By eschewing hybridity for religion, children of subcontinental immigrants to Britain choose clarity and certainty. Shougat Dasgupta prefers Hanif Kureishi’s celebration of confusion
The opening sentences of The Buddha of Suburbia—at once ambiguous and full of energy, directionless but determined, sentences that were the equivalent, if such a thing can be imagined, of an exuberant shrug—were a clarion call for a new kind of person in a new kind of country: “My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories. But I don’t care—Englishman I am (though not proud of it), from the South London suburbs and going somewhere.”
Of course, Hanif Kureishi’s first novel, published in 1990, was not the first to notice this new breed. Salman Rushdie was already a celebrated champion of hybridity, having won the Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children. On Valentine’s Day in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced Rushdie to death for writing The Satanic Verses, a novel about immigration and hyphenated identity inasmuch as it was about anything. Rushdie had his sights set on the subcontinent, but from English shores, a perspective reflected in the dazzle and splash of his invented argot, his hybrid language. Traumatised by his parents’ decision, while he was away at school in Rugby, to leave Bombay for Pakistan, Rushdie turned the city of his childhood into his muse. His affection for Bombay—all cosmopolitan ease and hummable film songs—spills into affection for India, so that even his satire is affectionate, compared to the scorn he heaps on Pakistan, the anger, for instance, that coruscates through Shame.
Given Rushdie’s spiritual kinship with India, it is easy for Indians to claim him as one of our own. But Kureishi has always been an English writer, his project to stake his claim to England, to remake “English-ness” in his own image. He began his career as a precocious playwright, attached to the Royal Court Theatre at just 18, but came to feel he was spinning his wheels, living a bohemian artist’s life but wanting more, wanting fame and money and to write novels. His father, a Pakistani who came from a well-established family but lived a nondescript suburban life, wanted to write novels but had failed; it makes a kind of pop psychological, Oedipal sense that Kureishi would want to show he could do what his father could not, achieve success and acceptance in the country that belonged to him but manifestly not to his father.
What separated Kureishi from his father, and for that matter from Rushdie or VS Naipaul, was that Kureishi was born in England. By definition, he wasn’t writing the immigrant narrative of “becoming”, but the native narrative of “being” and what it means to be. He was a native son, that status freighted with all the irony and defiance implied in Richard Wright’s title. “I was born in Bromley,” Kureishi once told an interviewer; his mother was English and, through his father, he “was always linked to the empire. Not only am I the child of a mixed marriage, but I always had that history.” Kureishi, speaking to Robert McCrum, literary editor of the Observer and before that an editor at Faber & Faber, Kureishi’s publisher, explained how he was, at 14, “a Pakistani kid who likes Jimi Hendrix, takes drugs and wants sex… it was a new kind of English realism.” Obviously, the most outlandish thing was not Hendrix, drugs and sex, but that juxtaposition of Pakistani and English.
H Hatterr, GV Desani’s irrepressible narrator, the precursor to Kureishi’s “British Asians” by some 45 years, introduces himself as “[b]iologically speaking… fifty-fifty of the species”. As Hatterr knew, the two halves were not the point, it was the reconciled whole. Zadie Smith, also speaking to McCrum, said she was 15 when she read The Buddha of Suburbia, “there was one copy going round our school like contraband… I’d never read a book about anyone remotely like me before.” Anthony Burgess, in an introduction to All About H Hatterr, wrote about Desani’s language: “It is what may be termed Whole Language… It is not pure English; it is, like the English of Shakespeare, Joyce and Kipling, gloriously impure.”
Glorying in impurity would suffice as a summation of the Kureishi oeuvre. He became widely known before The Buddha of Suburbia as the Oscar-nominated writer of My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), which was, if not the first film about British Asians, certainly the most significant, the script becoming a prescribed text on the Bombay University English MA syllabus. It is a film that somehow combines satire about thrusting (in more than one way) Pakistani businessmen, taking to Thatcherite Britain like ants to maple syrup, with a homosexual love affair between a young British-Pakistani entrepreneur and a bleached blond National Front supporter. With its stagey dialogue, barbed themes, visual and literary wit, and devotion to the surreal, My Beautiful Laundrette remains the most exciting, gleefully transgressive film to have been made about subcontinental immigrants to the West and their children.
