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Saturday, November 27, 2021

Meera Syal: ‘I was a Midlands wench outside the house and a good Indian girl at home’

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My childhood was unusual, an Indian family plonked in the middle of the Black Country. I was a Midlands wench outside the house – climbing trees, running wild – and a good Indian girl at home. The duality was great for my spirit, a common story for the children of Indian immigrants. Always swapping masks – both inside and out of the experience – gave us this third eye, a perfect preparation for creative life.

Dad lived through the partition of India and Pakistan. At 13, he saw appalling things no child should see. His life was ripped apart with a random line drawn by a lawyer in London. He fled to a refugee camp with only the clothes on his back. This might have made some people bitter, but my father was empathic, loving and wise. Seeing the worst of humanity made him want to be the best of it instead.

At my first disco I was 16, and I was home by 10pm. I didn’t go to the pub until university. Things were fermenting, but I was a late developer: working out who I was took time. Thankfully, Mum and Dad recognised something different in me and encouraged it. They drummed into me that I’d have to work twice as hard and that I’d encounter prejudice, but there was nothing I couldn’t achieve.

The success of Goodness Gracious Me was a delightful shock to all of us – we had no idea how iconic it would become. It was an expression of something unique to our culture-bending generation, but we found humour that was universal. That was a rebirth for me, a coming home of sorts. I went from the kooky girl giggling in the corner to being part of something that people understood.

Delegation has never been my strong point, but I’m trying to improve. Having juggled so much for so many years it became second nature to take everything on. I’ve now got a child still at school while I look after an aged mother, just at the age when, many years ago, I thought I’d be travelling the world. And that’s a lot. I’m learning to let things go, and to ask for support. My husband, Sanjeev [Bhaskar], is helping me relax.

Turning 60 this year, I felt all the clichés: age is only a number; it’s how you feel inside. Some friends had a wobble, but I just feel there’s so much more left to be done. The key to happy later years is staying curious. Not fading away, but grabbing every moment. Plus, I can finally be a legitimate grumpy old woman now.

Falling in love with your best friend? There’s nothing better. With dating you put your best foot forward; starting as mates means there are no filters, the greatest love and security come from being utterly yourself. The fact I fancy Sanjeev helps. Still, I’m sure Freud would have a few things to say about me playing his grandmother [in The Kumars at No 42].

I’m a long way from the 13-year-old girl in my bedroom with her pipe dreams of performing. I had no role models who looked like me to follow in the footsteps of. Those aspirations – I thought – would remain in my journal for good. To actually be living it still feels extraordinary. And to have balanced that with the demands of having a family while retaining some sanity? I’ll take that.

Back to Life series two is on BBC1 on Tuesdays at 10.35pm, and on iPlayer

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