SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Reaching out

NARRATIVE

Reaching out

WHEN writers, however talented they might be, are required to produce fiction on a theme, there is always the danger that fixed parameters will overwhelm the narrative. And the 10 contributors to Walking a Tightrope: New Writing from Asian Britain, edited by Rehana Ahmed, had their brief particularly well defined for them: They were asked to write stories that "captured the diversity of Britain's South Asian population for a contemporary multicultural readership" and also to fill a gap in the literature available "for younger readers by Britain's Asian writers".

Such an exhortation immediately throws up some potential dilemmas. First of all, you have to decide who these targeted "younger readers" are to be. If, as this book seems to do, you view them as being mainly teenagers, you are almost automatically obliged to write about adolescent angst and the pangs of growing up in a manner that all potential book-buyers will approve of without feeling either patronised or poorly understood. There is a reasonable body of literature in this genre of writing available in English: In the current context, for instance, there is the ready example of Anita and Me, written by Meera Syal with a sentimental, yet brilliantly light touch to precisely the brief set for Ahmed's contributors. So you have to make the old familiar situations seem fresh, or face them squarely and perhaps pay tribute to them as, again, Syal does with her slyly affectionate acknowledgement of Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird in Anita.

And so to the other part of the problem set: The "British South Asian" requirement. If you're Farrukh Dhondy (who contributes "Yellow Dog", one of the stories in the collection under review), you simply ignore this prerequisite, and write a sweet-and-simple narrative about a little girl in a little village in Maharashtra, with resonances of Munshi Premchand's "Idgah" in it. Debjani Chatterjee, with "The Yeti Hunter", inverts the conundrum, writing instead about a young Enlightenment-type British explorer in search of the Abominable Snowman, a tale that starts out rather unpromisingly but ends with a delicious twist.

All the other writers face their brief bravely and squarely, with varying degrees of success. Perhaps, as the editor argues, there is not, as yet, a substantial body of work available in this category. However, there is by now enough that renders certain characters and situations — such as the maladjusted immigrant parents who only ever want their children to be doctors or engineers, make lots of money and eat well; the funny accents or stubbornly South Asian patterns of running homes and kitchens halfway across the world that the children must mediate with their fish-and-chip non-Asian school-mates — stock enough. Surely, South Asian readers of English and viewers of popular and highly successful British South Asian television shows and movies as diverse as "Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge" and "Bend it like Beckham" recognise these types by now. So there's that potential source of reader fatigue to deal with, too.

This last problem area is what makes the father in Preethi Nair's "Jubilee Dreams" — who is, to be fair, very real and familiar — a trifle, well, too familiar. Much the same might be said of Oscar's father — "an accountant who had lost count" — in Romesh Gunesekera's "Tightrope", and Mala's mum (who "bristled in her nylon sari") and "Aunties" in Shyama Perera's "One Small Step".

Aamer Hussein's "Tsuru" demonstrates how the requirements of the collection may be met with apparently effortless, even lyrical ease, resulting in a beautifully written tale about a femme fatale, an upper-class Pakistani adolescent hero, and the many subtle and complex ways in which non-Western immigrant cultures interface with each other in modern, urban Britain. Bali Rai ("Beaten") and Rukhsana Ahmed ("First Love") revisit the old familiar characters and tropes, but both writers do manage to avoid letting their stage-sets overwhelm their stories, and get on with telling them.

Jamila Gavin, with "Stab the Cherry", an old-fashioned feel-good story about a young Asian boy and his devotion to the drums and to his mentor, Mr. Robinson, against all the ugly odds of life on a public housing estate, provides another fresh look at life as a young British Indian in the 21st Century.

And so to Adam Zameenzad's "Ali, the Elephant and the Bicycle", the last story in the collection and this reader's personal favourite. In the rich and much-imitated tradition of setting up out-of-body experiences for precocious young heroes like Lewis Carroll's Alice, Ali tells the story of an earnest, vulnerable, "prone-to-fear boy" on his 13th birthday, which is also his first day of school in the Kingdom of Nonsense, where he has recently arrived with his mother, after his father was picked up by Grade-A Government Agents (the gaga) in a Very Sensible Land, never to be seen again. All the uncertainties of Ali's new life are swept up in an exuberant fantasy that somehow seems very sensible indeed. There is hope for the genre after all!

HARINI NARAYANAN

Walking a Tightrope: New Writing from Asian Britain, edited by Rehana Ahmed, Picador India, Rs. 225.