"The daily purchase and consumption of bread is, in a way, his first wholeheartedly erotic encounter with London life. Ah the soft pillowy mattresiness of it...Danish Bloomers, flour-dusted Baps! East is East, thinks Ormus Cama; ah but yeast is West."
--Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie
They are called faujis, Punjabi for soldiers. No one knows why exactly; very possibly because they fight their way out of the poverty back home. Fight the moneylender's debt, fight for space on containers on ships, fight for air in packed lorries and fight their first impressions of a hostile world they have thrust themselves into.
I met up with Satinder, a fauji who had entered Britain this summer. I was familiar with the basics of illegal immigration routes into the country, the kind of low-paid off-the-books work that they go in for and their impact on society and that amassed political discourse. The British society erupts into periods of onanism over the question. All I was interested in was an illegal immigrant's very first impressions of the UK.
In the Lorry
From one darkened container to the other; Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Italy, France and Belgium. He remembered tangled feet, faces that had sagged in a matter of weeks, hair that had gone grey, blisters and bed sores, exhaust fumes and asphyxiation, he remembered loud foreign voices and arguments, car parks in countries he couldn't tell and signs he couldn't read. Unfamiliar food, bland, dry and cruel clung to the back of the throat and would not down. He remembered paying off Fagins of the trafficking trade; ruthless Iraqi men in tracksuits who would emerge from hatchbacks. The night and the open country he remembered well for that was when he could leave the lorries. At times moonlight would flood the fields, just as it did in Punjab. Legs straightened, he would dive into a pouch of gutkha, ruminating on strong Indian tobacco that kept him awake and alert. Day and night were same. Morning melted into night in the soft shadowless European light so that he couldn't keep time. His mind wandered.
Life was regulated by a series of jerks. Sharp jerks meant unannounced halts and brought with them fear. Long unpunctuated jerkless journeys brought sleep and tranquil. As wheels rolled, in the mess of the straw, the bale, in pitch black darkness, in the mess of cardboard cartons and in the mess of Pidgin English, dreams would be traded like playing cards. Excrement and urine, sweat and dead skin, vomit and bile; smells sloughed off their bodies and pressed down upon them.
He had been advised by an itinerant Indian, an illegal farm worker in Italy to cut his hair and discard the turban. If stopped by the police he could tell them that was from Romania and they would let him go. He refused. The hair and the turban stayed. So did the heavy iron bracelet, the Sikh kada, growing larger by the night as his arms shrivelled and his stocky frame withered.
Out of the Lorry
Satinder the fauji crawled out of a moving lorry three months ago with an Iranian and a Syrian in a bylane in Kent. The left eye clouded with cataract, a limp and a scraggly beard and starvation of a long overland journey greeted the British countryside. Only in Britain could a Sikh, a Sunni and a Shia be playing a game of Waiting for Godot in a ditch.
Satinder told me of his first glimpse of that antithesis of parched sun-browned Punjabi fields, green and rolling meadows, rapeseed and stone cottages. A windmill perched on a hill. Strange rich cars and healthy looking buses. He was here. Britain, he said exceeded his expectations.
The Syrian and the Iranian were off North. He hugged them in joy and bade them well. Satinder had never expected he would make friends with Muslims let alone eat, shit, pray and sleep together.
Walking through a market town that he cannot recall save for its otherworldliness, he saw the British in their native setting. He had seen the goras and the goris on railway platforms back home, in the backpacker slums of Paharganj in Delhi and in Shimla and Manali. He had always seen them covered in rucksacks, beads, bottles and bags. Only the platform coolies carried more and then he had always seen them in their loose flapping fisherman trousers, faces scruffy and tousled straw coloured hair. Dust clung to them, as did flies and swarms of urchins with hands out in supplication.
Satinder saw them as they were; as they walked unaffected and unguarded, as they went about their daily lives. They seemed otherworldly.
Their buildings were straight with straight edges, "Beautiful and well finished". England was free from dust and heaps of sand. It was fluorescent green. All infants were in their buggies. Shopfronts were clean and there was little rubbish. There was flesh on show that shone in the sun. Fountains teemed with children.
An hour after he had arrived, a prepaid mobile phone call brought the Southall-walla to pick him up as agreed. This was included in the £12,000 package he had paid to the traffickers.
This very moment there are hundreds huddled and drifting in leaking boats in the Mediterranean, clutching their talismans and thumbing their prayer beads, glued like popsicles to airplane landing gears, packed as squares and quadrilaterals amongst cartons in lorries, riding the Channel Tunnel in trains, twiddling their fingers in the plane loo after having flushed their passports.
Dead and half-dead they have left behind mouths to feed, swollen bellies and promises of presents from a land afar. Meanwhile Satinder labours in Southall. His pilgrimage might be over but his penance has just begun.
Names and locations have been changed to lend anonymity.