Much of what Kureishi would explore in his first two novels, The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album, is further exposition of what he had so effectively shown in his first two films. His second film with Stephen Frears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), is set like Laundrette in an apocalyptic London, dirty, violent, running wild, but brimming with possibility, vitality, desire, with sheer éclat. In Laundrette, tension and conflict is everywhere. In the contrasts between a pair of Pakistani brothers in London, played by Roshan Seth and Saeed Jaffrey. One, Seth’s character, is an intellectual, a former journalist in Bombay, whose unhappiness in England and whose wife’s suicide has left him in a miasma of drink and depression in a dank flat, literally on the wrong side of the tracks; the other is an oleaginous businessman, with a big suburban house, a compliant wife, supplicant friends and a white mistress. “Speak my language dammit,” he says to her, early in the film, mid-coitus. But she is evidence of how fluently he speaks the language of immigration, of success on Thatcher’s terms. “In this damn country,” he tells his nephew, “which we hate and love, you can get anything you want… you have to know how to squeeze the tits of the system.”
Jaffrey’s character is more at home in 1980s England than the unemployed louts who have joined the National Front, standing on street corners, drinking, fighting and sneering racist abuse. It is one of these young men, played by Daniel Day Lewis, to whom Jaffrey’s nephew finds himself drawn. They had grown up together and their chance encounter—a meet cute that only Kureishi could script, on a rainy street to the soundtrack of racist abuse, a scene at once innocent, aggressive and very funny—leads to them becoming business partners and lovers. It is the one relationship in the film that is entirely uninfected by cynicism, exploitation and a disapproving, censorious society. It is as if the British-Pakistani misfit and the neo-fascist skinhead, in their tenderness towards each other, their solicitousness, while all around them falls apart, have given us a glimpse of a new, better world.
Underlying everything, whatever the incongruities, the reasons why their relationship should be “unnatural”, are two people who want each other. Sex offered hope, optimism, a way into the future. In Sammy and Rosie Get Laid there’s a famous scene in which the screen is split into a triptych to show three couples having sex, “a fuck sandwich” Kureishi called it—literal miscegenation as the answer to all the politics, the racial and economic disquiet on display in the rest of the film. For Kureishi’s protagonists, the characters for whom he has sympathy, sex is ecumenical, improved by choice and variety. It represents another way in which people upend convention. Kureishi is similarly optimistic about communal living, about houses and flats full of people squatting, living together as they please without regard not only for convention but often hygiene—a lionisation of what Burgess might have called the gloriously impure.
The messiness of the city separates it from the stifling neatness of the suburbs. In both Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie, London is carnivalesque, its streets a mad whirligig in which order has broken down. It is, as Sammy’s father, a dubious, despotic Pakistani politician, points out, “a cesspit”. Sammy’s father, Rafi, is played by Shashi Kapoor, and writ across his fine features as he walks down the streets is a squeamish distaste for the antic, for the ailing and convulsing city. “For me England is hot buttered toast on a fork in front of an open fire,” pronounces Rafi. And, because for all his moral niceness, his hypocrisy, Rafi is a man of the world, and because he is quoting Henry Green, he adds “and cunty fingers”.
It is a terrific line, subversive and lubricious, giving the lie to Rafi’s performances of conservative piety, as when he encourages Sammy to return to Pakistan, “home to your own country, where you’ll be valued, where you’ll be rich, where you’ll be powerful.” “I am home, Pop,” Sammy says, “this is the bosom.” It is, Sukhdev Sandhu wrote in London Calling, “[p]erhaps the most charming scene Kureishi has ever written”. “We love our city and we belong to it,” Sammy tells his disbelieving father, launching into a disquisition about the joys of London life, of ambulating through the city on Saturdays with Rosie, kissing and arguing, browsing in second-hand bookshops, going to plays and seminars: “Neither of us are English, we’re Londoners, you see.” This is not the imposing, imperial capital Rafi so reveres. For Kureishi, that London is dead, and in its place is a city in perpetual flux, unimpressed by authority and refashioned from the debris of Empire into something polymorphous, polyglot and polyracial.
Sammy and Rosie was not as well received as Laundrette. John Mullan, reviewing Sandhu’s book, expressed the critical consensus by confessing that he “remembered the film as gloomily and clumsily anti-Thatcherite”. The politics was less didactic in Laundrette, the characters less given to speechifying, the central couple less smugly “progressive” and middle class, but the films had a shared Weltanschauung, a shared faith in people creating their own space in an England, or at least a London that no longer had the strength or maybe heart to resist the new.
