When my sister tells me that her boss referred to her team as his favourite terror cell and her as Bin Laden in an email he had accidentally forwarded to her, we’re standing in a supermarket, scanning the shelves for a particular cheap bottle of white wine she has read about on a sommelier blog.
Apparently, it’s this season’s best supermarket wine.
I keep picking up bottles either I am familiar with (because they’re under £6) or ones with an interesting design aesthetic on the label. Rupa shakes her head at each one, fixing her tuts with a reminder that, while sitcoms and the street foods of the world are my domain, we are in her corner of the supermarket.
Eventually, she finds the particular Sauvignon Blanc she is after and picks up three bottles.
We buy them and stand in the doorway of the shop, watching the sky bleed rain, cursing each other for forgetting an umbrella, for timing the booze run so badly.
The security guard makes us take two steps back into the shop so that the automatic doors close. I take the Zadie Smith-branded tote bag from my sister and look at her.
I find it hard to forget I’m her older brother. It defines every atom of our relationship. I can’t view her from anywhere other than the paternalistic pedestal I’m on. She looks like she was 19, still. She’s wearing a hoodie and tracksuit bottoms we found in boxes we’d unpacked that afternoon, her comfort clothes from university, and she immediately changed. Within seconds, she had gone from Rupa Bhatia, the head of key accounts at a marketing firm to my baby sister, the one whose vomit I had cleaned her first week at university, having picked her up from the union in the middle of the night, and brought her back to Mum and Dad’s house because neither of us knew her dorm number. Back then, it was Mum and Dad’s house. Home.
Now it’s just Dad’s bungalow.
‘Do you think people can be racist?’ she asks me. I turn to her. The bottles clink in the bag and I automatically readjust the strap on my shoulder. ‘How do you mean?’ I ask. She tells me about her boss, a man called Martin, and how he moved her team to near the toilets from their desks by the windows overlooking the river. The desks they’d left were still unoccupied, but he had told Rupa in a meeting, that there had been complaints about the food smells that accompanied their joint packed lunches.
‘That sort of smell, well, it’s appropriate on a Friday night, after the pub’s kicked out and you’re in a curry house, but it’s not appropriate in a communal office,’ he told her.
My sister was confused.
Her team tended to share hummus and crudities, maybe steamed turkey. They were training as a team to do a 10k run for cancer, raising money for the hospice that had looked after Mum, and so were all on training diets.
Later he referred to the team as a terror cell in his email.
Once he sent the email, Rupa tells me, instead of apologising for it, or trying to explain it, he started calling them it to their faces.
‘How’s my favourite terror cell doing this morning?’ he asked, jauntily as he passed their cubicle.
Rupa looked up, unsure she had heard him correctly.
‘And their fearless leader, Bin Laden,’ he added, before moving on to the next pod over in an adjacent cubicle.
‘Rupa,’ I told her. ‘That’s horrendous.’
‘I just never really ever believed you,’ she told me. ‘You and that chip on your shoulder.’
‘I know that people used to be racist,’ she tells me. ‘I just didn’t think they still were. It feels so old-fashioned.’
I stare at myself in the mirror.
I’m lying on my side in bed. Dad has kitted this spare room out in flatpack furniture. It feels like rented accommodation. The spotted sheets cover everything but my hot feet. The mirror is part of an empty wardrobe. I think Dad assumes I’ll fill it with my things but I intend to only visit for the occasional night every month or so.
Rupa’s words haunt me.
She once told me that I carried race too close to my chest, like it was my diary. I replied that she was a self-hating Asian. She refused to see the institutional power structures that keep us in place. She told me I was a self-hating Asian because I refused to engage in my culture. Back then, you were either a freshie or a coconut. There was nothing in-between.
I note the day – it’s Saturday, it’s June, it’s the year my sister has discovered racism. I can hear the television on in the next room so force myself out of bed.
Standing up, my head throbs. White wine headache. Watered down with soda water, much to my sister’s annoyance. She winced every time I spritzed up my wine. I took each first sip with a raised eyebrow, looking at her the whole time.
