Banglaphone Fiction II

by Claire Chambers

In this post, I continue my discussion of what I'm calling ‘Banglaphone Fiction', namely short stories and novels written in English and dealing with life in Britain by authors from the two Bengals. I am interested in how both Hindu Indian and Bangladeshi Muslim writers perceive the UK and its migrant population. In my previous post Banglaphone Fiction I, I explored the work of nineteenth-century travel writer Sake Dean Mahomed, Amitav Ghosh's 1988 novel The Shadow Lines, and Amit Chaudhuri's new book Odysseus Abroad.

Neel MukherjeeAnother interesting text about Bengalis in Britain is Neel Mukherjee's A Life Apart. Mukherjee was born
in Calcutta and moved permanently to the UK at the age of 22. His first novel, Past Continuous, was published in India in 2008. It came out in the UK as A Life Apart in 2010, where it was well received. He became better known because of his second novel, The Lives of Others, which won the Encore Prize and was shortlisted for 2014's Man Booker Prize. However, given this post's focus, it is his first novel that mostly concerns me today. A Life Apart is in some ways a rewriting of Rabindranath Tagore's The Home and the World from the perspective of the minor British character Miss Gilby. The novel's central character Ritwik, a Hindu Indian migrant to Britain, is writing a novel about this character that we see at intervals in the text in bold type.

In the light of the appalling (but sadly not new) stories that have been broadcast all summer about Europe's refugee crisis, A Life Apart seems all the more timely and important. Ritwik studies at Oxford University, about which I will write more shortly. After he graduates, Ritwik has little choice but to allow his student visa to expire and becomes an illegal immigrant so that he moves outside the ‘vast grid of the impeccably ordered and arranged first-world modern democratic state'. The novel casts light on the third world that exists within the first world, the migrant as a ghostly figure, and the chimera of the better life that supposedly exists in Europe.

A primary concern in both Mukherjee's novels to date, and in Bengali-British writing more broadly, is education. Mukherjee explores the differences between an English- and a Bengali-medium education, and how this creates the haves and have-nots of language usage. A Life Apart features the hybrid proto-language Benglish, while The Lives of Others contains a large glossary of Bengali terms. Ritwik, an orphan from a modest background, wins a scholarship to study English literature at Oxford. His fellow students see his home country as ‘exotic, … wild … And all that mysticism and stuff, it's spiritual'. In his turn, he struggles to eat bland English food dishes like toad in the hole, and even thinks a strongly-accented Liverpudlian classmate is speaking in German. His classmates are baffled that an Indian should study for an English degree:

He surprises them by revealing that English Literature, as an academic discipline, was first taught in India, not in England; English administrators and policy-makers thought that the study of English Literature would have an ennobling and civilizing effect on the natives. They are thrown a bit, even a little embarrassed by this. … ‘It's a strange thought, isn't it, thousands of Indians poring over Shakespeare and Keats, Declan says. Now that Ritwik has it pointed out to him by an outsider, it becomes unfamiliar, shifts patterns and configurations.

Here Ritwik alludes to the fact that in the Raj period and beyond, the British realized the importance of establishing themselves in the imaginations of their colonized peoples as being worthy of allegiance. In place of controversial religious doctrine, they used Literature writ large as a tool of persuasion. As Gauri Viswanathan shows in her pioneering study Masks of Conquest (1989), English Literature as a subject was closely linked to colonialism, and the study of English literary culture was instituted in Indian schools and universities before it became an established discipline in Britain. Ritwik chafes against what he calls ‘this business of other cultures, other countries', in which the British neo-/colonizers recalibrate the world around them using their own gauges.

