The early 1970’s – power cuts and strikes, presaging the grey days of the late 70’s and 80’s and race riots, in a West London suburb with a high immigrant population.
A steady diet of American TV shows & comics help to shape the imagination & aspirations of an Asian boy with an artistic bent, asthma and little else to relieve the bleak urban landscape of the 60’s & 70’s, which his parents had chosen to make their home, with the help of next door neighbours’ step-son, a teenager named Gandhi.
The bitter-sweet tale of loss and failure, undercut by perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, and the distant, hazy, Technicolour dream which beckons him on.
A faint whiff of tragi-comedy surrounded Gandhi because of his given name, a source of amusement for his step-mother & her two young sons – it was yet another stick to poke him with, along with the carefully handwritten notices on pieces of cardboard in the toilet requesting people to leave the rim up afterwards, to wash their hands, to shut doors behind them, dotted about the house like timid territorial markers – signs which also pointed to a creative mind and hand at work.
I would visit our next door neighbor’s step son Gandhi because he could draw, he could handwrite in beautiful script, but most of all, he could draw – he could draw anything and well – he could draw anything I asked him to draw and more.
A gangling youth dressed in a Mao-style suit, his black locks trailing over his shoulders, Adam’s apple bobbing on his thin neck, feet in “chappals”, the traces of a beard developing on his chin, Gandhi would stand arranging his art, on pages torn from an A3 cartridge paper pad from Woolworths – on the mantelpiece over the flame-effect gas-fire, adjacent to the light-up painting of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
There were drawings of futuristic cars, Thunderbirds vehicles like “Fire Flash” & “The Mole” in unexpected angles, all expertly rendered in HB pencil – an explosion of chrome fenders and grilles, whitewall tires and plexiglass bubble cockpits – the cars seemed to leap out of the drawings because of the use of perspective and dramatic foreshortening. For that moment the dreary and dark living room with it’s garish flowery carpet and khaki imitation leather sofa melted away and the room became an art gallery where one wall was a portal into the future – a future that was meticulously well-defined but still in monochrome, because our TV’s were in monochrome, but that didn’t matter.
On other visits we would sit together on his bed as he drew to order, as I scanned his bedroom walls, eyes wide in wonderment – if there were pin-ups, I never noticed them – my eyes were drawn to the cars & futuristic vehicles, the pencil copies of classical paintings, the drawing exercises, eventually to settle, as I tired, on the “Bullworker” propped up in the corner near the door to his bedroom.
I interrupted his drawing to ask him what the thing was propped up against the wall and he dutifully demonstrated, his thin frame and wiry arms straining as he tried to force the Bullworker grips together, teeth clenched – he did this a few times and then stopped, as if satisfied that this was enough of an explanation, to resume drawing, his legs folded under him on the bed.
For a short time, Gandhi was the big brother I never had, since I was the only boy amongst three sisters, and like him I spent hours alone filling sketch books with drawings inspired by the TV shows I watched – having him as a next door neighbor seemed like an extraordinary stroke of luck – in fact, it seemed almost too good to be true.
Whilst Gandhi’s technical proficiency in drawing inspired me, resulting in obvious imitations, his home life seemed to cast a shadow over him – a shadow that was to eventually engulf him – I sensed sadness in him, the sadness of an outsider.
The problems he faced – that of rejection & downright bullying – and his talent eventually forced him out of the “family” home – I saw less and less of him as he approached adulthood & moved out, either to study or to gain some independence.
His great-coated, flared trousered, khaki t-shirted form would occasionally roll up at the house, an artists portfolio under his arm and then he would just as quickly disappear, and that is the last I saw of him.
There were no hello / good-bye’s but equally no anger or resentment or fallings-out between us – he had simply grown up and left.
On one occasion he turned up briefly with a young English girl, which added to the sense that he must have been following the Bohemian lifestyle of an artist, before I even understood the term “Bohemian” – it seemed dangerous, on the edge and against the grain of the conservative Punjabi household he came from, a deliberate act of rebellion against his adopted family.
Sometime later my parents enquired after him – news about the local community spread fast amongst the Asian population, it was not uncommon for distant relatives to live in other streets nearby, and if not relatives then certainly people from the same villages in the Punjab.
The shocking news came that Gandhi had died – it was not clear if it was by his own hand, though that seemed to be the implication – whatever it was, it was painted in the most tragic terms. Was he jilted? …Was his cross-cultural relationship the reason? …Did the rejection by his family finally get to him?….Worse than that, had he failed to make inroads into a professional career as an artist ? – These were the questions that ran through my mind, but most of all was the awful sense of waste of a great and promising talent – my mentor, Gandhi.
To some extent I built my future career in art as a kind of legacy to him, though in its’ own way it has been a rough path – sometimes a stroke of luck can be a double-edged sword.