Unsuitable Girl









This is an extract from around 1949 in the story, in Uganda.  Pravin is about ten and has been invited into the plantation owner's house to have some ice cream, while his uncle finishes setting up the shop-in-a-truck outside ready for the tea pickers to come to spend their wages.


He sat on one of the ten wooden chairs arranged round the long mahogany table in the middle of the room. At one end sat a Singer sewing machine with some flowery material folded ready for sewing, on top of which lay an enormous pair of dressmakers’ scissors, long blades glinting in the beams of sunlight coming through the small windows. A paper of pins lay next to the scissors, shining in their sharpness.   At the other end of the table a spoon lay ready for him and a small bowl.  Mrs Macintosh lifted the large basin, piled high with rounded scoops of ice cream, out of the fridge, and set it down in front of him.  He could feel the cold air sliding off the mountain of whiteness down onto his knees under the table.

             ‘Now, how much can you manage?’ she asked with a smile, scooping out five balls into his dish, filling it and heaping it up like a smaller version of the mountain  in the large bowl.

              ‘Another one d’you think?’ she raised her eyebrows as she looked down at him, his big eyes agog, shining in anticipation.

             ‘Thank you,’ Pravin nodded, his voice husky, his mouth watering.  Picking up his spoon he dipped it into the cream.  It curled as he pulled it over the surface and he raised it to his mouth tasting the delicious cold sweetness, as it slipped over his tongue and melted over his throat.

             ‘Jamie and Rory are both away, far away in Scotland at  their school, so it’s nice to see another little boy sitting here eating my ice cream,’ she said, as she replaced the bowl in the fridge and shut the doors.  She sat down next to Pravin and just watched him, a small smile lighting her face.  He gazed across the table as he let the ice cream melt in his mouth, releasing its sugary honey sweetness as he swallowed, and it slithered down. In his peripheral vision he was very conscious of the nearness of Mrs Macintosh’s very fair skin.  Her arms were folded and resting on the table.  Her sleeveless dress revealed the slight dusting of freckles on her forearms.

 Pravin was mesmerised by the whiteness all around him, and sliding softly down his throat.  In the dim coolness of that kitchen, under the gaze of her blue eyes framed by bright blond hair, falling loosely to her jaw line, it seemed to him like a dream, so different, so pale, so white, so quiet was it.  No matter how slowly he ate, prolonging his visit to this tranquil domain, his bowl eventually became empty.  Mrs Macintosh observed,

              ‘Well, you enjoyed that didn’t you?’

            ‘Yes, thank you,’ Pravin replied, pushing back the heavy wooden chair and slipping off onto the floor. His bare feet padded after her as she walked back along the corridor to the heavy wooden front door.  The bolts drawn back, she swung it open and walked out with him into the hot sunshine.






Now a short extract from much further on in the story.  After much argument and failed attempts to engage his father to try to understand, Pravin, now twenty-four, has had to agree to go to India with  his parents, and his sisters.  The plan is to get him engaged to a 'suitable girl' there, so that he will give up the white girl, Amy, and only  then he will be allowed to  return to St Andrews to do his final year.


Pravin went to bed that night utterly defeated, his sense of whom he was, slipping away from him.  His former self, from before his time in the UK, began to glimmer in his consciousness.  He understood all the reasons why his parents were bent on this hard line.  They had to keep their way of life protected from the ‘corrupting influences’ of the west’s ways. On the one hand he wanted to help his sisters find good husbands, happy lives in India, and keep his parents happy.  But on the other he had the magnet of Amy and her flaxen hair, her white skin,  green eyes, her laugh, her mind, her sense of humour so like his, and the memories of their lovemaking, such long nights of complete abandon in that small flat.  The idea of her wound around and through his whole being like an unending golden thread.  He lay endlessly fretting over how he could break it to Amy.

How will she react? How could I bear it if she walks away from meCould I keep it a secret?  Hope that something’ll turn up, to change the situation? And she’d never find out?  Can’t risk that.  If she did somehow get to hear of this engagement, from some other route that would certainly destroy her trust for ever...’

With these thoughts incessantly churning round in his mind he fell asleep towards dawn, and dreamed of Amy calling his name,  out of his reach, while he was swimming towards her, across a wide  river, the current carrying him further and further away from her till her voice faded and he could no longer see her.  Then somehow he was seven years old again, and in India with Bapuji, (Raj) being taken by him to a  huge  river to do their morning ‘business’, his Bapuji  handing him a tin mug and saying,

             ‘There, go over there,’ pointing to a stand of grasses poking up out of the green water. Then he was walking away leaving small Pravin overwhelmed by the rank smells, the notion of using the river as a toilet, and fear of losing sight of his father squatting, intent on his own needs.   Small Pravin struggled to keep his balance; his feet scrabbling on the slippery stones as the water sluggishly flowed around him, its green sheen threatening, and deep, likely to be hiding all kinds of biting creatures.