We avoided all conversation about her boss. She asked me not to tell dad. Dad would only make it seem like it was her fault. He’s a curious immigrant.
On the one hand, he gave us both the twice-as-good speech, ensuring we knew that anything we turned our hands to, anything we chose to pursue in life, we had to be twice as good as the average white man to have half the opportunities. The country is run by them, he told us both, separately. You have to be better than the average white man. Years later, I realised, most children of immigrants had a version of this speech. This was our burden – to pass on the truth to the next generation until it was no longer needed.
On the other hand, he told me when I relayed an incident where someone called me curry-breath at school, that racism can be quelled through knowledge.
‘Son,’ he told me. ‘Knowledge is power. You can defeat anyone with knowledge. If you have knowledge, you have power. When I worked for Hoover, I knew where all their money was, I knew how to manage their finances, you think anyone said anything racist to me?’
‘Dad,’ I said. ‘That doesn’t make any sense. That doesn’t mean they’re not thinking those things.’
‘Why do you care about what is in their head? We think stupid things all of the time. We keep them inside our heads. I do not think this is something to worry about. Knowledge is power.’
‘Dad, this is a simplistic way to look at things,’ I told him.
‘Son, you have a chip on your shoulder. That is what I tell your sister. That you have a chip on your shoulder. And that she must not be like you. Angry. She needs knowledge. She needs to be happy.
I walk out of the room Dad keeps referring to as mine. I tell him it’s his spare room. This makes him upset.
Dad and I eat breakfast with the news on in the background (my request, Dad was watching a cartoon channel when I got up). Rupa is still asleep. I sip painfully at my mug of instant coffee, longing for something that doesn’t taste like mud. I watch him pick at his Weetabix, occasionally taking a chilli from the glass bowl next to it, and twirling it around by its tail, watching it dangle.
‘You okay, Dad?’ I ask.
‘I am worried about your sister,’ he says.
Dad talks in big declarations. He tends to sound like he is the first one to have ever had such visceral thoughts as the ones he has.
‘She is your sister,’ he says, firmly. I look at him and smile. ‘Yes, Dad,’ I say. ‘You are right. She is.’ I get up from the breakfast counter and walk towards the door of the room she’s temporarily living in, while a new kitchen is installed at her house. And a new bathroom. And a new entertainment system. She’s fancy, my sister. I went to private school and ended up – with all the access to opportunity – wanting to be an artist. She went to a comprehensive school and, seeing me be given all the opportunity in the world and squander it for the love of words, became a successful award-winning marketing professional.
I knock on the door. ‘What?’ I hear her call out, groggily. I ask if she wants a cuppa. ‘What?’ she calls out again. ‘Just open the door.’ I open the door and repeat my question. She turns over in the bed and faces the door. Her hands are over her face. I can’t remember who said this, but an old friend told me that all the therapy and well adjustedness in the world is undone the moment you walk back into your teenage home. We’re living in the fading glimmer of the existence of ours, and in that moment, seeing a familiar sight – my oversleeping sister groggily refuse to get up until a cup of tea, with two sugars, ends up on her bedside table, I feel overcome with nostalgia for something we can never re-create. I feel like my teenage overprotective brother self again, and in that moment, I do what I would do as an act of kindness and affection to poor Rupa.
‘Bundle,’ I cry out, before running at the bed and jumping on to her body, careful to ensure my full weight doesn’t wind her.
Noting my approach, and being older and wiser to my moves, Rupa rolls on to her back and thrusts her knees in the air, so when I land, they press into my stomach.
I fall off her and slide off the bed. She laughs. I make a show of pulling at the covers and scrabbling on to the bed, where I lie next to her. I look up at her. Rupa looks at the door.
