The Day Papa Cut Me out of His Life-For Playing Juliet to a Black Romeo

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), May 28, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Day Papa Cut Me out of His Life-For Playing Juliet to a Black Romeo


Byline: YASMIN ALIBHAI-BROWN

We never marked Father's Day in Kampala, Uganda, where I was born and grew up. Just as well, for it would only have amplified the silence, the disconnection between Papa and me. We were released from the pressure to pretend affection for the sake of a ritual.

But living in Britain where this bond between fathers and children is affirmed every year, as it will be next month, feel a mixture of emotions: envy, sorrow, regret, longing, sometimes flashes of anger.

For decades now I have struggled to figure out why my father froze me out of his life forever after I came home one night from a triumphant school production of Romeo And Juliet in which I played the young heroine.

It was November 1965 and I was a spirited 15-year-old. I rushed into our flat to announce I had won the prize for best actress in a schools drama competition - and a scholarship to stage school in London. A dream was about to come true, but instead of a joyous reception I found sound, fury and violence. Members of my extended family were incandescent; my mother was weeping inconsolably and my father, Kassim, had turned to stone and just stared at the floor.

He never spoke to me again. He died in 1970, only 66, still punishing me, leaving a legacy of that deadly silence. A week before he passed away, he had sent me a

. FROM PAGE 53 postcard with a picture of a Lufthansa plane. All it said was From Papa' in his slanting, impatient handwriting, perhaps an inadequate attempt at reconciliation by a stubborn man.

My crime? Romeo was black and, for an Asian Juliet, this was forbidden love, even in an innocent school play.

Uganda was a racially divided country; apartheid was not formalised but all too real.

In the Victorian era, Asian indentured labourers, contracted to work for several years under harsh conditions for very little money, had been imported from the Raj to build the East African Railway. They stayed on and were joined by adventurers, entrepreneurs and others from India seeking opportunities.

As the numbers grew, the British organised us to be the buffer class between themselves and Africans, thought of by whites and browns as lowly and 'uncivilised'.

After independence in 1962, this racialised social order began to shift as black Africans took charge. My father had always claimed he was a socialist and egalitarian. I remember him impetuously giving his best clothes away to African beggars and always sharing his cigarettes and money with the servants in the neighbourhood who approached 'bwana Kassim' easily, without fear or exaggerated humility.

He was also acutely aware that in the changing political landscape Asians were still too arrogant and had become vulnerable because they were antagonising the majority indigenous population. Did he mean any of it? Or was he incapable of practising the racial equality he preached? I'll never know.

What I do know though is that, like many other Asian and Arab fathers, as my body matured he grew suspicious and controlling.

And although he was never physically violent, I became more apprehensive of his moods and demands.

World literature - including Shakespeare - is full of these volatile encounters between fearful fathers and feisty daughters.

Papa was both a rolling stone and a stubborn, sullen crag; a learned Anglophile, yet stringently Eastern in his values; admirable in some ways but an abject failure when it came to family responsibilities; a man who sought freedom all his life but who feared any signs of it in his children.

Perhaps because he knew it would make us too much like him.

One of the few presents he ever bought me was a book of morality tales by some stern chap called Uncle Arthur who made naughty children suffer the most terrible retribution: deaths of mothers, storms and lightning.

Papa was a man who listened to his head more than his heart. …

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