Before the word became fashionable, “multicultural” novels based in England (mostly London) used to have an edge. They could be as different as Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, Ravinder Randhawa’s A Wicked Old Woman or, from a culturally and politically conservative position, V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, but they were all, in their own ways, excellent and ground-breaking novels. Even Hanif Kureishi’s early novels, despite their ease of access, were forays into largely uncharted territories. All such novels had a cutting edge to them—in terms of sociocultural engagement, political commentary and/or literary style.
From the 1990s, “multicultural London” novels have come to dominate the so-called “post-colonialist” and “Black British” literary shelves in the UK, and—with very few exceptions—they have become “balti-cultural London” novels. Like England’s overrated “Balti” cuisine, they are usually too easy to consume, floridly “ethnic” and increasingly self-celebratory. Moreover, they often lack political and literary edge and, hence, tend to become highly repetitive.
Old times: Naipaul was a conservative.
At first glance, I thought Brian Chikwava’s Harare North would be another of these safe balti-cultural novels. I was mistaken. This first novel by a young London-based African writer is hilarious, cutting, sad and significant. Chikwava’s protagonist, who arrives in “Harare North” (that is, London) as a “political refugee”, is narrated in a style that is powerful and convincing; the narrative descends slowly from the mischief of an Anancy-type trickster figure to something darker and much more disturbing. While sensitive to the humanity of his characters, Chikwava’s humour and narrative cut both ways—no, they cut all ways.
What Selvon did for Caribbean immigrants to London in the post-war context of the 1950s, Chikwava has done for African (mostly Zimbabwean) immigrants to London in today’s post-9/11 world.
A columnist for Mint and a contributor to various international publications, Salil Tripathi has engaged with some vital aspects of the “project” of Hindu nationalists in Offence: The Hindu Case. Starting with a detailed and intelligent examination of the controversies around M.F. Husain and other (including Hindu) artists, Tripathi goes on to engage with larger matters—such as the project to “rewrite” Indian history and the “right” to be offended.
This is a pertinent and thoughtful intervention by someone who does not write just as a human being—that is, in terms of human and civic rights, freedom of expression, etc.—but also as a Hindu, in the best and broadest sense of that complex term. For instance, Tripathi objects that Hindu nationalists often tend to act and think against the very ethos of Hinduism. As he puts it in one place, Hindu nationalists tend to act “as Hinduism’s moral Taliban” and, in the process, reduce Hinduism from its essentially broad, divergent, complex traditions to something simpler and narrower.
This, of course, is what Islamists do with Islam too. Or Christian fundamentalists do with Christianity. It was not surprising that the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland was blamed by an obscure Islamist mullah on the “obscene” dresses of women, and by a rightist-Christian radio host in the US on Obama’s “godless” policies. In a world containing people like that, it is a relief to have someone like Tripathi too.
Talking of the first black American President, a new biography of Barack Obama has just hit the stands: The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick. It cannot be easy to write about a man who is overwhelmingly perceived, by foes and friends alike, to be the present’s hyphen between the past and the future.
Tabish Khair is the Denmark-based author of Filming. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org