When Renuka, in Mona Dash’s short story “Natural Accent”, asks a passer-by to direct her to a certain restaurant in London, he answers, “I am an outsider like you. I am lost as well.” This two-line answer of a person who never re-appears in the story hints at the many forms of identity crisis in diaspora communities—one of the themes that cuts across all the stories in the book May We Borrow Your Country. Renuka is just one among the millions of immigrants living in the UK. So the question arises, can a single story—which might seem incomplete without an insignificant person or incident—tell the whole story, the whole story of the immigrant for example?
For Preti Taneja, author of We That Are Young that won the Desmond Elliot Prize 2018, the answer is negative. In her foreword to the book, she comments, “It can never be written by one single writer…The whole story cannot only contain one language or one accent, one register or one narrative voice or genre, gender, age, body type or set of social experiences. It must contain multitudes.”
To tell the whole story of the South Asian immigrants, Britain's largest ethnic minority group, some award-winning British creative writers—novelists, poets, short story writers and screenwriters—of South Asian origin formed a group famously known as The Whole Kahani (The complete Story) in 2011. Their aim has been “to give a new voice to British Asian Fiction.” Critically acclaimed Love Across a Broken Map (2016), an anthology of short stories, published by Dahlia Publishing, was their first project.
May We Borrow Your Country, published earlier this year, is the group’s second book, which, besides short stories, contains a collection of poems.
The book has it all that Preti has suggested: themes of displacement and dislocation, desire for belongingness and inclusion. The stories revolve around immigrants who cross borders carrying their dreams, pleasures and perils, and nostalgia. Some, however, go back. In the story “A Laughing Matter” by Shibani Lal, we find Rohan, a well-paid consultant, going back to his childhood city, Bombay. Although his naive faith in his inherent Bombayness is thoroughly shattered as he encounters frauds and opportunists, this new life appears to him as something worth living in the end. His affirmation “London could wait. It was time for some fun” only reveals how powerful nostalgia can be and how it makes people return to their roots.
The stories and poems are assembled in a way that gets the readers going until the end. They illustrate multi-layered slices of history—personal and collective; the great metamorphosis of the immigrants from the traditional into the digital—with an underlying sense of empathy. The stories are evocative and self-reflective, sometimes humorous.
There are eight writers represented in the collection and three of them: Reshma Ruia, Kavita A. Jindal and Mona Dash have contributed both poetry and prose. The female characters in the stories have collectively broken the existing gender stereotypes for women from the Indian subcontinent. Most of them are spirited, courageous and psychologically, if not financially, independent.
Radhika Kapur’s second story “Inbetween” is a narrative monologue of a female writer who transforms herself into a new being by discovering her “own narrative voice”, while her first story “The Metallic Miniskirt” is about an unequal relationship between Divya and her mother-in-law Asthma. Though Divya has romanticized ideas about her new life in England—the idea, for example, that she’d be able to wear a miniskirt—all she found was a domineering mother-in-law as her cooking master. Asthma, borrowing a Kung-Fu master’s voice from her favorite “hi-yah, hi-yah movies”, her only means of entertainment, instructs Divya, “Now close your eyes and imagine that your hands are actually my hands… If you actually feel it, your hands will know exactly what to do,” supposing Divya was born to continue the duties of a traditional mother—a tradition that has migrated to the UK as well. Later, her escape in the shower wearing nothing but a metallic miniskirt gives the reader a sense that there is still hope for a change, as long as she wants it as a modern woman.
This anthology successfully interweaves stories of both male and female characters. In CG Menon’s “Fox Cub” and Reshma Ruia’s “A Simple Man”, Kumar and Pikku, two male immigrants living in the UK, are sketched with a sense of empathy. In “A Simple Man”, Pikku confronts his sister’s perception about his job (his sister believes he has a very good job here whereas he works as a guard at a museum). Afterward, in order to fulfil one of her sister’s wishes, he resorts to theft—something which seems out of his character. The uncertainty of an immigrant’s life, thus, has found a place in the different pages of this anthology.
In “The Enlightenment of Rahim Baksh”, Nadia Kabir Barb delves into the psychology of Rahim Baksh, a Bangladeshi man who begins to find his Bangladeshi wife outdated and unattractive as he falls head over heels in love with a British woman. The woman’s friendly gestures lead Rahim to believe that his love is being reciprocated. To his utter dismay, though, he soon finds out that the woman loves someone else.
On the other hand, a sense of belongingness is rediscovered in “The Inventory”, in which Deblina Chakrabarty gives her readers a family experience that all of us at some point may have experienced. In the story, two sisters get together after their mother’s death, and they are to decide on which things would belong to whom.
Apart from the stories, the insightful poems of this anthology also tell similar stories. In Kavita A. Jindal’s poem “Jungle Drums Lead Us”, she reminds all of us of where we have descended from as she observes that “our wood is too desiccated to build bridges” and asks if there is any narrative that could reach across. In May We Borrow Your Country, readers might find some thought-provoking answers.
Hironmoy Golder is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters.