‘May We Borrow Your Country’: A collective of British writers of South Asian origin tells the whole story

They tell their migrant stories, over and over again

February 16, 2019 04:00 pm | Updated February 19, 2019 05:29 pm IST

"London, UK - July 23, 2011: Indian tourists in sari at the entrance of the British Museum in London, UK on July 23, 2011."

"London, UK - July 23, 2011: Indian tourists in sari at the entrance of the British Museum in London, UK on July 23, 2011."

How does it feel to be born in one place, the home country of your spouse, parents and grandparents, and simply go on living there, as ‘normal’ people do? And how does it feel instead to be on the spectrum — the expat-immigrant-displaced refugee spectrum? Persons who are physically displaced are prone to becoming psychologically and emotionally displaced as well. A taint unfairly clings to them, as if migration itself were a criminal act. So they tell their stories again and again, to explain themselves to others and also to talk themselves into belonging.

Preti Taneja’s foreword to the anthology May We Borrow Your Country evokes the many things that weigh down a woman writing in an alien land — structural prejudice, unchanging hierarchies of power, and a climate devoid of empathy. The writers featured are a collective of British novelists, poets and screenwriters of South Asian origin. They call themselves The Whole Kahani, and they want to tell the whole story of women in the U.K.

Crumbs of happiness

In ‘The Metallic Mini Skirt’, Radhika Kapur conveys the horror of young Divya being expected to merge her identity with her mother-in-law’s so that she can earn her wife degree. Expecting freedom in London, she instead must learn to cook the same dishes and wear the jewellery and the purple salwar suit — to be the mummy.

In ‘Where He Lives’ by Kavita Jindal, a story that seems to mirror Divya’s, Sabina defiantly marries into a family that lives in the old city, where women go about veiled. At first her burqa is an inconvenient reality, but as she goes about, Sabina begins to identify women by their feet, their gait, even by the bags they carry. You can’t erase an identity by shrouding it in black, she discovers. In making choices where she can, starting with whether to eat or fast, Sabina finds crumbs of happiness and even a way forward.

In ‘The Inventory’, Deblina Chakrabarty records the conversation so many of us will have someday, or have already had — between two sisters meeting after their mother’s death, sorting out her things, deciding who will take what. There is the sister who stayed in Calcutta and the sister who went away. Without quarrelling, they mindfully partition the memories, but bubbles of discord rise to the surface and pop. They are bureaucratically fair about the jewellery and the carved furniture, saving their real feelings for a brittle paper on which a poem is written and a wide, generous smile left forgotten on a bathroom shelf.

On the spectrum

In other stories, we hear the voice of the foot soldier in British society, a bit more invisible for being brown-skinned — a museum guard or the cook who also cleans. In Shibani Lal’s ‘A Laughing Matter’, we hear the man who whined when he went to London and whines now that he’s back in Mumbai. He struggles to reconcile a love for his country with the realisation that his countrymen fleece him whenever they can.

All these voices raise questions about living on the spectrum, and sometimes they offer answers. Radhika Kapur’s ‘Inbetween’ is not a story but a biographical meditation in which she recalls the limbo in which she was plunged and her way out through self-awareness. She learns to celebrate instead of complain. She went to London for a few years, so her process is perhaps very different from what might work for the old guard, who migrated for life, but it holds lessons for everyone.

Another assertive voice is Reshma Ruia’s. In her poem, ‘Dinner Party in the Home Counties’, she recalls those innocuous questions every migrant has fielded, which actually mean: What are you doing here, when you clearly don’t belong? The woman at the dinner party silently fingers the paisley on her silk shawl, but inside she declares her right to claim this slice of sky, plant her flag, and sow her seed.

Of immigrants in the U.K., South Asians are the largest subgroup. Linguistically they are perhaps the most privileged. The writers of this collective have won awards for their writing and this is their second anthology, so they are not voiceless. But, throughout history, borders have unexpectedly hardened, and at any time we may end up on the wrong side of an arbitrary line, asked to declare whether we are Irish or British, Bengali or Assamese. In such a world, there is little room for detachment when reading the stories of migrants.

The writer is author of Three Seasons: Notes from a Country Year .

May We Borrow Your Country: The Whole Kahani, Linen Press, ₹1,034

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