Two of the Booker longlist books, including this one, have Salman Rushdie quotes on their covers. It was Salman Rushdie who first made me realise what language could do, and started my love affair with postcolonial literature, so I was expecting big things from this.
And it did a pretty good job, although not at all in the way I expected. You shouldn’t go into it, as I half-did, expecting it to be Midnight’s Children. It’s certainly not magic realism; in fact it’s as much realism and as little magic as you can get, with its focus on the grey, grubby, panic-studded mundanity of immigrant life – overcrowded houses, building sites, and the backs of vans, not to mention the sheer number of misunderstandings. It feels necessary, though, and of its time (and place – well, places) in a way that fiction often doesn’t. The newspapers in the UK are full of immigration at present; if it’s not refugee camps at Calais, or frozen stowaways falling from the sky onto London roofs, then it’s right-wing politicians demonising anyone who talks with a funny accent. There is a lot of superb and even-handed journalism covering all of this, although not as much of it as there needs to be – but, to quote EL Doctorow, ‘The historian [or journalist] will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.’
This novel, I think, goes a long way to telling us ‘what it felt like’. The narrative focuses on three men – boys, really – who travel from India to the UK in search of work, and on a girl who helps one of them to do so, and on what happens to all four of them during the boys’ first year in the UK. In explaining how each of the main characters got to where they are, we’re taken back to India for extended parts of the narrative, and these for me were the best bits – especially Tochi’s story, which had me wincing and (metaphorically) covering my eyes.
In fact Tochi, to me, was the most interesting character throughout. Of the three, he’s the one who has entered the UK illegally, smuggled into the country through a series of airport doors and heavy goods vehicles. (The other two, from India’s middle classes, are on a study visa and a marriage visa and – whilst they certainly don’t have an easy ride (just ask Avtar’s body parts) – their journey doesn’t seem quite as desperate.) The difference between where Tochi’s been and where he’s trying to get to is never clearer, for me, than in his exchange with an airport worker on his way out of India. ‘She asked if her uncle had shown him how to use an escalator – moving stairs. He said he hadn’t and she made a frustrated noise. She looked at the watch face on the underside of her slender wrist. “We don’t have time now. You’ll have to just work it out.”’ Let’s just take a second to imagine how freaked out we’d be, trying to navigate life in the UK, completely on our own, if we’d never even been on an escalator. Randeep and Avtar have their own rookie moments, including crossing gargantuan roads and staring at people in pubs, but it’s the escalator that stayed with me.
Being new to a country is one thing; staying new is something else. As someone from an uncomplicated ethnic background, I also remain fascinated by the relationship that ‘British Indians’ – in this context, those who have already been in the UK for years by the time the narrative starts – have with both India and with Britain. Reactions range from Dr Cheema, who doesn’t feel at home in Britain no ‘matter how many garden parties I threw for my neighbours’, to the middle-aged couples in Sheffield who have carried their ideas of the Indian caste system with them to the UK, to the teenagers – Randeep’s cousins, I think – who are completely uninterested in (and even embarrassed by) anything to do with the subcontinent. Even Narinder, born in the UK and comfortably middle-class, has an incredibly complex relationship with India through her community, family and (especially) religious ties. Through her in particular, Sahota eloquently makes the point that there will never be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to multiculturalism – or at least not one that works. It’s a welcome addition to a debate that will only get louder in the UK over the next few years.