A Normal Man In A Not So Normal World

An Encounter Near London’s Southall With a Man’s Troubled Past and His Ambition to Make Movies

01 August 2010
Aryian Singh: ex-con, aspirant filmmaker.
Aryian Singh: ex-con, aspirant filmmaker.

ON A WARM JULY MORNING, I boarded the London Tube to Boston Manor station. The southbound Piccadilly Line, represented by a Navy Blue line on my map, would terminate at Heathrow airport. My stop came a few stations before the line ended.

The people I had come to meet were waiting outside in a car, and after introductions had been made, we drove to a store to buy meat and beer for lunch. The man who was driving was in his early 30s. He wore a stylish shirt and dark glasses. His name was Aryian Singh, but he later told me that this wasn’t what he had been named at birth. He had changed his name after he had come out of prison. When I questioned him about his job, he said he was working on a couple of film projects but didn’t provide details. I noticed that there were small scars on his face. I later learned that a couple of them were from injuries inflicted by his mother when he was a kid—once, his mother had smashed his face with a milk bottle.

The man whose face I was now watching in the rearview mirror interested me. His name change and the reason for it wasn’t what one has come to expect as a staple of Indian fiction about diasporic lives—Samiullah changing to Sam or a Madhu becoming Maddy, one pining for the neem tree outside his ancestral home and the other for her mother’s cardamom-scented fish curry. In those stories, particularly those written in the US, the only crime a human seems capable of is forgetting to write a letter home. Or if there are transgressions they seem to have blossomed out of a fantasy spun out in a garden called a creative writing MFA programme. But Aryian Singh’s story appeared to be different. Sitting in the backseat of the silver Mercedes E220, I imagined an entry into another life. Not one offered as homage to quiet domesticity but one lived in recognition of the reality of the street.

Singh lives in a modest, semi-detached house with his wife and a couple of boarders. There is also a dog in the house, a handsome German Shepherd named Simba. Singh’s father, a large, taciturn man named Gurdev, was in the house that day. He had come from India as a teenager several decades ago and worked first in a factory that printed labels for bottles. He had also worked in construction, and as a cook, making chicken tikka at a restaurant. He now began to prepare the chicken and fish that his son had bought at a Punjabi butchery on Uxbridge Road after picking me up at the station.

We were sitting around a tiny table in the kitchen, a few feet from the stove, drinking beer from tall glasses. Singh’s wife was away, visiting her family, but he wanted to show me their wedding album. I saw from the photographs that the wedding had cost money; and the commemorative album came boxed in black velvet. It was while looking at the album that I noticed that Singh’s mother was missing from the pictures.

Amitava Kumar is a professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York, USA. His latest book, A Time Outside This Time: A Novel, will be published by Aleph next year.

Keywords: london Amitava Kumar Southall Aryian Singh Anupam Kher Robert De Niro MFA programme Kiddaan