there are no cars behind us. He backs up and turns into Gandhi street.
‘It’s here.’ I point to a random house three doors from the corner.
We get out and thank them for the ride. Wait on the pavement until they drive off, then head home.
‘Wow! How come they offered us a lift?’ Rabia’s eyes are round.
‘Dunno. Maybe they were just bored. You know how coloured guys can be: such Casanovas.’
‘Looks like Samwell doesn’t think much of that guy’s taste in “chicks”.’
Rabia’s taking this personally.
I shrug. ‘Who cares?’ And keep walking.
Sometimes we need to lie to ourselves. It’s the only way the world makes sense.
I’m waiting for my mother in the school parking lot. I’m sitting cross-legged under a tree, my copy of Wuthering Heights on my lap, caught between hating Heathcliff and feeling his anguish. Rabia was absent today. The flu.
‘So, how come you lied about where you live?’ Ghaarith lowers himself onto the ground beside me.
‘Cos I didn’t want to subject Samwell and you to “Indian chicks” any longer than was strictly necessary.’ My heart punches the inside of my chest and my mouth goes dry, but I don’t look up. I let the book rest on my lap, though, because my hands are trembling.
‘Don’t mind Samwell. He’s full of shit. But he’s a good guy. S’trues Bob. My beste bra since Standard Two.’
I look up. He’s smiling. I suspect he’s actually laughing at me too.
‘You have a very pretty blush, by the way. And I liked that book. The ending is a little crappy, though.’
And then he’s gone and I’m so naar with myself for not asking how he knows that I gave the wrong address. I study the flattened grass where he sat and realise that just the way he’s imprinted the grass, with his arse nogal, he’s imprinted his weird gold eyes in my memory. That, and those thick knotted lashes of his.
- SE Bhamjee is a full-time chef and restaurateur, owning and baking for Upcycled Café, Lazeeza’s Bakery and Origami Asian Food. She has had short stories shortlisted three times for the Writivism Award. Home Scar is her debut novel.
Meet Asma, the only child of the Patels. Growing up in the cloistered confines of an Indian Township in the sixties, hers is a near idyllic childhood.
At five, she’s setting out tea parties for fairies. At twelve, she’s the class superstar, her future all mapped out. ‘My daughter is going to be a doctor!’—Mr Patel. And then, the placid train to the (so bright) future gets derailed. At seventeen, she falls in love with Ghaarith. Leather-jacket-wearing, stove-pipe-toting boy from the wrong side of the Colour Divide.
When 1976 arrives and the country goes up in flames, Asma finds herself caught between the Fires of Resistance and the duties she is bound to as the daughter of an Indian household.