‘Is he up?’ she whispers. I nod. ‘Stop fighting,’ Dad says, as if on cue, from the breakfast counter. ‘Now,’ I say. ‘Would you like a cup of tea? Two sugars?’ ‘God no,’ Rupa says. ‘I drink coffee now. There’s a cafetière in the cupboard.’ ‘My dude,’ I say, springing off the bed, in search of delicious acrid caffeine. At the door, I turn back to face her. ‘Rups, are you okay?’ I ask. She nods, rubbing her eyes and yawning loudly. ‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘Listen, forget what I told you yesterday.
It’s nothing, really.’ ‘I’m here if it becomes something.’
We meet for lunch. A rare occasion. We met once when she was at university and wanted me to approve of her then-boyfriend. I happen to be near where she works and text her, almost for the brownie points of an invite, to see if she spontaneously wants to meet for some food. I don’t expect her to reply but she does, excitedly.
I suggest a dosa house. She replies, ur obsessed wit dat place. I sip at a mango lassi as I wait for her and scroll through her Facebook posts. It’s the best way for us to stay in contact these days. Our appositely chaotic lives don’t intersect very often.
When I hit ‘one year ago’, I notice a curious exchange between her and one of our other cousins.
Buried deep in a discussion of a photo of both of them looking amazing at a wedding is a conversation about white wine.
Rupa: hey, so I’m rlly getting into wine at the moment. I need yr advice. Dolly: white wine? Wht abt archers n lemonade innit? Rupa: I’m a sophisticated business woman now cuz. Plus my boss is alwys takin us out for dinner and he is rlly into his white wine. I need a crash course just to keep up.
I sit back in my chair and start to process the exchange. ‘Hey idiot face,’ I hear and look up.
It’s Rupa, smiling. She looks different in her work clothes. She doesn’t look like her. She looks uncomfortable. Grey. ‘What are you doing round here, then?’ she asks. ‘I had a meeting and I thought I’d see what you were up to,’ I reply, turning my phone over so it’s face down on the table. ‘Plus, you know how much I love the lassis here.’
‘True, you fat shit. What was the meeting about?’
‘Oh, just some script they want me to write, literally because I’m Asian.’
‘It’s good to be wanted for something,’ she replies, ordering a chai.
I hold up two fingers as if to say, one for me and the waiter nods at us both.
‘It is good. But at the same time, I’m happy to be Asian. I just don’t need to channel it to write a script. It’s just innate in me. Anyway, you not that busy today?’
‘What do you mean by that?’ Rupa asks, curtly, looking around the room.
‘It’s just, you’re not very good at being spontaneous innit. I’m surprised you could make it out.’
‘My older brother asks me for lunch? Of course I’m gonna come. It’s the rare occasion you pay for anything. Because of your duty.’
‘To my very well-paid sister. I’m the starving artist remember?’
‘I do,’ Rupa says.
She looks down at her hands. I notice her shoulders shake so I reach out to touch her on the arm, tell her it’s okay. She’s too far away and we don’t have that kind of relationship. My hands suddenly feel big and heavy. I don’t want to keep looking at her because that’s the worst when you’re crying, the pity look from people around you, who are helpless but can’t help try and communicate their empathy through pursed eyebrows and sad eyes.
‘What’s your favourite fish?’ I ask. Rupa looks up. ‘What?’ she says, wiping her cheeks.
‘Your favourite fish. Cos, you see, I quite like meaty tasting fish, like tuna, or red snapper. I don’t really like the delicate ones like sea bass. Remember when we thought I was allergic to prawns but it turned out I just had two bad runs of prawns in a row? Do you remember? You went out first thing and got me that Lucozade to drink, and the Spider-Man comic I requested. Gotta replace those electrolytes. Gotta—’
‘Stop,’ she says. ‘Just stop. I’m okay. Leave it, please?’
I can’t. Something in me, either fraternal or patriarchal or just aggressive male thinking he can solve all of women’s problems everywhere can’t switch off the tap of enquiry. I feel this compulsion, rising up in me that wants my sister to tell me everything, so I can become angry for her.
