Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir was a brilliant evocation of his childhood as well as an exploration of what it is like to have a past truth revealed. In this case, the discovery of his father’s mental illness and the impact this must have had on his mother. Dealing with the past as an adult threw up for him his feelings about what he might have known but did not confront. It was a terrific exploration of how families cope and how they create their own histories. It was a wonderful book so no surprise that BBC television made a film version.
Sacha Darwan plays the adult Sathnam Sanghera as he heads back home from his high powered job on a national newspaper in London. His family in Wolverhampton have a life that seems alien to him now, especially as he has a girlfriend in London who is neither Punjabi nor Sikh. He has yet to reveal this truth since it would break with family tradition. On the other hand, his parents have a secret from him, one that is revealed when he helps them with packing. The medication for his father is to control his schizophrenia. The shock for the adult Sathnam is that he never knew this central aspect of his family’s story. He was equally unaware that his sister seems to exhibit the same symptoms as his father.
This is a story of uncovering the past and coming to terms with it. The film shows the younger Sathnam as a shadow figure looking on as his adult self walks the old streets of his childhood city. Coming to terms with the past also involves coming to terms with the present: there is a partner, who as white British, may not be accepted in his family; the time has come to find out.
The book was excellent and the film lives up to the calibre of the written word even if the story has to be pared down for the benefit of the screen. In telling the central story much of his school life is jettisoned here. Yet it is a film with heart and one that does justice to Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir.
The work of Joe Sacco inspired me to find more graphic novels and graphic reportage so, after years of never going near the shelf with all the ‘comic books’, I now look out for new titles that are worth reading. This memoir by Marcelino Truong is brilliant. It follows an earlier work that I have yet to read but this volume covering the years 1963- 1975 is an excellent evocation of an interesting era. It makes it more interesting that the author/artist has dual heritage: his mother was French and his father Vietnamese. His father’s job in the Embassy in London brought the family to Britain and, although he changed jobs, this where they stayed.
Truong combines information about the Vietnam War with a personal family story. Where the two overlap, the most insights are to be found. In some senses, this is the story of every family. ‘Marco’ grew up in London at the same time I did so the references, both pictorial and written, to the changing times are of particular interest. So, too, is the invitation to consider the Vietnam War from a different angle. It isn’t the American angle but neither is it the contrary North Vietnamese view of things. Instead, Marco sees the radical students around him supporting the anti- colonial forces of the north and cannot understand why the communists are seen as benign. His position is one of concern for the family and friends in South Vietnam.
As his hair grew longer in the 70s so did his understanding of what was actually going on in Vietnam. When he moves to France as a teenager, he continues to find himself in the middle of the conflict between North Vietnamese supporting students and those who support the ‘western values’.
This memoir has a parallel story, though. It is one of being of mixed heritage and of living with a mother who has bipolar disorder. The effect of these two factors in his growing up and the directions taken by each of his siblings make for a poignant reminder of what family life can be.
‘Saigon Calling’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This is a book that I picked up because of its cover. The story takes place over two countries and several decades, focusing on the inter- relation of two families, one Indian and one British as various members meet and depart over the years.
There is a central act that affects them all but the nature of the incident is not revealed until the end. However, the sense that we are heading towards this one essential event pervades the book. Amitav Ghosh keeps the reader with him since we want to know what glue kept these families together but why is there a gulf between them (to mix the metaphors!).
The novel is in two parts: Going Away and Coming Home. The narrator starts as a young boy in Calcutta trying to work out the adults around him. He hero worships Tridib, his worldly uncle, who seems to negotiate the world with ease. Tridib has lived in London as well as India and it is here that the link with the British family, the Prices, is established. The son of the family is in love with Ila, the narrator’s cousin, and the daughter is in love with Tridib.
We know from early on that May, the daughter, is not ‘with’ Tridib even though she travelled to India and then Bangladesh to be near him. The reason why becomes clear and the meetings of the narrator with May in London in the 60s become meaningful when the gaps in the families’ histories are filled.
What could be a complex novel is skilfully handled by Ghosh. The narrator’s feelings for and about the members of both families change over time and, just as in most families, the narrative is never straight forward. In the end, though, the adult narrator comes to an accommodation with his younger self and realises that family secrets are rarely helpful or healthy.
