The Vows of Otherhood


Niven Govinden charts 12 hours of an interracial marriage in a tense, claustrophobic narrative, says Parvati Sharma

Illustration: Samia Singh

JUST UNDER halfway through Niven Govinden’s slim third novel Black Bread White Beer, its protagonist Amal thinks of his wife Claud, that “in his readiness to make allowances, to mourn, he has forgotten what a bitch she can be”. Indeed, she can; but, as Amal allows, more often than not she has her reason, having just miscarried in the first trimester of a deeply coveted pregnancy. The novel charts 12 hours or so of the day after: from when Claud is discharged from the hospital in the morning until night descends over a so-English-it-hurts village in Sussex, where the couple go to help Claud’s parents install a new washing machine.

The washing machine is not, of course, the point. Nor is the miscarriage; or even the marriage itself, really, though its every festering nuance is revealed to us through Amal’s benumbed eyes. What emerges as the novel’s broader theme (suggested rather poetically in its title) is race.

The idea declares itself slap-bang when Amal recalls his father’s rant against Claud’s mother’s attempts to feed him a thali: “Speak your mind, man! Tell us your fears about what’s happening to pension funds, the wear and tear on your 4×4… or the future of your lovely farmhouse filled with brown babies, whose shitty arses you’ll be required to wipe on occasion. Tell us about your fingers covered in Paki shit and the road that led you to it. But, most importantly, give me bread and beef dripping and be done with it. No more of these chicken tikka skewers that come from a packet and pong of dishrag. Ha! Give me some bloody taste!”

Black Bread White Beer
Black Bread White Beer 
Niven Govinden
HarperCollins India
350 pp; Rs185

In the same vein, for all that Amal is British, he is to these alien manners bred not born. It doesn’t help that Claud’s father is a bit of a racist, nor that Claud herself is by no means a good Indian bride, drawing the line quite firmly at Tupperware boxes of dal and roti in her fridge. To dismiss these grating concerns as merely family trouble is disingenuous, Amal realises; ‘family’ is only a “euphemism for culture, because to call it culture would be to admit that there are more than cute gaps between the sexes causing difficulties in their marriage”. So when in crisis as now, “automatically, [Amal] bows to the Indian gene” — and automatically, then, Claud is othered.

In form and scope, Black Bread White Beer recalls Ian McEwan’s novella On Chesil Beach. Both deconstruct a marriage between opposites, both play out small moments of empathy teetering against misunderstanding in something approaching real-time, both reconstruct a sociological moment — McEwan’s is that of the pre-Pill past, Govinden’s of our first-to-be-post-racist present. In their emotional register, however, the two couldn’t be further apart. Where McEwan’s sepia-tinted ’60s setting allows for nostalgia to soften the blow of heartbreak, the twain of Govinden’s tense, claustrophobic narrative meet with such resounding impact that, as they flail away from each other, we ask not only if they shall ever meet again, but the very wisdom of such a meeting.

Sharma is the author of The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love


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