‘The white wine thing,’ I say. ‘That’s from your boss isn’t it?’ She nods. Her chai arrives. She stirs sugar into it for a long time. I look at the buffet offerings on the other side of the restaurant and then back to my sister.
‘Do you want me to change the subject?’ I ask.
She looks up from her chai and at me. She goes to speak but stops, as if she’s considering her words, trying to temper them to my reaction, maybe she doesn’t need me to get angry on her behalf.
‘Look, I never felt easy with him, okay? Ever. From the moment he got the job, he changed. He used to be an account manager like me. Then he headed up all the accounts managers, and he changed. None of us knew where we were with him. And he was the funniest with me, okay? Also, arranging meetings then cancelling them at the last minute, setting me impossible deadlines, demanding I work late on days when I had plans, taking credit for my work. All of it, just all the worst things you imagine from one of those managers where they don’t do anything explicit to show you something tangible that they’re bad. Just a sea of passive-aggressive things. And I wanted a good work–life balance. Every Friday we all went for lunch, and he always ordered white wine, very specific, all these questions he had. And I thought, if I had that thing with him, that bond, then maybe he wouldn’t treat me so horribly. Maybe. So I took some lessons, joined a club, read blogs, drank a lot of white wine, just to be on a level with him.’
‘Do you think he had a thing for you?’
‘No. Whether or not he wants to fuck me, it’s got nothing to do with whether he’s attracted to me.’
I realise I’m talking over my sister, so I smile and look at my chai and wait for her to talk.
‘I’m sorry,’ I whisper. ‘It’s fine, look,’ Rupa says. ‘How’s the script stuff?’ ‘It’s fine,’ I tell her. ‘We had a forty-five-minute-long debate earlier over whether a character would eat breakfast or think it was a pointless meal earlier so I . . . live a stupid, woefully stupid existence. Sometimes I feel like I’m treading water in a hot tub. I’m waiting for my life to start but it is oh-so-cosy.’
‘You do lead a silly life. Here I am, deciding whether a banner ad for a hotel or for insurance would fit better with the keyword holiday, just wishing you took life seriously for a change.’
‘You know you can always chat to me,’ I say. ‘I know she’s not around any more, to be your confidante and consiglieri. And I know Dad’s Dad. And I know I’m a dumb sitcom writer. But talk to me. I can be serious when you need me to be.’
‘I just need you to not be outraged. I need you to listen.’
We’re at Shruti’s mehndi, a little drunk and Rupa tells me she has cigarettes in her bag. Would I like one?
There’s a park behind Mark and mama’s house. We used to play in it when we’d spend summers with Ba. I used to go there to watch people play basketball, imagining myself, the short guy, throwing beautiful three-pointers from the top of the D, listening to Ice Cube on my Walkman, while Rupa sat with her friends under a nearby tree, discussing which of the bhangra muffins on the court they all fancied. It was always Sandeep. He was lanky and cocky and talented but he had the longest eyelashes and he was definitely going to study pharmacy one day.
The irony is, our cousin Shruti is marrying him on Sunday.
We’re at her mehndi. And the memories of what we used to be like when we were a whole family seem like a fantasy novel now – a long, long time ago and somehow not quite real.
Rupa and I have never smoked cigarettes together. Whenever I saw her, as a teenager, smoking behind St George’s Shopping Centre, she looked so uncomfortable, angry. Whenever she saw me smoking, with the bhangra heads, in front of Calamity Comics, brazen, because it was the route Bapuji took to the post office. I was brazen but smoked with the cigarette cupped into the palm of my hand, so it was disguised from the casual passer-by, in case of a rogue masi or mama driving past, and easily disposed of.
We sit on swings.
Though it’s dark and the park is empty, we can hear strains of noise from a corner where some giggling teenagers are doing balloons. The occasional squeal of the canister filling the balloon with the laughing gas makes Rupa and me flinch.
We smoke in silence, looking at our feet.
The thick rustle of the sequins on Rupa’s dupatta jangle with her back-and-forth motion.
‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ Rupa says quietly.
