Squat Victorian buildings in mellow red brick rise, like vertical rock faces, from the narrow streets of old Manchester. Windows are boarded up, doors barred. Fluorescent orange signs pasted on buildings proclaim, “Do not enter. Urban Regeneration in Progress.”
This is why tonight I had to start my explorations so furtively, stepping over barrier tape to duck down a damp, wheelbarrow-wide alleyway strewn with litter that reeked of stagnant water and misdemeanours. New to the city, I had set myself a task. On Friday nights, after work, I explore a new area, perhaps only a few streets, to discover what’s around.
The whizz and clatter of going-home traffic funnelled down the empty chasms leading from Piccadilly Gardens, the modern city centre, not three minutes’ walk away. There, neon lights flashed multi-coloured messages; shop windows glowed; people lingered in groups or scuttled with purpose; traffic traced hues on the early evening air, pungent with the smell of burning exhausts and diesel.
Here, in the brick ravines zoned for late 1970s demolition, nothing moved. I wandered on. I imagined what it must have been like when these imposing buildings were filled with workers: the clackety-clack of textile looms hammering out their two-tone racket and the back-and-forth swing that spewed out cloth thread-by-thread; the heat from the machines, the smell of oil and rags; sacks of wool and cotton being hoisted to the third floor by these jibs sticking out overhead, from wagons which must have waited right here with their patient horses; bales of finished cloth being plopped on to counters; sounds of the snipping scissors of seamstresses and tailors; the noise; the dust; the clatter of clogs on the cobbles as workers came and went.
By now I was out of range of city sounds and listening without fear to my own footsteps resonating on the cobbled streets. The atmosphere seemed warmer, more enticing, and the modern city of glass and steel beyond this doomed area a forgotten unreality.
I rounded a corner. Was that a burble of voices—and music—from somewhere beyond these solid edifices? I dawdled along the narrow lane that trapped the day’s warmth, listening, trying to walk quietly. I knew I was not supposed to be in this area. The further I went, the louder the sounds grew. Above the babble I could hear drums, high-pitched flutes and what sounded like Tibetan tingsa chimes or Majira finger bells. For the first time in my Friday evening wanderings, I felt anxious. I could go back or go on: there was no other choice. If there’s music, it must be all right, I told myself.
The lane appeared to run up against a brick wall, then made an unexpected left bend and opened on to an enclosed square bustling with exotically dressed individuals. Solid buildings flanked the lantern-lit scene, confining the hubbub. People were trading from car boots, backs of vans, open boxes, picnic tables, colourful patches of carpets on pavements. Musicians jangled tunes from shadowy corners. Dark-eyed children in vibrant outfits darted about, playing tag and hopscotch, carrying messages and packages for their elders.
Three men in glowing white kaftans and turbans stood chatting nearby. They cast a glance at me, nodded a greeting, then turned back to their discussion as if my presence was quite normal. A woman in a turquoise and gold sari unfolded a length of shocking pink shantung, held some silver braid against it and sought approval from four teenage girls in harem pant suits gathered round. A wizened vendor called his wares, each time lifting a spatula from his range of sunset-coloured spices and pouring it in a slow stream back into a roll-neck sack, filling the air with lemon scents, chilli tang, ginger fragrance and a host of curry aromas. Everyone seemed at ease. This was their space. It was as if I had crossed continents and entered a medina.
I was still standing at the edge of the square, entranced and watching activities when, to my left, a young man in a sequinned waistcoat and fez stretched out an arm to display a scarf to attract my attention. The jewel-coloured silk hung smooth and glowing in the sheltered, lantern-lit square. Quickly, he held up another scarf, then another. I joined the jostling throng and made my way over.
People ahead began to move apart. Something was coming towards me through the crowds. It was a group of five children. Their leader, a boy of about nine with an enviable head of shining, raven-black hair, stopped in front of me, smiled delightfully and gestured with a wave of his hand. ‘This way to the café, lady,’ he called. He took my arm and began to lead me off to the side. Was he just a child proudly directing me to a café, or had he been briefed to lead me into a trap?
I turned to the fez-wearing young man as we passed his pitch. ‘Eat first at Mamajee’s, then buy from Kadri,’ he called to me, flicking open more silk scarves to entice me into returning later to buy from him. Smiling, he greeted each child in the group. Everyone seemed to know everyone else.
‘I’m Achmat,’ said the boy as we paused so his friends to catch up.
‘Anna,’ I replied, offering my hand. He shook my hand solemnly, then held on and lead me and his followers through the crowds towards a triangular building on the far corner. The windows were boarded up but the barriers had been removed and the door propped open.
‘But this is a place that is going to be knocked down,’ I said, fearful again that I was being lead into a trap.
‘Yes, but for now it is our café,’ said Achmat, giggling and leading me up the steps.
Hissing gas lamps illuminated the interior with clinical whiteness. A breakfast bar arrangement ran along one wall. Bearded gentlemen sat on stools, reading newspapers in foreign script, possibly Turkish, Hindi, and more; prodding each other on the chest in loud but friendly discussions; playing board games with much laughter and clacking counter-pieces.