‘The Shadow Lines’ by Amitav Ghosh is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
If I had a list of favourite books, this one would have to be on it. I don’t, I have a hinterland instead so there is room for this wonderful story of the lives of four people, all desperate in their own way, as they cross in Sheffield in Yorkshire.
There is a central story of the four people, three men and a woman, trying to survive in difficult circumstances in a city that is sometimes unwelcoming. The novel is broken up with extended back story chapters showing the paths that led each character to their current situation. In unveiling the story, Sunjeev Sahota, shows us how interdependent our lives are but also how easy it is to ignore those at the bottom of the pile.
Tochi, Randeep and Avtar live together with other migrant workers in a squat in Sheffield. Each has come to Britain from India. Randeep has an arranged marriage with a British Asian woman and Avtar has a student visa. They are both Sikhs and are connected through the sister of one who is the girlfriend of the other. Tochi is from the very bottom of the pile in India since he is an ‘untouchable’. His story is the most tragic, something that must be kept in mind when he often seems to be the least sympathetic of characters in the book. The everyday injustices are seen in the small moments and in the way these men treat each other. At the edge of their lives is Narindar, a young woman from a reasonably prosperous family who wants to live out the teachings of her Sikh religion by doing good. Her chosen path is her way of living out her faith but when this conflicts with family honour there is heartache and anxiety.
This excellent novel shows an aspect of British life that is most often only revealed through the shrill headlines of the tabloid press. Sunjeev Sahota shows us what might lie behind the accusatory headlines of illegal immigrant and sham marriages. At first sight, the title seems to refer to the fact that the men have run away to England. By the end of the book, I wondered whether the ‘runaway’ was the aspiration to get them out of the hell they were in.
This book is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Royal Pavilion in Brighton is an amazing building if only because it looks so out of place in a southern English seaside city. The gateway at the southern end was not part of the original John Nash design although it complements the exotic aspirations of the building. Rather, the gate was a gift from the people of India for ‘caring for her sons’ during the First World War. The Pavilion was used as a hospital for the wounded so, leaving aside the idea that the Indians came to the aid of the Empire when Britain was under threat, it was a generous gift from the people of India.
This play by Rajiv Joseph was a thought- provoking exploration of the themes of beauty, power and class. Two guards take the dawn shift at the site where the Taj Mahal is being built. They cannot look at the building as it is not their place to do so and neither can they turn their backs to take a look. The building is beautiful, some say the most beautiful building in the world. It was built with the hands of 20,000 men. These hands become important as the play moves towards its end. We do not see these other men, or indeed any other characters other than Babur, played by Darren Kuppan , and Humayun, played by Danny Ashok. Babur is the curious one, ready to dream of a different life, while Hamayun is the guard who knows his place and who follows orders… any order that is given to him. This too becomes important as the play moves on.
The play uses a legend that the workers who built the Taj Mahal had their hands cut off so that they could not build anything as beautiful again. The two characters carry out this gruesome task but struggle with the idea that beauty can be protected in this way or that anyone could want the quest for beauty to end.
There is one flashback, included to throw the ending into sharper relief. Otherwise the play progresses from an ordinary dawn on one day to a tragic ending. Both actors were terrific with their own British accents used in part to remind us that the themes and circumstances are with us still. The poorest of the world are still used as labour in big building projects around the world and rulers still wield power in unexpected ways.
Back in the 80s the BBC broadcast two series of ‘The Chinese Detective’ with David Yip in the central role of John Ho, a keen policeman in London’s East End who has to solve crimes as well as battle the racism of his bosses.
It was a time when new police dramas were appearing, each with an ‘angle’ that made them distinct. The angle for this series is obvious but the distinction of being British Chinese did not last much beyond the first few episodes. There was a running sub- plot about clearing the name of Ho’s father who had been wrongly convicted of a crime years before. The suggestion was that his father took the blame because of his minority status.
In most episodes, and in series two there was no other Chinese face to be had, and very few faces characters that were not white- strange, really as this was London’s East End!
I had seen David Yip on stage a few years before and it was great to see him as the first British Chinese actor in a lead role. I watched the episodes again many years later as a box set and loved seeing the old East End scenes, in the years before the area was transformed. The idea of a maverick police officer, ignoring procedures and protocol to solve a crime is somewhat tired now, and may have been then, but it was still an enjoyable experience to revisit old times.
‘The Chinese Detective’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?