The culture clash; the outsider’s view: this disconnect is the grit in the writer’s oyster. It’s also the fertile territory explored in May We Borrow Your Country, the second publication from The Whole Kahani, a collective of female British novelists, poets and screenwriters of South Asian origin.
The group’s name means The Complete Story, and reflects the idea that any account of displacement ‘must contain multitudes’. As Mona Dash’s poem Implications beautifully shows, someone caught between two cultures can be made to feel they belong to neither:
‘Born and raised an Indian; not living in India
implied: not Indian
now British, not born in Britain
implied: not British.’
How to remain true to yourself – or find space to be yourself – is explored with humour in The Metallic Mini Skirt by Radhika Kapur. Divya, travelling to London with her new husband, is told by her mother to ‘Be like sugar. Dissolve into your new home and make it a sweeter place.’ Her mother-in-law hovers, trying to transform Divya into a younger version of herself. But Divya hangs on to her dreams, epitomized by the miniskirt, bought to wear to a nightclub, that she dares to wear only in the shower – where she is the star of her own story.
Mothers, and mothers-in-law, loom large. The pain of loss and separation; the distance between the one who stayed and the one who left, are delicately balanced in Deblina Chakrabarty’s The Inventory. Two sisters, ‘trying to find our mother, [and] a way forward, amidst the debris of our childhood’ are going through the dead woman’s belongings. The younger sister, living in London, is wealthy but unhappy, while the older sister is struggling financially. There is all ‘the detritus of a lived life’ to divide. But in the end it is the most personal, yet least valuable, item that offers the chance to heal.
One of the most moving, and unsettling, stories is CG Menon’s Fox Cub. Grieving father Kumar, newly arrived in Britain and shocked by the sight of beggars, invites a homeless girl to spend the night with him and his wife. She accepts, and ‘unfurls like a crane, all legs and feathers she hasn’t quite grown into yet’. He feels ‘an aching kind of pride’ when, on the bus home, he’s mistaken for her father. When, the next morning, in the ‘greyish air that smells of everything shut-in and breathed-out’, he goes to check on her, he finds she’s gone – and left her own message for him.
Another male protagonist features in Reshma Ruia’s layered and clever story A Simple Man. Pikku, whose family was thrown out of Uganda by Idi Amin, is now a museum security guard, ‘the guardian angel’ of paintings of ‘dead, pink and white kings and queens’. When his visiting sister, who thinks he has a ‘proper job’ in an office, wants to see his workplace Pikku becomes entangled in a web of lies, and even tries to carry out the perfect crime. Despite its light touch and humour, the story tackles head-on the racism that Pikku both inflicts and endures.
And unfamiliar territory can be close at hand. In Where He Lives by Kavita Jindal, Sabina, a young philosophy graduate, has married and moved into her husband’s home in the old city, despite her teacher’s warning that, ‘you’ll have to wear a burqa and niqab every time you step out’. The story conjures the atmosphere of a historic city, with its narrow streets and bazaars, and snap-happy tourists. Her mother-in-law says, ‘Philosophy is for people with nothing to do,’ and Sabina cannot see a way out of her mistake; until she observes how other women live a dual life, and resolves to try. This story felt like part of a longer piece, and left me wanting to hear more from these characters.
With sharp-eyed observation this collection delivers on its promise, and reveals the pain, longing, and humour to be found in the experience of displacement. As someone of Anglo-Indian heritage, hearing the voices felt particularly poignant.
I look forward to the next instalment of the Complete Story.
The Whole Kahani, May We Borrow Your Country, Linen Press, 2019. ISBN 9781999604660, paperback, £9
[This review first appeared in Writing in Education issue 79, Winter 2019]