#DesiBooksReview 2: Nikesh Shukla on Literary Lineage

#DesiBooksReview Issue 2

Literary Lineage: Why Hanif Kureishi Felt Like Family

[Excerpted with permission from Your Story Matters by Nikesh Shukla. Copyright © 2022 Nikesh Shukla.]

Many writers are writers because they have been readers for so long, endlessly chasing the perfect story, before deciding it is high time they write it for themselves. Or they read voraciously—and hate everything they read. Never able to find that perfect balance of character, plot, setting, and story that hits all their buttons. The author Chinua Achebe, who wrote the astounding novel Things Fall Apart, famously said, ‘If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.’

I was a shy kid, hanging out in my bedroom most of the time, reading and waiting till I was allowed to watch television. The alternative to television was comics. And when comics weren’t available, it was movie tie-in books and Star Trek novelizations and Star Wars expanded universe novels. They were like TV, except you set the pace in your head. These books were gateway drugs for me. Once I had read all the Han Solo novels stocked in my local library, I moved on to thrillers and sci-fi, hoping to find someone I loved as much as Han Solo. And as I became a teenager, I widened my reading habits in order to find sex scenes in novels to satisfy my raging hormones. Don’t judge me. You’ve done this yourself.

Weirdly, it was being a teenage boy, in the pre-internet era, in search of sex scenes to read or watch that brought me to some of my favorite authors and filmmakers. I discovered Spike Lee, hoping there would be some sex scenes in Do the Right Thing. Instead, I was witness to an intense and brilliant story about community, responsibility, race and gentrification. I read Madame Bovary because I read about its sex scenes in a book for teenagers called The Amazing and Death-Defying Diary of Eugene Dingman by Paul Zindel. It was the search for sex that brought me to stories. It’s funny to think that this, of all things, was what led me to read widely.

My search for sex led me to the book that changed my life and made me realize I had my own voice. That book was The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi. It had loads of sex in it. And it was funny. And it was written by a Brown guy. Which, for the time I found it, and the world in which I sought to come of age, was mind-blowing.

“My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories.”

So begins Kureishi’s novel. That ‘almost’ was the line that got me. The way it rattled around in my head. Helping me understand something I was in the process of figuring out: myself. I remember the day I got that book out of the library. I’d seen trailers for the BBC Two television show—starring a young, beautiful Naveen Andrews, soundtracked by David Bowie—and thought: there’s no way my parents are going to let me watch that. It looked like it was filled with sex and drugs and rock and roll and it was definitely not the type of thing I’d want to sit next to my mum and dad and watch in our one-television, mid-nineties household. Also, the timer function on our video recorder was erratic. Also, I would need to start recording the show while Mum and Dad were watching the news and I couldn’t risk either of them flicking over to see what I was taping during the local segment.

I needed to watch it, though. I needed to see this outsider Brown kid on this show. All this flashed through my head as I watched the trailer, increasingly despondent that I’d never get to watch this programme. Then came the title card: ‘Based on the novel by Hanif Kureishi’.

A-ha. A loophole, I realized. I could get this book out from the library.

My family did not do things together very often. We didn’t eat together; we didn’t do weekend daytrips together; we didn’t sit and talk about our days together. My parents worked seven days a week on a small business with my dad’s brother, both too tired to do anything other than feed my sister and me, insist that we did our homework, and remind us of our responsibilities: speak good English, study hard and be polite and grateful.

We watched sitcoms together and we went to the library together. My mum and I watched anything with a laughter track growing up. Desmond’s, Only Fools and Horses, The Real McCoy to Red Dwarf, whatever we could find. There was a comfort in laughing at the tragedies and misfortunes of others. Because, as my mum once put it, “The only thing separating our lives from a sitcom is a studio audience.” She would joke with me about Dad’s business and the various things that would go wrong between two brothers with the best intentions and different styles, who acted like smooth businesspeople but also had to act as everything else in that warehouse, from courier, cleaner and order-packer to HR. She said they were the original Del Boy and Rodney. She’d cast her eyes over to the other side of the room where my father sat in silence with a tumbler of whisky, listening to the sad mournful tones of Rafi, loud enough that we watched everything with the subtitles on.

The lesson I learned from those sitcoms I watched with Mum was that amongst all the pain and hardship, life was inherently funny.

The other thing we did as a family (minus Dad) was go to the library together. There, my library card gave me free rein. I could go wherever I wanted. Nothing was off-limits. Mum needed fifteen minutes to find new Mills & Boon books to read and my sister would curl up on a beanbag and stare into space. I could venture into any section I wanted, and pick out any book I wanted.

I’m not saying for a second that every character in a book needs to look like you in order for you to enjoy it. All I’m saying is that at critical times of your life, where you feel like a weirdo, an outsider, someone who doesn’t belong, someone alone, be it when you’re a kid, a teenager, a young adult or at another transitional time in your life, seeing a version of yourself can be the biggest comfort in the world.

This Brown boy, who felt weird and unattractive and unloved and unliked and different to everyone else around him, needed to see a version of that somewhere somehow.

So at the library, when I saw the name of the author, Hanif Kureishi, I was taken aback. It was a Brown person’s name. It felt comforting to me to see a familiar name on the cover of a book. In print. It was tangible. It was real. It could be held. Wasn’t Mr Kureishi the name of that guy with the Datsun who drove around north-west London in the eighties, renting out pirated Bollywood VHS tapes to South Asian families from his boot? Kureishi felt like family. I opened the book, scanned the opening lines there and then saw that ‘almost’ . . . I can remember the feeling as I read that word, wrapping itself around me like the orange shawl my ba used to balance on her shoulders. It made me feel less alone.

It was 1993, and I felt like a funny kind of Englishman. I was increasingly caught between two worlds. At home, I found myself speaking Gujarati less and less. The group of Asian kids I hung around with at school was ‘affectionately’ referred to as ‘the Paki posse’ by our white counterparts. I was discovering rap and bhangra and, if I was not working with my parents in their warehouse, the odd daytime rave at weekends. Always overhead was that heavy imperative: work hard and take over the family business.

Kureishi’s ‘almost’ got me. Finally, an acknowledged duality, a nuanced fluidity, a spectrum. I didn’t have to be one or the other; I could be in-between. I could be almost.

After The Buddha of Suburbia, I diligently scanned the spines of every single volume in the adult section of the library, looking for other South Asian names. That book had changed my life: it said everything I felt, saw things through a lens I recognized, made me feel less like a weirdo.

It also unlocked something in my reading. Though I didn’t find another South Asian name for a while, I found myself tearing through Crime and Punishment, Middlemarch, Brave New World, Adrian Mole. Instead of movie and TV tie-ins, I was reading more of the world. I was heading through time and space, through country and county. I learned about myself, other people, different cultures, my own culture.

In White Teeth, Zadie Smith writes: “There was England, a gigantic mirror, and there was Irie, without reflection.” Books are mirrors, and I found my reflection in The Buddha of Suburbia. That one act of representation was enough to show me that I belonged. Thanks to a library, I am ‘almost’, and that is enough for me. And that’s why, to me, stories matter. Whether they offer you escape or comfort, whether they expand your view of the world or cement it, a story can change your life.

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