In contrast to the stasis of tradition, of “old” ways, Kureishi’s characters are always moving, always seeking novelty so that they and their city seem always inchoate, provisional, mutable. Instability is threatening though, uncomfortable and confusing. Soon enough the backlash came, and when it did the rejection of Kureishi-style multiculturalism came not just from the racists, the National Front, the Enoch Powell-lite politicians with their dire prognostications about immigrants, but also from the children of immigrants, the very people in whom Kureishi reposited his optimism. In 1989, Gurinder Chadha made her first film, I’m British But…, a half-hour documentary; from a rooftop in Southall, London’s subcontinental ghetto, in an echo of the Beatles’ last gig, a bhangra band performed for the cameras. The song was mournful, a reproach of Punjabis who had left India for England—“My friend,” the onscreen translation read, “how will you ever thrive / In this strange and loveless land.” The beat, in ironic counterpoint, was irresistible.
Below, a group of teenage girls obliged, dancing without compunction, as if this English street was theirs, which of course it was. The preponderance of immigrants interviewed for the documentary complained about their loss, talked of their longing for their country, for dignity, for their language and way of life, their futile hope that their children would reflect, as children all over the world do, their parents and their values. The children, on the other hand, talk of ways in which to adapt their cultural backgrounds to their new circumstances. Chadha’s metaphor is bhangra, how young British Asian DJs stripped it of its rural context and made it their own, turned it into music suburban white kids could dance to at a nightclub.
By 1989, though, British Asians were burning copies of The Satanic Verses on the streets, seeking not to find themselves in the piecing together of a new, singular culture from the threads of their past and present, like the young people in Chadha’s documentary, but through reclaiming some imagined past. Kureishi, disturbed by the responses of British Muslims, an ethnic category that began to replace the amorphous British Asian, to The Satanic Verses, wrote about growing fundamentalism in The Black Album, published in 1993. The novel opens in Kilburn, northwest London, in a student building that is a macrocosm of multicultural London: “The many rooms in the six-door building were filled with Africans, Irish people, Pakistanis, and even a group of English students. The various tenants played music, smoked dope and filled the dingy corridors with the smell of bargain aftershave and boiled goat… disputed in several languages, castigated their dogs, praised their birds, and practiced the trumpet.”
Shahid, the protagonist, lives in this building. The room next to his is silent, so uncharacteristic of the house that Shahid assumes it is unoccupied. Its occupant turns out to be Riaz, a budding fundamentalist, his lack of connection to Shahid’s England marked by his silent room and that he “appeared to take no interest in the life around him”, the perpetual circus of London street life that Kureishi’s protagonists find so vivifying. In 1994, The New Yorker published a Kureishi short story, “My Son the Fanatic”, which was made into a film three years later, directed by Udayan Prasad.
Less than a decade after Chadha made her film full of young people declaring their alienation from both their parents’ culture and mainstream “British” culture and their belief that they were the harbingers of something new, Kureishi wrote a script that suggested the opposite—that it was the older immigrant who was willing to adapt, to relinquish old certainties, and his son who clung instead to religious “tradition”, who became sclerotic, unbending, incapable of constructing a meaningful self in England. Om Puri plays a Pakistani taxi driver, bewildered, and later disgusted, by his son. It is Puri’s character who might put on a jazz record, drink some whisky, make friends with a white prostitute, while his son finds identity and companionship in the local mosque.
My Son the Fanatic should be grouped with Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie as a loose trilogy about the promise of multi-culturalism, the vision it proffered of the city as capacious enough, generous enough, for everyone, and its ultimate failure. An alternative title for My Son the Fanatic could be The Closing of the British Asian Mind. The film showed the appeal of political Islam, the seduction of clarity. Kureishi was aware of the irony that what in Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie had appeared so seductive, the unbridled choice of multiculturalism—the knowledge not that you didn’t have to choose but that you could choose it all—had proved powerless before the dry austerity, the prim, priggish radicalism of the fundamentalists.
East is East, written by Ayub Khan-Din (Sammy in Sammy and Rosie), came out in 1999, nostalgic and sweet but staid compared to Kureishi’s films made over a decade earlier. It was also part of an English tradition that films like Laundrette were a reaction against, had exposed as dull and irrelevant—the period piece. As Kureishi had sussed, the multicultural project, still being conceived in the period in which East is East was set, was by 1999 on life support. After September 11, films about Muslims were films about terrorism. For a brief, thrilling period in the 1980s Kureishi had opened up the tantalising possibility that films could be made about Muslims, about Indian and Pakistani immigrants, which were complicated, funny, eccentric and indisputably individual. Kureishi’s films cared about people, not communities. It is a judgement upon our world that such films now seem impossible.
This essay was published in the July-September 2017 issue of The Indian Quarterly.