Unlike Amit Chaudhuri, Mukherjee doesn't look at British-Sylhetis, but he does portray other Muslims in Britain. He describes in detail a successful British-Pakistani family, the Haqs, who live near Ritwik in a house that is ‘a teeming, heaving slice of the subcontinent'. Mr Haq has made his money in import-export, but when newly-illegal Ritwik asks him for a job, he receives an ambiguous reply. At first Mr Haq tells him they usually hire ‘other Pakistani families who are in England', but then seems to change his mind, saying, ‘In this country, we need to stick to each other and have our own community'. Ritwik is unsure whether this is hopeful, or a way for Haq to say that the Hindu boy is not part of his Muslim Pakistani community. He leaves the house with a ‘strange, lonely feeling of unbelonging'.

Manzu Islam's short story collection The Mapmakers of Spitalfields (1998) and Burrow (2004) were Manzu Islamprobably the first Anglophone fictions about Britain to come out of Bangladesh and its diaspora. In the collection, four stories – ‘Going Home', ‘The Mapmakers of Spitalfields', ‘The Tower of the Orient' and ‘Meeting at the Crossroads' − are about Britain. That said, they often ‘drift… into another world', veering away from London locations, such as King's Cross station and the Sonar Bangla café, to discuss the imaginary homeland, a remembered Bangladesh of tigers, sadhus, and water, water, everywhere. Characters are equally difficult to contain within particular stories. For example, both ‘Going Home' and ‘The Mapmakers of Spitalfields' contain an ‘I' narrator and characters named Badal and Shafique (Badal also appears in ‘The Fabled Beauty of the Jatra', set at a folk theatre play in Bangladesh). It is striking that all the writers discussed in my three essays on Banglaphone writing are impossible to confine within a purely British location. Not one of the authors discussed here (Mahomed, Ghosh, Chaudhuri, Mukherjee, Islam, Rahman, or Monica Ali, Sunetra Gupta and Tahmima Anam from the next instalment, Banglaphone Fiction III), use an exclusively British setting. Even the most British among these texts, such as Chaudhuri's Odysseus Abroad, Islam's ‘Mapmakers', and Ali's Brick Lane provide flashbacks about their characters' previous homes in South Asia. These are highly transnational authors, whose characters are similarly shape-shifting wanderers.

Working-class South Asian Muslim settlers in the post-war period saw themselves as transients and were motivated by the ‘myth of return'. They planned to save, send money home, and go back to their home countries as soon as they had made enough. However, as Pakistani scholar Muhammad Anwar pointed out in 1979, ‘in reality, most of them are here to stay because of economic reasons and their children's future.' Especially as families began to be reunited in Britain, they became interested in building self-sufficient communities. Several of the academics who theorized the myth of return, such as Anwar and Badr Dhaya, discuss the Pakistani rather than the Bangladeshi diaspora. However, the model of migration is similar – it tends to predominantly come from particular locations (Mirpur in Pakistani Kashmir and Sylhet in Bangladesh) and to involve mostly working-class populations.

Several of Islam's stories and his novel Burrow provide subtle, shaded depictions of the myth of return. Bangladeshi critic Kaiser Haq rightly points out that this is mostly a male phenomenon. He writes that in diasporic Bangladeshi literature, ‘the men dream of return, but not the women, who even as second-class citizens enjoy rights denied them in the mother country'. Accordingly, ‘The Tower of the Orient', a rare story by Islam told from a female perspective, is about a reverse illusion and subsequent disillusionment. Young wife Soraya long daydreamed about ‘taking off from Dhaka airport for this destination of fabled fortunes', a Britain in which she can buy her own home, with husband Munir, and feel a sense of belonging. Yet the poverty of ‘damp, creeping rot and a riot of rats' and the racism that she encounters there dash her sketchy notions of T. S. Eliot and the beauty of an English April.

In Burrow, one of the angles through which Islam illuminates why return migration becomes a myth is the younger generation's education at schools and universities. There, the changes that they undergo, such as the protagonist Tapan Ali coming to despise the Bangladeshi grandfather he had once revered, show that it would be hard to go back. Tapan's family has made an enormous financial sacrifice to send him to study and Britain, so understandably enough they see lucrative accountancy as a better course for him than the nebulous discipline of philosophy that he loves. At a demonstration, Tapan meets British-born Nilufar, who later becomes his lover. Her parents had been proud when she began her higher education, but were eventually disappointed to the point of almost disowning her when the hard-won BA degree doesn't bring her a husband. Just as Tapan becomes estranged from his grandfather, Nilufar's parents are alienated by ‘the foreignness of her ideas and her feringhee style'.