His dream then segued into Bapuji carrying him on his shoulders over flooded streets in Lalpur, the brown, filth-strewn waters flowing past at speed.  The river had burst its banks.  And somehow, he was sliding from Bapuji’s shoulders and slithering down his back, the roughness of his soaked dhoti scraping Pravin’s legs as he slipped downwards,  into the murk swirling round  Bapuji’s waist... and Bapuji was  bending over to catch hold of him, but Pravin’s little  hands, slippery  with the ooze from the floodwater, slithered out of Bapuji’s hold... into the floodwater, his mouth filling with the vile liquid, which was dragging him away. Trying to call out, he choked as the fluid invaded his throat.   His heart pounding fast, he woke up choking and coughing, covered in sweat, to the realisation that this was the day they were all leaving for India.  He felt like a hostage, helpless against the tide of events engulfing him.





Now  they are in India, in Bombay and they are all meeting a suitable girl, in her very rich parents' house. She is suitable as she will be  a graduate, and her father is very rich indeed.  But one of her attributes will not suit Pravin's parents, in fact two of her attributes will make her unsuitable, even though she is from a hugely wealthy family...



His father looked at  Pravin sitting there, eyes looking anywhere but at the girl.

          ‘Would you like to go through to the other sitting room together to talk? asked Daya’s mother, with a hopeful smile, and wide open eyes filled with expectation.  Her fingers fiddled with her gold necklace.  Pravin sensed the trap closing on him, and remained frozen looking at the marble floor.

          ‘Yes Ba.  We might as well.  They have come a long way after all!  We may as well talk!’ her daughter answered.  She of course knew the effect of her dark complexion and wanted to try her best to hook this boy.

Pravin saw himself get up, and walking automaton-like after her, through to another opulent room, this time with  grey and white marble flooring , matching pale grey armchairs and sofas, though  no shiny plastic covers, he noted thankfully.  He didn’t fancy sitting in his own gathering sweat, sticking to the seat.  The walls were a soft blue giving the room a restful atmosphere. In one corner stood an intricately carved silver cabinet, housing a small stone statue of Mahavir. The remains of an agurbutti stick, having just burned down to a tiny worm of white ash, had flooded the room with its heavy  spicy aroma.  Voluptuous looking lotus flowers and a piece of fresh coconut lay before the statue, indicating that a puja had been made before their arrival, presumably asking Mahavir for blessings on this meeting for their daughter.   The small shrine intensified for Pravin, the strange dreamlike state which had fallen upon him.  The cloying aroma drifting around the room produced a bizarre effect on his mind.  As though it were not he who inhabited this scene; a doppelganger had emanated from him.   This twin fitted in here; he did not.  The aroma of the agurbutti alienated him, drowning his senses, made him feel foreign.  What had been familiar incense, long ago, now to him was outlandish, overblown and other. 

 Daya sat down on an armchair.  The folds of her deep blue sari flowing around her as she relaxed back in the chair, and smiled at him.

           ‘Look,’ she said, ‘I know I’m too dark for any mother to accept.  But how about you?  Would you mind having a ‘dark’ wife?’ she bit her lower lip, and folded her arms, waiting for his reply.  

          ‘I don’t see what skin colour has to do with anything really. It doesn’t bother me, though I know it does bother my parents,’ he answered her looking at her directly for the first time.

He had to admit a sneaking admiration for her boldness at asking that question.  And he realised, she was pretty, though he saw Amy’s face, and figure as he looked at her.  He thought of Amy as he gazed.  The contrast between Amy and Daya was striking on every level. He thought of the golden tumble of Amy’s curls, the whiteness of her skin, her tall athletic figure, dashing about playing hockey at college, those long thighs, her green eyes...he drifted off, as he sat there in that quiet blue room.  Daya sat arms still folded, wondering what was wrong with him.  She liked his answer, but now he had drifted off, his eyes looking, but not seeing, face devoid of expression.  He was not with her.  She took a sip of water from the glass she’d brought with her and placed it deliberately firmly on the little marble table by her side, making a sharp clack, glass on stone, breaking the silence.  She hoped it would break his reverie.

 Pravin blinked.  Restored to the reality before him, he found himself returning Daya’s wide stare.

