When Dick Widdington and his cat set off to London to seek their fortune, it was because he had heard the streets of the city were paved with gold. The story tells us that he was sorely disappointed to discover upon his arrival that London’s streets were no more paved with gold than any town, anywhere, in the world. In fact, in many ways, it turned out that life was even harder in the big city then it had been in the small town he had left behind.
All over the world, in countries torn apart by war, famine, and other disasters, the myth of a better life awaiting in the West persists even today. Television, glossy magazines, and other media paint a picture of a fabulous lifestyle filled with luxuries just waiting to be lived by those fortunate enough to make it to the promised lands. The reality, of course, is the same crushing disappointment felt by Dick Widdington. For the majority their new life is in many ways worse than what they had left behind as they didn’t even have the comfort of the familiar for solace.
In the the late 1940s and early 1950s, following the partition of Britain’s former colony into India and Pakistan, the subcontinent was rocked with religious violence. Muslims and Hindi were moved from homes they had occupied for generations as all of a sudden their neighbours turned against them after years of friendship and doing business together. Muslim families in what is now India, and Hindu families in what is now Pakistan gathered what they could carry and fled. The fortunate ones were herded onto trucks and trains to be shipped to their new homes in a new country while others were forced to try and make their way across the new border, avoiding rampaging mobs out for Hindu or Muslim blood.
Many people of both faiths exercised a third option and headed to the land of their former colonial master. Quite a few of those who made this decision had been British educated and were considered well off. They expected the West to provide them with the life style that the movies and the glossy magazines claimed was everyone’s right. Unfortunately, the Britain they landed in was in the midst of an economic tailspin that would last until the 1980s. Not only weren’t the streets paved with gold, but they also found themselves the object of racial and political attacks. They, it turned out, had stolen all the jobs and were the cause of all Britain’s woes.
Hanif Kureishi has made a successful career writing about the South East Asian community’s attempts to find their way in England. Movies and television shows like My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy & Rosie Get Laid, and The Buddha Of Suburbia have detailed the stories of the first generation born in England and their struggles to fit in with their contemporaries. Now in his latest novel, Something To Tell You, being released on August 19th/08 by Simon & Shuster Canada, that generation has grown up and are raising children of their own. Dr. Jamal Khan is a psychoanalyst, separated from his wife, the father of a son on the cusp of adolescence, and in firm denial of his own middle age.
Neither he or sister Miriam have ever fully recovered from their childhood. Their father was a Muslim born in colonial Bombay (Mumbai) and their mother was a suburban girl from London. When they separated, it was because Jamal’s father wanted to go home where he felt like he belonged, and moved to Pakistan. He would visit England a couple times a year, and Jamal always felt like he had to live up to and impress his father. He was everything that Jamal thought he wanted to be; confident, intelligent, and always surrounded by beautiful and intelligent women. Both children grew up in that shadow, but Miriam as the girl was ignored and grew wild in a desperate bid for attention
In Something To Tell You, Jamal tracks backwards and forwards through his life, every so often popping in for a close up of the periods he considers most important. Those include the time he spent with the woman he still considers the love of his life, Ajita, during his late teens; a trip to Pakistan to visit his father who feels as displaced there as he did in England; and the reappearance of Ajita in his life in the present. Jamal has ruined each of his adult relationships, including his marriage, by comparing them to his memories of the idyllic time spent with Ajita. Of course nothing in the world of adult responsibilities can match the time he spent wallowing in the freedom of young love where reality had no home.
Carried away by his romantic notions of love, it’s during this time that Jamal commits an act that brings about his downfall and helps force him come face to face with reality. As a result of his actions, Ajita leaves India to rejoin her mother in India, who like Jamal’s father had been disappointed by the West. It’s while pinning for his lost love, he and his sister are sent off to visit his father in Pakistan and discover their roots. What he finds is that his father is not the giant of his childhood imagination, and everything about Pakistan is completely alien. Combined with his lost love, and the secret of his terrible deed, he falls into a state near to catatonic upon his return to England.
Although this is what sets him on his career path, the psychiatrist he sees inspires him so much that he decides to become one himself, in some ways he never really leaves his state of catatonia behind him. As we follow him along his path we realize that everything he does, including his career, continues to shield him from reality. Listening to other people’s problem allows him the luxury of ignoring his own. Worshipping a love that’s twenty years old prevents him from ever committing emotionally to anyone else, and even in his relationship with his son he tries to be more like a buddy than a father.
With Something To Tell You and the character of Dr. Jamal Kahn, Hanif Kureishi continues to explore the strange half life experienced by the children of immigrants to the West from India and Pakistan. While some of Jamal’s problems are of his own making, its obvious that he has been affected by his parents, and their contemporaries, sense of displacement. The dark humour that permeates the book is in its own way a means of disguising the depth of Jamal’s desperation. It’s those moments when Kureishis has Jamal pull back the curtain to show us what lies behind his placid exterior, that give this book its real power. Certainly there are some very funny things that happen in the Something To Tell You but it doesn’t offset the knowledge that a life has been denied the opportunity to live up to it’s full potential.
Prejudice, the false expectations created by Western self-aggrandizement of the superiority of its lifestyle, combined with the feelings of alienation felt by immigrants to Great Britain from India in the 1940s and ’50s made for the creation of a lost generation of children. Hanif Kureishi has been telling the stories of those people for thirty years with love, compassion, and not a little bit of humour. Something To Tell You shows us that even though on the surface those people may appear settled, underneath the struggle to define themselves continues well into middle age. For those of us raised on the illusion of the happy, hard working immigrant, this book might be hard to swallow, but as Jamal Kahn can tell you, sometime the truth is a little indigestible.