Please note: This is Ep.4

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4. Mistake Baby! 

1979 – 1980

I was born in London, England, to a non-religious-Jain father with an excellent work ethic and a business mind, and an extremely gentle and kind, Hindu-Brahmin mother. The generations before me had crossed continents to find a better quality of life and to give their children a brighter future.

Somewhere along this generational journey from India to Kenya to England, the ancient wisdom and stories usually handed down by ‘grandmothers-by-candlelight’ (as I love to imagine it) were deposited in the ground and covered by the dust of material life, societal duty and the chasing of worldly dreams.

My parents had met and fallen in love in their hometown of Mombasa, Kenya. My mother’s family opposed the union because of the caste system, so the pair eloped, marrying in the small town of Kisumu, wearing a t-shirt and jeans (my father), and a t-shirt and dungarees (my mother), with the registry office janitor as their witness.

Just over a year later, in 1979, my mother was nineteen years old and carrying my brother in her swollen belly across the skies to their new home and new life. Almost every shilling they had was used for plane fare, leaving the couple to start again from scratch upon their arrival. My brother, Mishal, was born in England soon after they arrived and my parents received a state allowance and government housing while my father looked for work.

To this day, my mother winces when she describes the living conditions of their first home as a new family. The three of them shared a tiny, two-room flat in West Hendon, London, with another couple who had a toddler and a Great Dane. If you don’t know what that is, think of a horse with a dog’s face on it – there you go. The bathroom and kitchen were shared with the giant dog and the other family whose personal hygiene left much to be desired. The toddler would toddle around diaper-less and the smell of urine, and the other family in general, filled the hallway.

The bare floorboards of the room my parents lived in were in such a state of disrepair that if you stepped on one end of a board, the other end went up and left a greasy, sticky residue on your foot. The filth, dirt and dust attacked little baby Mishal’s immune system and at just a few weeks old, his face and body were covered in a rash, with red, swollen welts all over. My teen-aged mother, in a new country without her mother or sisters around, cried while collecting his medicine at the pharmacy and tried to hide her newborn baby’s face with his blanket.

They worked hard to clean up their flat, which happened to be above a fish and chip shop. A portion of chips cost just 15p, so they were unsurprisingly a recurring meal on the menu. For leisure and to stretch their legs, they’d take a walk with baby Mishal in a pram, that was donated to them by a caring neighbour up the road, to Brent Cross Shopping Centre – an upscale shopping mall full of famous brands – but they never went inside.

My father had still not yet found a job, and neither he nor my mother had any plan at all to bring another child into their lives. But you can’t stop me from anything once I’ve made my mind up — this was the family I’d chosen, this was the home I was headed to. And so, when my brother was barely three months old, my mother felt all the signs that another child was on the way.

I heard this story all the time growing up, that they’d had no plan to have another child. The term they used was ‘mistake baby’. We laugh about it now. I tell them that they could have used phrases like ‘accidental’ or ‘unplanned’ pregnancy, or at least said something like, “Ooh, what a lovely little surprise you were, darling.” But no, I was slapped with the label ‘mistake baby’ from the moment they realised I was on the way. (I know they don’t mean it like that, English was actually their third language after Gujarati and Swahili, so I let them off… eventually 😄) 

They were also convinced they were having another boy. It was the doctor’s guess and he had told my mother so. My mother also said I was so active that I’d be moving around and kicking her constantly like a footballer. I don’t know how they deduced ‘boy baby’ from that, but at least I managed to surprise everybody and came out as the ‘mistake girl baby!’ I guess they thought I was alright, as they named me Hiral, meaning the lustre of a diamond.

Once my mother confirmed the pregnancy, the local council moved them to an estate across the road into a brand new home all to themselves, with two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom and a balcony, in a block of flats overlooking the Welsh Harp – a beautiful reservoir lake with sailing boats and ducks, and plenty of open land including a park with an activity area and jungle gym for children. The clean space and air completely cleared up my brother’s rash and my father landed a good office job within walking distance of the flat.

I spent the first four years of my life in greenery, by that lake and playing in the park. I needed Mother Nature even then, and She’d graciously made it happen.

Oh, and my parents finally went inside Brent Cross Shopping Centre 😊

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