Another bar ran along the opposite wall. It carried trays of glowing charcoal topped with sizzling meat that wafted spicy aromas around the snug. A cauldron of bubbling curry balanced on a brazier in the corner.
In the centre of the room were a dozen-or-so neatly-spaced tables, each covered with red and white check oilcloth and set with a flask of water and glasses. The place was full. Achmat led me to a table where three men and a woman were in lively conversation. They stopped, looked at Achmat, then at me. The place fell silent.
Achmat launched into a long account in a language I did not understand. At intervals, people nodded and smiled at me, at Achmat. Then everyone clapped and the chatter resumed.
‘This is my uncle, Nassim,’ said Achmat as the older man at the table shook my hand. ‘This is his wife, my aunt Malavina and my cousins.’ I greeted each in turn. ‘My uncle will look after you,’ called Achmat, waving a goodbye. Before I could thank him he had disappeared.
‘He’s a good boy,’ said Nassim. ‘He always notices new people and brings them to our café. We were here for twenty-four years. Then they told us we had to move. Where to? Meanwhile, we make a living here at weekends.’
The meal was simple, grilled lamb or lentil curry, an assortment of salads, and chapattis that kept appearing from a hole in the ceiling. Every few minutes there would be a call from above and another batch of chapattis would be passed down to be shared by diners.
‘Mamajee makes the chapattis,’ said Nassim, as if that explained everything.
The meal and the company were wonderful. Much of the talk at our table was in Urdu or Hindi, but every now and then Nassim would translate in English, not just for me, but for everyone in the room. ‘We have people from many places,’ said Nassim, ‘from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, you name it. We all lived and worked in this district, some for more than thirty years. Now it will be knocked down and a new shopping centre built. We will not be able to afford their rents. Where will we do business? How will we make a living?’
There were murmurs of agreement around the room. Everyone was concerned about finding new places to do business. Yes, the authorities had been kind. If families could not accommodate people who had to move, the councils provided homes. But these homes are all over Manchester. People are no longer together.
The sombre mood in the room was broken by a tirade from above, followed by cackling laughter. A face appeared at the hole in the ceiling. Button-black shining eyes set in a wrinkled oval peered down, framed by long white hair tied back in a ponytail that swished through the cavity and hung like a decorative feature above the room.
Nassim waved the presence back. ‘Mamajee says,’ he began, ‘Mamajee says we must all work together to show the authorities that we can succeed despite them. She says we must work all hours in honest ways to become the wealthy ones in Manchester. One day, she says, the authorities will come to us to ask for our help. And one day, she says, everyone in this city will like curry and chapattis.’
Everyone cheered. Nassim stood on his chair. A pair of red satin slippers popped over the edge of the hole in the ceiling, followed by a swirl of sunflower-yellow silk, like a cocoon, enclosing Mamajee. Nassim lifted her down. She was as small as a child, no taller than nine-year-old Achmat. Everybody clapped at her arrival.
‘Mamajee does not exist,’ said Nassim, putting a finger to his lips. ‘She has no papers. But no one makes chapattis, lentil curry, or dhal like Mamajee. No one has more love, more fire in the belly to drive others to achieve, than Mamajee.’
She took my hand. ‘This one is good,’ she said to the room. I was too flummoxed to reply before she was spirited away into the night.
The next Friday I returned. I stepped over the barrier tape, stumbled down the malodorous alleyway and was surprised to find Achmat waiting.
‘We knew you would come again,’ he said. ‘Everything is gone now.’
We looked out to where stout Victorian buildings had stood, to where the market square and café and all life had been last Friday. Mounds of red brick rubble rose like volcanic cones across the skyline.
‘And Mamajee is no more,’ said Achmat. ‘You had her blessing. Will you come tomorrow? We have released her soul in the fire. Tomorrow we will scatter her ashes on the river. It is not the Ganges, but my father says it will be okay. Will you come?’
And so I went to Pendleton. Not a river, but a brook, took Mamajee to her chapatti kitchen in the sky, free of papers and bureaucracy, leaving her blessings and fierce will for her descendants to succeed honourably.
Only the blue and gold sari, the scarves and the little Turkish rug I bought that first Friday evening prove it really happened—and Achmat, of course, who visits often. He owns the top Indian restaurant in Manchester now, but we still talk about that illegal café and the people of the district. We have said goodbye to so many—and to the area of old Manchester that is no more—but memories of Mamajee, her chapattis and her vision for us all, live on in the city and in many places elsewhere.
South African-born Dorothy Collard, daughter of an engineer, grew up in out-of-the-way places like Africa, but now lives in Hampshire. Her professional life has been shared between teaching and writing—much of the latter centred on aid, trade, and international affairs relevant to sub-Saharan Africa. Towards the end of 2012, she resolved to return to her first love: creative writing. Since then, she has won competitions run by Bloomsbury, Writers’ Magazine, Winchester Writers’ Festival and Hampshire Writers’ Society, amongst others.