Zia Haider Rahman's novel In the Light of What We Know (2014), has a complex, metafictional Zia Haider Rahman 2architecture. To list just a few of its subjects, it packs in dialogue, stories, diary entries, intertextual references, and anecdotes about the global financial crash, the Bangladesh Liberation War, mathematics, and the British class system. (A rare blind spot is gender, which is not discussed with anything like the same precision of focus as race and class.)

In the novel, a conversation between two ‘philosopher-carpenters', Bill and Dave, with whom the protagonist Zafar works briefly as a young man, is revealing. Bill tells Dave that their new colleague, ‘Paki-man', is adjusting well to the demands of their high-end house refurbishment business. They quickly realize Zafar has overheard the racial slur and, without missing a beat, the two intellectual handymen begin debating the term. Discovering that Zafar is from Bangladesh rather than Pakistan, Bill apologizes, instead calling him, in a coinage that resonates with this essay's title, ‘Anglo-Banglo'. Wryly looking back on this incident from the vantage point of the early 2000s, Zafar is surprised that it took place before the Rushdie affair of 1989 onwards. From this moment on, he suggests in an argument that accords with my own research, the raw nerves touched in this exchange – relating to identity, racism, and ‘offence' – will increasingly take centre stage in British cultural life.

In his perceptive review, James Wood maintains that Rahman's novel is all about knowledge and its limitations. However, a clue is given in its title that it is equally as much about ‘light' − or religion, the numinous, optics, and spiritual and intellectual enlightenment. Sylhet-born Zafar turns away from the Islam of his upbringing and is attracted to Christianity because he believed ‘meaning counted for more than the rewards of ritual'. He dislikes the lack of understanding his South Asian coreligionists have for their Arabic-language sacred text. Yet he also exhibits a Forsterian scepticism about the church's airy clarities and endeavour to make God in its own image:

here was a very local rendering of a religion that had come from a part of the world that the proud Englishman could only look down upon. The Christianity before me was English, white, with Sunday roasts and warm beer and translation into the English, the language. Even the Bible at its most beautiful, the King James version, was in a language that asserted and reassured its readers of their power. … The English Christ was … an English God under an English heaven.

Ultimately, Zafar's search for meaning at Oxford, Harvard, at church, or in the bed of his icy aristocratic English lover Emily proves equally illusory. Discernment of the light of religion may contain greater profoundity than constructed knowledges, but each interpenetrates and contaminates the other, so that ‘Everything new is on the rim of our view, in the darkness, below the horizon, … nothing new is visible but in the light of what we know'.

The novel's unnamed narrator, who pieces together Zafar's story through his voice recordings and writings, is an elite Pakistani, the son of highly successful academics, who attends Eton and Oxford as a matter of course. The narrator's father sees no contradiction in attending mosque each Friday, while regularly drinking and ‘lik[ing] his bacon crispy'. Such a relaxed view would be anathema to Zafar's family, who are from a much more precarious social class and do not have the cosmopolitanism of the frequent flyer set. For a while in his youth, Zafar lives in a squat where rats are a quotidian terror, and even his carpentry job, mentioned earlier, immediately marks him out as from a humbler background than the narrator and Emily. With his questioning mind, Zafar is put off Islam by a book his parents bought from an East End shop and gave him for Eid. Its title, How Islam Predicted Science, and its trite, uninformed certainties alienate the maths-obsessed boy for whom Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem is akin to religious lore.

What might seem like a grab-bag set of texts on closer inspection yields to the reader overlapping insights relating to education, home and belonging, and religious practice and praxis. A somewhat different tonal palette emerges out of the women's writing I will explore in Banglaphone Fiction III.