The Wee Indian Woman on the Bus


Posted by in April's Magazine

The author is a first-generation Scottish Sikh. Born in Glasgow in the 1950s

Have you ever noticed her – the wee Indian woman on the bus? Have you ever wondered who she is? Maybe you think ‘she’s not been here long’, or ‘these people just keep themselves to themselves’. Well, can I tell you something? This wee woman has probably been here longer than you. She was born in the 1950s, to the first wave of people who came here from India when the British carved up their land and made them homeless refugees. She was one of the invisible children. Always on the side lines, watching the world go by.

Glasgow Green fairground in the 1960s

Everything was always out of reach. She missed out on the Beatles, Cliff Richard and Elvis Presley: she could only listen to the transistor radio when no one else was in. The Beano, The Dandy and The Bunty were OK, but The Jackie – oh no! That was out of bounds. She might be corrupted: she might start wanting the same things as the white girls! All she ever heard was, “We don’t do this, we don’t do that, we are Indian.” She wasn’t allowed to dream, because dreams were for other people. 

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Her life centred around home and school until she was 15, when school became a distant memory, but that memory is still very clear in her mind today, 52 years later.

What does she remember? The smell of the classroom, the teacher’s clear voice introducing her as “our visitor from a faraway land.” That always made her laugh! She was born in Glasgow, and the school was at the end of her street! But it was fun to pretend, and by the age of five she was bilingual. The desire to keep learning never left her.  

Best of all: she remembers walking onto the concrete bridge that linked the park with Glasgow Green and the ‘shows’  

By the time she was 12, it began to sink in that she was different. The other girls and boys were out playing after school, going to Mission Schools and Sunday schools. Sometimes she went with them and sang along to Climb, Climb, Sunshine Mountain but there was that slow realisation, ‘I am not like them’. Home life was like living in the village in India that her mother had fled, but never really left.

Learn to cook, learn to clean, learn to knit, sew and embroider. Learn not to ask too many questions. Life was a ‘sweet prison’: everything was restricted and there was no freedom to go out, no freedom to be with people her own age. She grew into a young woman in that sweet prison, but she never stopped dreaming or asking questions.

What does she remember? Not India’s green fields, cool water ponds and breezes. No, her memories are of Glasgow tenement backyards, playing Kick the Can in the street with her wee pals. Sitting at the corner of her street, pressing a penny into the hot tar. Smelling the cut grass of Richmond Park on a sunny summer’s day; walking through the Park from the Rutherglen Road side with the sand pit and the swings on the left, the rockery and the big swings on the right. Best of all: she remembers walking onto the concrete bridge that linked the park with Glasgow Green and the ‘shows’.

That was the best time! Every summer she was told not to go without a grown-up but she still sneaked across the road and into the fair. She can still smell the candyfloss and the toffee apples: she can still hear the noise, and the music still rings in her ears. 

See that wee Indian woman on the bus? She’s not thinking of India: she’s remembering a childhood lost to a culture that was alien – even to her.

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