We are sitting in a chip shop, with a jacket potato in front of each of us. They are drowning in beans, covered by a thick layer of cheese.
It is my son’s Edinburgh tradition.
Go to the Tempting Tatty. Get the jacket potato with cheese and beans.
“How often do you eat this?” I ask.
Rakesh tries to answer but his mouth is full. I hold my hand up to say stop.
“I do not want to see the contents of your mouth,” I tell him.
I reach into my overnight bag. I am lucky that my train was delayed and I did not have time to leave my things at my hotel before Rakesh’s show.
I pull out my small glass container that used to contain cinnamon. Now it has chilli flakes.
I sprinkle some on my potato. Rakesh stops eating and looks up at me. He pauses, slightly disturbed by my action, and looks around. I put the container down between us. Then he slowly breaks out into a smile, picks it up and sprinkles it all over his potato.
“I’ve got chilli flakes in my overnight bag, swag,” he says.
“Pardon?” I reply.
“It’s a Beyoncé thing. is is amazing, Dad. I love this. I love that you travel with this. Ready to chilli everything. The chilli man.”
“Your mum used to call it Indian-style,” I tell him, laughing. “When we were out, and I added chilli to something, she’d say, chicken burger Indian-style. Or cucumber sandwiches Indian-style. Or jacket potato Indian-style. It always made me laugh.”
“Dad, you are hilarious,” he tells me. “This is really, really funny. Anyway, it’s good to see you. Thanks for coming up to my show. I can’t believe it. I think this is the first time any of my family except Neha has ever seen my act. And what a show to come and see. The one about you. I mean, it would have been less awkward for me if you’d seen the one I did last year, about how I became an internet meme, but there you go.”
“I listened to the show on your website,” I tell him. “I still do not understand what a meme is, but did you ever think to tell those people that you are not Muslim and therefore using your face as a way of describing angry Muslims is offensive to you?”
“No. Like I say in the show, whether I’m a Muslim or not isn’t the infuriating part. It’s that they thought I was an angry one. You have to show solidarity. Those people don’t give you the benefit of nuance. So you have to stand side by side.”
“I have stood side by side,” I tell him. “It is not a place I wish to be again. Have I told you about the story of how I met your mother?”
“Yes,” Rakesh says, looking down at his potato, shovelling a big piece into his mouth.
“Let me see. I have no reason to be anywhere. I find myself in an in-between world, with no purpose, except to lean with my back against the wall, across the road from Nisha’s amee and papa’s house...”
This show is different from the earlier one. This time the comedians, who are drunk, come up to do five minutes of material about the politics of the day. We are in a pub. The stage area has been dressed in a big black curtain. A man is talking about the Prime Minister and people are booing. There is chatter from the back of the pub. Rakesh is sitting next to me, shaking his right leg furiously. I put my hand on his knee to steady it. He must be nervous.
He takes out his phone and looks at something on the screen, then looks around him.
When his name is announced, he bounds on to the stage. I do not know how he has this much energy. I can feel the bottom of my stomach swimming with baked-bean juice and melted cheese. I feel heavy.
Rakesh’s energy, on stage, is that of someone who has just been electrocuted and has five minutes of intensity before falling over. He is shrill. He talks in a voice I have not heard before. Normally, his voice is like mine, slow and mumbly. On stage, he is shrill, loud, a fast-talker brimming with nerves. His voice goes quickly up and down from falsetto to loud and assertive, sometimes in the same word. He is someone I have not met before.
“Colonialism,” he says. “What’s up with that?”
People laugh. I smirk. Colonialism was silly.
“Thanks for the railways. I always have to say thanks for the railways, it seems. Forty per cent of the country said colonialism was a good thing. Forty per cent? I don’t understand it. That’s a lot of people who think that the systemic rape, pillage and resource-mining of countries across the world, enslaving whole generations, forcing them to be Christian – then when some countries fight back, giving them the illusion of democracy and dividing the people – is a good thing. A positive thing. Well done, the Brits. Wasn’t colonialism great? It was shit. I know it was shit. My dad knows it was shit. He grew up during the British Empire, did you know that? The British Empire. And he thought it was shit. And the forty per cent of you who thought colonialism was a good thing – if you’d been alive at the time, it wouldn’t have been like Downton Abbey for the majority of you fuckers. No, you feudal serfs would all be dead of scurvy and syphilis. How’s that for white privilege? Everyone wants to go back to the good old days, no matter how shit their place in society would have been, because at least they would have owned the coloureds. Am I right, ladies and gentlemen? Colonialism, what’s up with that?”
“Fuck off back to where you came from then...”
The audience gasps. I look around me, angry. How dare they interrupt my son? Go back to where he came from? My bloody son is from Harrow.
Rakesh freezes. He looks out into the crowd, a hand on his hip, and sighs. He doesn’t know what to say. The audience is waiting for his response. He has none. Whispers start.
I stand up, trembling with the same combination of anger and fear as I did all those years ago, when Nisha and I stormed the community hall doors.
“Who said that?” I shout to the crowd.
“Yup,” Rakesh says. “I brought my dad and he’s going to beat up the dad of whichever fucker said that, so goodnight and always punch a Nazi and see you in the car park. I’m bringing my dad.”
The entire audience bursts into laughter. They clap. Some stand up. People pat me on the shoulder. My face slips from anger into laughter.
Rakesh jumps off the stage.
“Let’s go,” he whispers.
“Why?” I say.
“Because I’ve just challenged someone to a fight and I want to go in case they actually accept.”
Excerpted with permission from The One Who Wrote Destiny, Nikesh Shukla, Penguin Random House India.