28 May 2012

Book Review: A Small Fortune

Round and round the diaspora bush

A Small Fortune
By Rosie Dastgir
Quercus Books (Penguin India Rs. 450)

Set in a derelict former mill town in the north of England, this debut novel from Rosie Dastgir is the latest fictional exploration of the pulls and pushes of a British-Asian life.

Dastgir’s themes — the ossification of cultures in exile, one generation’s inability to understand another, the struggle to reconcile individual ambition with loyalty to family — are ones she shares with other British-Asian authors: Meera Sayal, Nikita Lalwani, Monica Ali, Hanif Kureishi, Satnam Sanghera.

Dastgir is a quiet writer: not as provocatively visceral as Kureishi, she doesn’t have Sayal’s gift for generous, easy humour. But she clearly knows this world well, and sketches it deftly, with thankfully little of the mango-coconut imagery that can afflict diasporic writing. Her matter-of-fact descriptions convey incongruity without being mawkish: “Come rain or shine, the women threw on rubber flipflops, pulled emerald and fuchsia dupattas about them, and pegged out the washing in the forlorn hope that the English north wind might blow it dry before the next downpour.”

Even more creditably, Dastgir succeeds in creating several characters who are recognisable, even familiar, without keeling over into caricature.

At the centre of the book is a Pakistani British man with the unlikely name of Harris, a name acquired when he abandoned “the long, flat vowel sound” of the original Urdu “Haaris” upon arrival in England in the 1970s. The name change isn’t dwelt upon, but it is tempting to think of it as emblematic of Harris’ approach to life: a continual, even innocuous desire to blend in, to oblige the people around him. But that seemingly simple desire seems to continually come up against some other less tractable part of himself. He may have spent most of his life married to a British woman, believing he loved — perhaps actually loving — the gravy she served up with her roasts, but now that she’s divorced him, he finds himself baffled by English food — “All those wretched tin cans, the leathery joints of meat, the vegetables pulverised in boiling water.”

The more Harris tries to keep his life and relationships simple, the more convoluted everything gets. There’s his daughter Alia, studying medicine in London, much to his pride and delight — until he discovers that she’s making independent decisions he cannot seem to get his head around. There’s the plethora of cousins he’s kept at arm’s length most of his life, but in whose easy, undemanding company he now finds comfort — until it turns out that they’re not so undemanding after all. Then there are his connections with the Pakistani world he left behind, relationships which Dastgir maps a little too neatly onto that country’s obviously stark economic contrasts: on one hand, the impoverished Khalid Ali and family, who desperately seek financial help, and on the other, Harris’ supremely rich, plainly corrupt old friend Omar, who lazily dangles help like a carrot. In every case, things are not what they seem, and Harris must learn this the hard way.

A Small Fortune creates a vivid sense of the contradictions and erasures of this diasporic world, of which Harris — charmingly vulnerable, well-meaning, but also frustratingly set in his beliefs — is the symbolic centre. So Harris realises that he cannot drop in on Alia without warning, but continues to nurse a peculiar blindness about her having a boyfriend. You cannot but warm to Harris as he tentatively woos the Cambridge-educated, independent-minded widow, Dr Farrah, or smiles affectionately as his penchant for ridiculous high drama (“I fear I am on my last legs”) reminds you of a grandparent.

But it is Alia who is the critical filter. It is through Alia’s eyes that we see the deeply skewed gender dynamic in her cousin Nawaz’s home, where the assumption that cooking and cleaning and childcare are women’s jobs remains unquestioned. Alia’s frustration at not being able to get her father to see that home-cooked food does not appear magically, or to recognise Nawaz’s solicitude for the trap that it is: Dastgir handles these things with the delicacy they deserve.

But there are other occasions when one wishes she wouldn’t spell everything out quite so much. For instance, when Harris proposes to Farrah, we’ve already had a page and a half of Harris telling Farrah that his relatives are scandalised by their living in sin. But Dastgir can’t leave us to figure out Farrah’s reaction: the narrator’s voice steps heavily in to re-state the obvious: “It seemed to her that he wanted propriety in the eyes of his cousins more than anything else. More than love of her, more than a desire for happiness.”

The sections about Rashid, Harris’ fresh-off-the-boat nephew, are particularly overwrought. It is as if as soon as she puts in the recently arrived immigrant, even Dastgir can’t seem to avoid the overripe quality of lines such as this one: “The scent of garlic and ginger had percolated through the backstreets of Whitechapel, sought him out, drawn him inexorably towards the house.” As for the dramatic turn involving Rashid and the preacher Mohsin Begg, the predictability of the plot prevents any emotional investment, even as the prose gets more and more turgidly metaphorical: “He was far out to sea now, drifting further.” And again: “The three words buoyed him as he drifted further and further into the dark choppy waves, wondering if he would ever find his way back again.”

The book does eventually find its way back to shore, but by then it has lost us.

Published in the Asian Age.

No comments: