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.
Another 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.