And we don’t. We swing, we smoke, she taps me on the forearm when she’s cold and ready to go back inside.
I meet Rupa outside her office on her last day there. She has amassed a collection of awards, bottles of white wine, a huge bouquet and other nick-nacks, involving her own monogrammed dressing gown, and the blanket Mum used to wrap us all in to watch television.
I gesture to it as we pack it into the boot of my car.
‘It felt comforting to keep my knees warm with it,’ she says. ‘That office was always cold.’
As we drive away, me navigating central London traffic with a clumsy lack of confidence, I ask where to next.
‘Don’t ask me. I don’t know. I’m on gardening leave. I don’t think I can look for a job yet. But don’t ask me. I just don’t want to talk about it.’
‘I meant, am I taking you home? Or shall we go see if Dad’s in?’
‘I dunno, man,’ she says. ‘Just take me out of the city.’
As we straddle the thick traffic of buses, taxis and meandering bicycles changing lanes almost arbitrarily, I apologise to my sister, my city, repeatedly.
‘I’ve never been in a car with you,’ she tells me as we hit the dual carriageway leading us towards our suburb.
‘I’m terrible aren’t I?’ I say.
I only learned a year ago and still don’t drive enough to have earned my 10,000 hours of expertise.
‘Yeah, you’re pretty terrible. I’m quite scared for my life.’ ‘Sorry.’
We listen to some Hindi songs Rupa made me as a driving mixtape when I passed. It’s sat unlistened-to in the glove compartment all this time. She sings along. Occasionally I join her for a chorus, singing robotically so I can concentrate.
‘You know,’ she tells me. ‘That time you had your wrist broken by that officer, the one who called you a jihadi, I thought you were making it up.’
‘Not the broken wrist, or the policeman. Just the comment: him calling you a jihadi. At the time, I couldn’t understand why you didn’t just tell him you weren’t Muslim. It frustrated me when you told Mum and Dad that wasn’t the point. Mum got it immediately.’
‘I miss her,’ I tell her.
‘I feel like I’m out of my depth without her to check things for me. Like, I didn’t even think what was happening to me was anything like what you went through. I was in denial for ages.’
‘You’re out of there now.’
‘But he’s not. That’s the thing that bothers me. He can do whatever he wants and they will just get rid of us to protect him.’
‘I know. That’s the institution.’ ‘Why didn’t you fight back? Against the policeman?’ ‘Because I shouldn’t have to,’ I say. ‘Ella stopped being my friend in primary school because her daddy told her I was a Paki. It’s amazing what you start remembering when things like this happen. All the things you internalised because you had to be grateful or fit in or just get on with life, making money, stuff like that.’
‘It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been fighting for, just that you do.’
‘I didn’t say I was doing anything,’ she says. ‘Can you pull over? I think I’m going to be sick.’
I pull up in a lay-by on the A40, just before our exit. Rupa gets out of the car and walks to the back. I put the hazard lights on and wait.
I hear the boot open and swing round in my chair. Rupa is rummaging around in her things.
I get out of the car.
The speed with which traffic passes us makes me feel unsteady for a second. I join her at the trunk.
She has lifted three bottles of white wine out and placed them on the pavement. She finds the fourth, and places it next to the others.
‘Get rid of them,’ she says, breathing lightly and anxiously. ‘I can’t look at them.’
She places her hands on her knees and hunches over, spit- ting on to the floor.
I look at the bottles.
She shouts. ‘Get them away from me. Get that bastard’s wine away from me. Get it away from me.’
I walk over to the pavement and pick the bottles up, one by one. I look at my sister. In that second, she looks so grown up, almost like our mum.
‘Thank you,’ she stammers, as I walk away from her. The bottles are heavy but soon they will be gone.
White Wine by Nikesh Shukla can be found alongside six other stories on love in How Much The Heart Can Hold, newly published by Sceptre in hardback and ebook. The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla, has been selected as UK readers' favourite book of 2016 at the Books Are My Bag Reader Awards