By Gurpreet Kaur
My soul is from the sea, my body from my mother, and her body from my grandmother, carrying us back to our ancestral shores in northern India which was parted like the red sea by the country I now call home.
I was always the one to stick out, the sore thumb, the fly in the ointment, that wiry white hair or pimple on your chin. Although everyone knew me, nobody saw me. The continuous roaming of our family from one rural landscape to another flooded us with airfields and flat vistas, rumbling engines and green pastures. I fell in love with the sky, the plough became my best friend. I would stand in awe, feeling the expanse of the universe above and inside me. Wondering at the enormity of the planet I was revolving on, in a sky filled with more celestial beings than I could count and maybe even, more like me.
The cows we’d pass on the way to school, with their doe eyes and mothering looks, would nod hello, whilst happily chewing their cud. The wise old trees swayed and creaked above me, providing shade, reading nooks and hope for how life might be once I’d grown as big as them. I chased dragonflies, ran away from wasps, inspected woodlice and ants whilst befriending dandelions, ladybirds, buttercups, tadpoles and torturing daddy longlegs.
Human friends were harder to come by; there were those who kept their distance, those who were nasty: “God burnt you in the oven.” I knew God was more skilled at cooking than these kids were giving him credit for, so I concluded it was the devil that had crisped me up good like a pig on a spit. Others would say, “you’re made of shit”, which I’d laugh off. I was the pinnacle of cleanliness, my brown never washed away, in spite of the amount I was scrubbed. There was no way my mum would let a shitty girl into her home let alone her uterus. Still, I felt shitty.
Then there were the even crueller ones, those who smiled or laughed and would ask you out to play, lighting a little fire of hope inside you, but then would stand you up, mock you, ignore you, whisper things behind your back and leave you out in the cold. Luckily, my skin is moulded from the earth so it can be as hard as rock when I need it to be, before it returns to squishy, warm mud.
Long summer days brought the attention of female humans in our street. Scantily clad with their bodies on show so I didn’t know where to look, they would pull me towards them, alcohol on their breath, turning me round to poke at my brown skin, whilst oohing and ahhing at my long black eyelashes as though I was a pet on show.
Later our tribe settled by the sea in Scotland, and the humans here had incomprehensible accents, so I was different in new ways. Because I’d been training for this otherness my whole life, I felt strangely more at home – I wasn’t just a darkie now, I was also the dreaded English. Something I’d tried so hard to be, suddenly handed to me on a plate. But then adolescence came, bringing new peers into my life. Cultural expectation, family duty, unsuitable desires, ideas above my station, waves of guilt, and shame thrashed against me, jeering, jostling and holding me back (again) from fitting in. It became harder to breathe.
But the sea, the sea became everything to me: my mother, my father, our lineage, the future and eventually the salvation of those to come after me. The crashing waves breaking told me that everything would be OK, that I just had to hang on for freedom to come. The wind whipped my hair about me and made my skin burn, relieving the numbness and reminding me to stay alive. Sea spray mingled with my tears, wiping away my sorrows, consoling me that I was not alone in my grief. We sat together the sea and I, and she comforted me in ways I didn’t understand back then. She transformed my withered soul, giving me strength and now she ebbs and flows within me. How we rejoice when we are reunited! Like old friends who have so much to say, but we do it without words, just a knowing look, a smile, a tear and whenever we can, a dance, where she holds me up, rejoicing and shows me the sky and I feel at one with myself, feel I belong.
© Gurpreet Kaur 2020
I was born in Germany but then moved around the UK from 6 months old as my father was in the Royal Air Force. We lived in Chippenham, Lincolnshire, Hullavington and Carterton, before eventually settling in a fishing village – Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife, Scotland. I then moved to Manchester to attend University, then London to settle down and start my career and eventually settled in a rural region again, Wivenhoe in Essex.