An exclusive excerpt from Sisterhood of Swans by Selma Carvalho (Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2021)
The Waiting Room
I spend the morning at the Horton Medical Centre, sitting next to an old lady. The once-black hair is a fluff of white. It has curled up. It is a mat of curl around her lined face. She sits unaware of my existence and me unmindful of hers except for the one quick glance I steal. Then our worlds dissolve and go their separate ways to heal privately the pain which brings us here to this precise point in time. Later, I wonder about the woman and what might have brought her to the doctor’s office, our worlds so close that they almost touched. It could have been any number of things: diabetes, arthritis, cancer. What if it was cancer? Is the finality of existence the end of life or the end of an encounter? After all, people cease to exist if they are no longer part of our lives. But what if they ebb and flow in and out of our consciousness, like Daddy? What are we to make of them, then?
London is built in such a way that we all cease to exist within minutes of meeting. London’s worlds are tributaries running parallel to each other. English, Irish, Polish, Punjabi, Sindhi, Goans, Yemenis, Somalis are isolated pools of humanity swirling and eddying at bus stops and traffic signals, detached and disparate. There were parts of London called Chhota Punjab once but now the Goans have a strong presence here. Righteous ringing of Hail Marys can be heard from every Catholic church from Ealing to Southall. Mummy says we should wish some of them boas festas next Christmas Mass at St Catherine’s Church.
The waiting room is white with a phalanx of plastic chairs from which rise wraiths when their numbers are called, to meet their fate. In the corner is a frump of a fir tree with dusty red baubles and fairy lights blinking dull Christmas cheer, and above it, on the wall, is a muted TV set with ‘breaking news’ headlines about a terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Germany. But the room is thick with its own preoccupations of seasonal viruses and hacking coughs, and barely notices the flashing images of ambulances carrying away dismembered bodies. Horton is distilled into seclusion and all those things that happen to London, the terrorist attacks, the knife crime, the smash-n-grab heists, seem so far away even though we live on its blistering edge. At Horton we believe nothing will touch us.
Farida Ahmed, please proceed to room No. 8. Farida Ahmed, room No. 8 please.
The voice over the public address system is synthetic. Farida Ahmed’s fate is decided by an automaton. In room no. 8 awaits a doctor who will not know Farida Ahmed’s mother or father or if they suffered from the same ailment Farida Ahmed suffers from today. The doctor will peer into a computer and Farida Ahmed’s medical history will appear on the lighted screen. Farida Ahmed is a computer entry, an Excel sheet, a past prescription, a current address. Farida Ahmed exists only on screen and once she leaves the doctor’s room all traces of her will evaporate and be replaced by the next name located by date of birth. Nobody cares about family histories. We are all powdered into numbers and statistics.
Mummy sits beside me blank-eyed and barren of emotion. She’s beautifully made up in stiff, blue Marks & Spencer’s slacks and a floral silk blouse, the sartorial choice of fashionable Goan ladies in London.
‘Don’t fidget,’ she says, ‘you’re always fidgeting.’
I stop at once my restless foot-tapping.
‘Why are you always so fidgety, impatience is something you’ve inherited from your good-for-nothing father.’ She jabs the javelin where she knows it will hurt. Mother Kali-Durga: Giver of life, collector of tears, interpreter of dreams, prophet of hope, destroyer of self-esteem. Mummy is paradox, conundrum, the two-faced Janus: Mummy knows the innermost parts of me. She is a compendium of cold wisdom which some inner voice instructs me to revere as sacred. She is the intractable rock upon which I lean. Mummy is good, Mummy is cruel. Mummy with her tongue lashings is terrifying and I’m afraid of her. She explains her cruelty as characterbuilding or as a joke. She doesn’t understand that shit in a house shifts until it settles on the littlest person. She doesn’t realise the trauma of her marriage has grown muscle memory in me. It has sunk into the bark of my being and now snaps and scrapes at will. Her sworn oath that she would rather die than hurt me is the empty hollow of a tree. I wonder if every child ever born who has wriggled through the birth canal with the umbilical cord intact has had this relationship with their mother: bound by blood and bone, fuelled by rage.
Akina Kamau please proceed to room No. 10. Akina Kamau, room No. 10 please.
In place of the white-haired lady is a frilly-frocked, watery-eyed girl playing a Christmas song on her mobile, without headphones. She’s making the knot in my stomach tighten even more. I feel nauseous.
‘Have you spoken to Sanjay?’ Mummy asks.
‘Where does he work?’
‘The Horton Tesco?’
‘Is he the one then? Le grand amour? They’re not our kind of people but you went sniffing around there, and that’s that.’
I avoid her gaze.
As a Catholic Goan, Mummy’s rhetoric is always directed sequentially in a precise order at: anyone she thinks is lower class; anyone who’s Indian and not Goan (because 1961, of course, Nehru and invasion); and anyone who doesn’t read the same books as her. Mummy doesn’t acknowledge her Indian-ness. ‘I’m a Portuguese-Goan,’ she says to people who enquire about her peculiar surname. ‘I am not any one thing. I was born on the crossroads of seafaring histories.’
‘All Goans hate Indians,’ she tells me frequently.
‘No Mummy, you’re the only Indian-hating Indian I know,’ I reply.
By every definition of the word, Mummy lives on the periphery of Horton. On the edge of being brown. On the circumference of white. Her food and music never Indian enough. Her culture and Christianity never European enough. The kutcha-butcha of Indian society. The ‘neither fish nor fowl’ of the west. A mongrel. And nobody likes mongrels.
Excerpted with permission from the author and publisher of Sisterhood of Swans by Selma Carvalho (Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2021)
About the Book
Anna-Marie Souza lives in Horton, a suburb on the hem of London, a far cry from the city of Bombay from which her parents had arrived one cold December day in 1989, two Goans in search of a new life. Born in this land of their dreams, raised in a broken home, Anna-Marie has grown up into a state of constant and indefinable yearning. She belongs to the sisterhood of swans seeking to pair for life, curving their necks to entwine with the perfect mate. Only, she has realized, her species is fated to disappointment. Her disastrous choice in men is fuelled not just by a chaotic childhood but by a loss of sexual agency as she embarks on a series of doomed relationships.
Set against a cast of intriguing female characters—Anna-Marie’s Indian-hating Indian mother; her best mate, Sujata, haunted by thoughts of suicide; and Jassie, the sharp-tongued beautician at Bollywood Style Salon—is an ensemble of men who are serial philanderers or, worse still, token brown Conservative party members. In this shaky world, Anna-Marie navigates through the pain of a troubled coming of age, while trying to find her place as a second-generation Indian immigrant.
About the Author
Selma Carvalho is a British-Asian writer whose work explores themes of migration, memory and belonging. She is the author of three non-fiction books documenting the Goan presence in colonial East Africa. She led the Oral Histories of British-Goans Project (2011-2014) funded by the UK Heritage Lottery Fund. Her short fiction, in English and in Portuguese translation, has been published in journals like Litro and Lighthouse and anthologies published by Comma Press and Kingston University Press.
She is also the editor of two volumes of The Brave New World of Goan Writing & Art (2018 and 2020). Her work has been shortlisted for several literary prizes, notably the London Short Story Prize, the Dinesh Allirajah Prize and the New Asian Writing Prize. She is the winner of the Leicester Writes Prize 2018 and her collection of short stories was a finalist for the prestigious SI Leeds Literary Prize 2018. Sisterhood of Swans is her debut novel and was shortlisted for the Mslexia Novella Prize 2018 in the UK. Selma lives in London.