When you are a little kid, viewing the world through inexperienced eyes, there are certain things that don’t register; differences that go unnoticed. When you are running around with your friends in the playground at infant school, you don’t see white and black, rich and poor, northern and southern, native and foreign. You just see people like you.
It can’t be any different anywhere else, surely.
I will give you a couple of quick examples of what I mean. Growing up I had a friend called Pavlos Samithrakis. We first became mates in reception class, at the age of five. I used to go round his house all the time for dinner and to play, and I knew his two little brothers who were called Yannis and Markos, both of whom had the same olive skin and dark features as their brother. Pavlos’ dad was a tall, dark man with a thick moustache, who spoke with a strong accent. He worked on the ships. His name was Angelo. I imagine you have a hastily built up picture of this family in your mind. They are obviously Greeks. There were enough clues there. The names, the accent, the physical appearance. And yet it wasn’t until I was about ten or eleven that I knew Pavlos’ family to be any different to any other in the neighbourhood. Even the name Pavlos Samithrakis never seemed foreign to me. He was just my mate Pavlos.
Through the same years of my life I had another good friend called Tunde. He lived just around the corner from me, and most days our families would walk to school together; Tunde and I running ahead passing a football between ourselves, while our mums walked behind with our younger siblings. Tunde was black. Both of his parents were white. I never noticed this; or if I did, I never questioned it. Never asked my mum, ‘How did two white people have a black baby?’ It wasn’t that I felt it rude to ask, it was simply that it never seemed out of the ordinary to me. He called his parents mum and dad, and so as far as I was concerned they were his mum and dad. When we were around 12 Tunde went away. One day he was here, the next gone. But his mum and dad still lived round the corner. And on top of that, they had a couple of new sons, also black. The only thing that seemed odd was that these new sons were of school age. I had never seen them as babies or toddlers.
I asked how this couple had apparently given birth to two 5-year old non-identical twins and learnt that Tunde’s mum and dad were foster parents who took in young African children who needed a loving home. Tunde had gone to be reunited with members of his birth family. Years later, while I was in my teens, every now and then Tunde would appear in my local park and join our game of football as he came back to visit the family that had been his own throughout all those formative years, and that, I’m sure, is still his family today.
My point is that you see no superficial differences when you are a kid. If only it were the same for everybody of all ages.
Now that I have told you this, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there were other difference that I failed to clock growing-up. Differences even closer to home. Like how my mum’s maiden name, Rayiru, didn’t sound like it originated in the North London that she had grown up in, and wasn’t as common as the names of most of my mates in school. That actually it was about as common as Pavlos’ last name. Nor did it register that my grandad’s skin colour was darker than ours; that it was light brown. My sister and I just saw him as grandad, who used to visit a few times a year and make us laugh for a day. He spoke with a strong London accent and we never saw him as having anything foreign about him. He was called Kris – Krissie to his friends and family – and it was he who I was named after. I never wondered why we spelt our name with a K, or why Kris wasn’t short for anything, like Christopher, or Christian. It was just Kris. It never seemed strange, either, when my grandad talked about his brothers, Ramsay, Raja, Ranji, Rama Roy and, well, and Raymond. Okay, there’s not too much unusual or exotic about the name Raymond; not if you’re English, anyway. But the other names, come off it! To top it all off, I never had any questions about the turban-wearing Indian man in the black and white photo that hung on our living-room wall with all the other family snaps. I knew who he was, yea, he was my great grandad who had died a long time before I was born. But I never knew his name. And it definitely never clicked that if this Indian man was my great grandfather, then Indian blood also ran through my veins, albeit diluted.
Growing up, my dad’s side of the family was what I considered real family. We were always together – grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, the lot. My mum, however, is an only child, and her mum died young, so there was only my grandad on that side and we rarely saw him. Whenever I did hear anything about that side of the family, it was always to do with some drama – family feuding, etc. I guess because of this I never felt any desire to know about the Rayirus.
When I was in my early 20s my mum and her dad had a falling out and that was Grandad Kris out of our lives. Not that it affected me, I was an adult doing my own thing living abroad, and hadn’t seen him for a few years anyway.
By the time I turned 30, my dad, his mum, his dad and his sister had all died from various causes. My close paternal family had gone. Still, I’m not going to lie and say it affected me too greatly, I was an adult. I accept death as just one of those things.
It wasn’t long after my 30th when, for the first time in my life, I felt a strong, overpowering need to find out about that other side of what made me, genetically if not characteristically. The Rayirus. The Indian in me.
It started with a vivid dream. Actually, it started with a telly programme that then led on to the dream. The programme was Who Do You Think You Are, the genealogy documentary series, and the subject of this particular episode was Meera Syal, of Goodness Gracious Me fame. In it, Meera travelled to India to trace her roots, meet distant relatives, and to find out some of the events that led to her creation. The episode ended with Meera sitting on the family settee back in Birmingham, giving her parents a brick from the house where their family had once lived in the Punjab.
I sat and watched the programme and found it fairly interesting, but didn’t especially feel anything after it had finished. I didn’t even think about it.
That night I went to bed. I fell soundly asleep almost instantly, slept like a rock through the night and woke in the morning, feeling more refreshed than I could remember feeling in a long time, but with images carried over into my morning thoughts from the night’s dream; images so strong they felt like real, physical memories.
I was in India, in a coastal village with a deserted sandy beach and a beautiful turquoise sea. I was being introduced to people, left, right and centre. I was happy; so was everyone else. I had Delhi Belly and was constantly aware of exactly how far away I was from the nearest toilet, but this didn’t dampen my spirits. There were tables of food lining the main path through the village, dishes emanating the most delicious aromas, as people offered me samplings of biryani and fish curry. Despite the condition of my guts, I tried heaped spoons of everything. Delicious! I was enveloped inside a feeling of utter tranquillity. A feeling I had never felt before, anywhere on the planet. One of being at home. I didn’t want to leave. The dream ended on the beach, as I walked along the shoreline, feet in the water.
Two nights later the dream returned, only this time it was even more vivid.
After waking up, I was in no doubt as to what the dream meant. I was being called to India.
But which part of India was I being called to? I had no idea where in that huge country my great grandfather had come from.
*Almost four years have passed since that dream. I’ve done a bit of research over the years and I think I’ve found where my roots are. Now I’m about to travel to India for the first time in my life. I go next month in July. Before then I’ll be writing more of the story of what I’ve discovered and how, and posting it on here. Then I’ll be taking up the story when I’m in India, writing about what I find. If you’re interested in reading this, just sign up to the blog to receive an email notification when an update is posted.
Click here to read part 2.