         ‘Sorry! I apologise.  I was miles away,’ he said.  ‘If she knew just how many miles,’ he thought.




Now after the engagement ceremony in Daya's parents' house, Pravin is leaving to get back to St Andrews University for the start of his honours year, and unknown to his famly, back to Amy.

 ‘I hope you’re happy now,’ he said to his parents, ‘and you don’t have to worry about the girls now either,’ he said quietly. His Ba smiled, and his Bapuji answered,


                           ‘Yes Beta.  We’re pleased that you’re engaged now. Our worries are over’


Pravin bent to touch their feet and then his sisters clustered round him in a big universal hug.


                           ‘Goodbye for now,’ said Padma, looking at her brother, worried for him.


                           ‘Yes, next time you’re here, it’ll be for your wedding,’ said Shanti, her face lit up with anticipation.


                           ‘Yes, Bhai,’ said Vidya, ‘I know what you’ve done for us.  Thank you,’ Vidya said. Her usual teasing manner gone and tears brimming..


                           ‘It’s ok, Vidya. Don’t cry for me,’ he said in her ear as she gave him another hug.


                           ‘Yes, but what about ...’ she whispered.


                           ‘Sh! Don’t say a thing more, please,’ he whispered into her ear, and patted her back. ‘I’ll be fine, believe me,’ he added, as he pulled back from her, and squeezed her hands.


Vidya looked at him, her big eyes clouded, and nodded understanding, she thought, at her brother. The gleaming white Mercedes appeared at the front entrance and he took the steps two at a time to the waiting open door. He stepped in and the driver clunked shut the door. The cocoon of the car with its subtle new leather scent felt like an escape capsule for him.  He was on his way back to Amy.  His case already in the boot, all preparations having been completed early that morning, well before the families gathered for the ceremony.  Daya appeared with her flustered mother, at the top of the steps, her face more angry than regretful at her fiance’s departure.  It was a new experience for her to have her desires thwarted, but before her parents-in-law to be, she managed to temper her huge frustration into a display of tearful emotion, which fooled Indrani and Raj into thinking that  here they had a loving compliant girl.

Pravin, as the car moved away carefully avoiding the  cow in the street, turned to look out of the back window  and saw his sisters, on either side of his Ba and Bapuiji, waving to him.  He waved back conscious of his hypocrisy at feigning sadness.  Enormous relief of leaving that house, where he had been immersed in the love of all his family whilst housing the clear intension of deceit in his heart, drenched over him.  He closed his eyes and tried to blank it all out.  But into that void swam Amy’s face, innocent of all the mess, happily anticipating his arrival.  He had written her a short note to say he would be back a week later  than planned, as he’d had to visit India to see relatives with his sisters.  She had no inkling of the significance of a family taking a twenty-four year old son to India. 




Extract from Outsiders:


Pravin goes out one evening with friends from work, to a night club in Kampala. One of the girls, Najja, grabs him to dance to her favourite music. 


The club, dimly lit by many bare bulbs hanging from the wooden rafters, was held in a vast dark shack with a corrugated iron roof and walls. At one end of the cement floor, was a raised small stage. The band, looking very relaxed and jolly, had already begun the evening with waragi, (a spirit distilled from bananas). Dressed in traditional Bagandan long white embroidered kanzus, they sat with their huge instruments. At the other end, just about visible through a bluish miasma of cigarette smoke, was the bar, busy selling the local gin, as well as lagers and beers. 

The five of them found a table and ordered some drinks. The band started its next number and Najja jumped up and took Pravin's hand to pull him onto the diminutive dance floor.

         ‘I just have to dance to this music!’ she smiled, eyes wide, at Pravin.

She was alight with joy as she moved to the urgent beat of the drums and xylophones. The harps supplied a thrumming and ever changing back drop to the effervescent effect of the bubbly drum rhythms. The effect of the music on Najja was startling to see. Her whole body vibrated, her hips, wrapped in a red patterned kanga, looking independent of the rest of her body as they shook, and her shoulders shimmied, seductive and inviting.  Pravin took a step back. This was a frank invitation to him, no question.  He enjoyed watching her, because she was beautiful, vivacious and very attractive but this was a move he would not take. Her smooth skin shone under the lights and her huge eyes locked onto his with a clear message. As the music stopped, she seemed to emerge from the trance of the dance, giggled up at him and Pravin said, 

         'Let's get our drinks now.'

            'Let's not, Pravin! I can take you to a quiet spot, and we can have fun together,' she whispered. 'I'm just in the mood now!' she giggled up at him, her arm round his waist as he walked back to the table.






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