This is England

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Photo: Nadav Kander
Photo: Nadav Kander

The words ‘apna’ or ‘apneh’ are everywhere in Sunjeev Sahota’s writing. They are crucial to understanding his lost, lonely young men, their need to belong. When Imtiaz Raina, the would-be suicide bomber at the heart of Sahota’s debut novel Ours Are The Streets, returns to Pakistan, he is told: “You’re not a valetiya any more, you understand? You’re an apna.” Imtiaz writes — the book is a long suicide note, a man’s explanation of himself to his family — “There it was. I’d never thought a cheap rusty café called Jimmy’s on an unmarked road in Muzzafarabad would be the spot where I learned that I weren’t a lone man in this world.”

That ‘weren’t’ is telling, as is Sahota’s (or Imtiaz’s) use of words like ‘sempt’ for ‘seemed’. Imtiaz can’t keep his birthplace, can’t keep north of England out of his voice. He can’t see that an essential part of him belongs to England. This falling between the country in which you were born and the country of your ‘roots’ is, among the children of immigrants, a common complaint. So common, post-Rushdie, to have become a cliché. In the anthology Too Asian, Not Asian Enough, the editor Kavita Bhanote says, “each time another British Asian novel, film or memoir appears we can’t help feeling a sense of déjà vu. We see the same few narratives again and again, stories about generational and cultural conflict.” You can understand Bhanote’s exhaustion with the commercial reality of publishing: the desire to repeat a successful formula.

Of course, ‘British-Asian’ covers a wide swathe and one could just as easily include Nadeem Aslam, Ardashir Vakil, Kamila Shamsie, Tahmima Anam or Aamer Hussein alongside Monica Ali, Hari Kunzru and, of course, Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie. Put like this, ‘British-Asian’ writing appears in rude health. But Bhanote is right to point out that ‘British-Asian’ is not a catch-all term. “It carries certain regional and class associations,” she writes. “[M]ost ‘British Asians’ originate from Punjab, Gujarat, Mirpur and Sylhet, and have been part of the working classes.”

Sahota fits this description. His grandparents left rural Punjab in the mid-’60s to find work in the iron foundries of Derby. “When they came to England,” Sahota says, “it was almost like the village in India had been transplanted to a corner of Derby.” His family could take comfort, however scant in a cold, strange land, in that facsimile of home. It was left to future generations to fight for their place in the new country. Sahota, 32, was born in 1981, a year of extensive race riots in English cities. His England, “a very angry place”, was a country where multiculturalism was won in street battles, through committed protest.

Now, when multiculturalism is blamed for ghettoisation and causing resentment among the majority community, Sahota is clear in its defence. Mixed-race people, he says someone told him, are the biggest minority group in Britain, “and that’s bloody fantastic”. “Multiculturalism in the post-war era has been massively successful,” he says. His idea of a cohesive national identity is “more multiculturalism, so people don’t have to feel their culture only exists behind their closed door, that it is part of the infrastructure of life and is celebrated just as the majority culture is celebrated.” In other words, we’re all of us here together. It is an echo of Imtiaz’s sentiment when he is with his extremist comrades in Pakistan. Except, Sahota finds that he belongs, feels included, in a society that celebrates difference.

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