I was listening to Saturday Live on Radio 4 recently and found myself chuckling at stories the guests were sharing about lies they told when they were children. Naturally, it got me thinking about some of the fibs I conjured up during my youth but rather than making me laugh, I felt consumed by upsetting memories of how I desperately shied away from the many challenges I encountered growing up. In other words, much of my younger life has been a lie.
Why was I faking it, you might be asking? Well, it all boils down to feeling embarrassed about my Bangladeshi heritage and family background. Let’s be honest, who in their right mind is going to openly broadcast the fact that they lived with 12 others in a tiny three-bedroom terraced house in Bury Park, which was one of the most deprived areas in Luton and known for being the ‘P@ki area’ that most aspirational Asian families tried to escape from by moving to more affluent suburbs, notably the upmarket ‘Old Bedford Road’.
Indeed, we were so short of space that most of my siblings were sharing beds well into their teens (in case you’re wondering, the only reason I got my own bed was because I was the ‘disabled’ child). What’s more, my parents couldn’t speak much English and with the exceptional spaghetti bolognese, almost all our meals comprised rice and curry, which we consumed with our hands. The end result was that I probably smelt of curry throughout my teenage years.
Hardly surprising, therefore, that growing up I regularly glossed over the precise location of our family home by deliberately forgetting to mention that we lived on the grottier end of our road. I also often told others that I had three brothers and two sisters as that felt easier than telling the truth – my dad re-married and had four children from his first marriage. Shock horror – that made him a father of ten!
My disability also meant I went to a secondary school outside of the Bury Park catchment area because the one some of my siblings went to closed down and the other lacked wheelchair access. Stopsley, where my secondary school was located, was a predominantly white Luton suburb so there were just three kids of colour in my year (amusingly, two of us fitted the stereotype and ended up securing jobs in the City!).
Indeed, my skin colour, living arrangements and the fact I was one of ten children made me feel uncomfortable at secondary school and meant I only really had one friend (Anne-Marie) ever visit me at home. Anne-Marie and I grew close because her mum (Gloria) who is now a retired teacher taught me for a brief while when I was at primary school. Gloria, who I’ve always admired for her interest in different cultures etc, also soon cottoned onto the fact that as someone who was really into my studies, I’d be a positive influence on Anne-Marie. Indeed, having that honour bestowed on me even secured a return invite to Anne-Marie’s house where I enjoyed a meal of fish fingers and baked beans – as basic as that might sound it was a welcome change to another curry supper.
If secondary school weren’t challenging enough, my two years at Luton Sixth Form College were even tougher. Feeling I was constantly being judged (now mostly because of my disability), just like Pinocchio the lies got bigger and more elaborate.
But it wasn’t until I left Luton to start Warwick uni when I realised that all the fibbing would come to a climax. If I wanted to fit into my new middle-class environment, I’d need to disguise my background and radically overhaul the way I spoke and dressed. So, no longer was I the kid who grew up in Luton – I was from Bedfordshire and my father was an ‘entrepreneur’ who owned two Indian restaurants (the fact he still couldn’t speak much English didn’t seem relevant at the time).
Securing accommodation in the esteemed Jack Martin halls of residence also helped because that’s where the posh students resided. But little did my newly acquired friends appreciate that I only bagged a place in that block as it had a room that was suitable for wheelchair users. Meanwhile, owning a car was by far the most sure-fire way of winning friends and influencing people. But again, contrary to what everyone around me thought, my owning a car had nothing to do with family wealth – it was simply thanks to a Government scheme to get disabled drivers like me on the road by helping us to get our hands on subsidised vehicles that also happened to be brand new.
Much like my secondary school, Warwick in the early 1990s was a predominantly white environment and it’s sad thinking that so many of the students I met there had never come across anyone of colour. I decided to take advantage of this and came up with the biggest and most audacious lie I’ve ever told in my life – I went around telling other students that my dad was the king of Bangladesh and to my surprise they believed me notwithstanding my country of birth being a republic.
As someone who now thankfully feels much more comfortable in my own skin and reflecting on the Bangladeshi princess story, I genuinely feel sorry for the students who thought there was an ounce of truth in it. It’s really sad to think that some children can lead such sheltered lives and have very little or no interaction with people who are different to them, because I believe it can hold them back on so many levels.
Throughout my life, I’ve always tried to engage with individuals from as many diverse backgrounds as possible. Not only have I found this culturally enriching but it’s also made me realise that it’s absolutely fine to be different and to sometimes even show a little bit of vulnerability. But what isn’t fine is judging people simply because of the way they look or sound. Take my family for example, what we’ve collectively achieved, particularly my dad, is nothing short of remarkable and I have absolutely nothing to feel embarrassed about ever again.