A book review, which lead to thoughts about representation in the media.
Having representation in the media. When most people think of such a topic, they think of having a TV personality, I would even say that online stars (be it, YouTube, Instagram, Podcasts) is an important part of being viewed as accepted. What never occurred to me, was the fact that I have not read a book until last night about having a Gujarati person as the lead character, even more specifically to be from an East African background. I have never been a great activist of having representation in the media, not that I am against it; it has never seemed to be part of the world I really care about. For me, I have always been able to see people like myself in the cinema, with Bollywood films, or television in South Africa with the classic show of Eastern Mosaic and Carte Blanche with Devi Sankaree-Govender doing some of the main reporting; heck even BBC World has loads of Asians, with Michelle Hussain & Yalda Hakim being some prime examples. I’ve always felt that I could find representation in the media. Then again, I have never found a Gujarati person in the media to latch onto as a role model; or anyone that comes to my mind right now.
So how did this book impact me? I was entertained, made to laugh and in tears by the end. Laughter from the pure moments of joy and happiness and tears to the heartful realisation that I can see myself in the characters; that I recognise my own grandmothers. How my grandfather talks about his past. To me, this was scary; that generational divide that exists between those of us who have left India.
What is the point of having people to look up to, if none of them are like you; with their different life paths and opportunities. What control does anyone have, on where life is going to take us? What does this have to with the book I’m reviewing? Apparently at least.
For starters I’m now listening to “John Jaani Janarden”, from the classic film Naseeb, on repeat. Let’s just that I haven’t listened to classic Bollywood music in ages, at least on my own accord. Only because this book reminded that this song exists. Sometimes, it’s nice to go back to your roots (and yes that’s a reference to the song that my father loves to listen to).
The book itself is about an Indian origin family, from East Africa in the United Kingdom. Our main story is about Neha, who has contracted the same cancer that killed her mother, Nisha. We start in Keighley which is over 300km away from London; where Mukesh is sent by his friend Sailesh to spend some time before they both end up in London. This is where Mukesh meets and falls in love with Nisha; and we learn that is repeated by Mukesh to his children throughout their lives.
The story jumps in time, back and forth; starting with Mukesh and moving to Neha, then to Rakesh (Neha’s brother) and finally to Nisha’s mother (aka Ba). While the story fills the picture of this family’s situation [I’m trying to keep this a spoiler free review, everything said so far is from the blurb]. We learn about the circumstances that have shaped the way they are meant to be perceived by those around them, in the family and of course internally; where they are struggling with what they have become and what they will make of themselves.
It is a story about the weakness and fragility of being human. Nikesh’s male characters are shown to be weak and frail; which is the opposite to the trope of the Indian masala movie staple. The women are strong and brave, but still flawed in their own way. It’s refreshing to see this in characters that are meant to sound and look like myself; I do hope that more books, heck media, that show this sort of side to characters from India (or Indian origin). The book also mixes in mysticisms of Hinduism in here, which I loved. Normally, I see characters that are all super into Hinduism or totally no part of the character. Rarely in English, do you see the religion portrayed in a positive context or one that represents what is more prevalent in India; or at least in my experience in India. That prevalent nature that religion evolves and that while there are negatives, we can choose to bring the positive aspects forward. Essentially, it’s not a simply good or bad thing.
Through the lenses of the first person and even exploring a character purely through the second person; we not only see ourselves, but how a judgement of others effects the way they act. The novel is absorbing not just because the story itself is part of this strange family trying to figure out whether one can know the future. Are things pre-determine? It brings in the nuance, that is maybe different for a person of colour or an immigrant coming into the UK. Maybe our choices are just a façade. That is the crux of this book. It’s not a depressing book, even it made me cry and yearn to return to Africa. It’s real and reminded me of what being human is about. Being in love, opening yourself and allowing to hope for the best. That’s all we got, in this life at least.
Who are we to question the one who wrote destiny? Well it’s quite easy; first decide if you are in charge of your own destiny. Then worry about the writing.