FICTION: A CITY DIVIDED

July 22, 2018

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In her book Imagined London: A Tour of the World’s Greatest Fictional City, American writer Anna Quidlen wrote, “London has the trick of making its past, its long indelible past, always a part of its present.” Maybe that is the reason that whenever I think of London, I can’t help drawing comparisons with Karachi — another city forever haunted by the violence of its past and the perpetual chaos of its present because of its status as a flashpoint for ethnic clashes.

Journalist and documentary filmmaker Guy Gunaratne’s blazing fiction debut In Our Mad and Furious City captures the gritty, relentless pace of a melting pot with pitch perfect urgency. The story takes place over the course of 48 hours as we follow three friends — all young men of colour — and their lives in Stones Estate, which are about to dramatically change.

Ardan is a sensitive and lyrically gifted boy who is obsessed with grime music, which is also echoed in the book’s syncopated, unaffected narrating style. Ardan is under-confident and often bullied, but is eventually spared because he is friends with the quiet but imposing Selvon. Selvon is a brooding, single-minded runner who aspires to be an athlete. Yusuf is a Muslim of Pakistani origin who is still recovering from the death of his father who was an imam, and simultaneously dealing with his brother’s increasingly abnormal behaviour.

Racial tensions and citywide riots make a tinderbox of a London council estate in this searing debut novel

The brutal murder of a British soldier by a black Muslim man sparks a summer of unrest in the vicinity of Stones Estate. Citywide riots and escalating radicalism in the neighbourhood mosque act as background score for this story. The descriptions of inner-city London with its poverty, racism and tempestuousness crackle with tension. This side of London, seen through the eyes of the less privileged youth living on a council estate, comes across as a malevolent, treacherous beast.

The atmosphere created by Gunaratne is potent, menacing and claustrophobic. With a narrative taut with expertly sustained tension, Gunaratne flaunts his commanding writing prowess.

All the narrators in the story are either first or second generation immigrants and a common link between them is the seething angst of always being the ones racially profiled and discriminated against. However, another strong link between the two generations is the older narrators, Caroline and Nelson, who have blood ties with two of our protagonists. It is interesting to note how the native West Indian Nelson’s passive, heads-down approach to racism, “that this Britain here did not love me back, no matter how much I feel for it,” has been passed on to his son Selvon, who would rather disengage by running relentlessly around the estate than acknowledge the mayhem around him. Caroline, meanwhile, is an Irish immigrant, single mother of Ardan and we notice how Ardan has internalised his mother’s persecution complex and underdog mentality.

Gunaratne, himself the London-born son of a Sri Lankan immigrant to the United Kingdom, impeccably captures the deadpan voice of the three young boys who are battling inner turmoil while also witnessing chaos in their neighbourhood, but are not able to express it. However, he has a harder time capturing the voices of the two older narrators which often come off as unconvincing and stilted.

In brusque sentences, the narrative depicts the difference in the way the first and second generation immigrants view their adopted home. While the older ones feel a sense of alienation and harbour a fierce longing to go back to their homelands, their children have a much more difficult time of it; they feel a stronger sense of identity with the ‘borrowed’ home they were born into, rather than with places where they have never really lived, but to which they are compelled to pledge their allegiance for genealogical reasons. This is best illustrated in a scene where the British Pakistani Yusuf meets a Pakistani boy who works at his local chicken shop, which had been vandalised during the race riots. This boy feels a kinship to Yusuf as they are both Pakistani. For Yusuf, however, Pakistan is a distant, elusive link between him and his lineage. They might share the same race, but Yusuf realises that he has nothing in common with this brown-skinned boy and unabashedly admits, “I had more in common with the goons that broke his window in truth.”

Home for me was Estate. Pakistan was some place in fragmented memory, involuntary smells and misplaced colours. A world away. I thought of Pakistan as being stuck in dusty rooms, mounds of strange food, vague relatives, mosquito bites and half-understood Urdu, proper periphery. The last time we were there was with Abba. I remember how boring and foreign it all was. Irfan and I spent it mostly sagging about in tri-shaws, unwilling to adjust to the dry air. — Excerpt from the book

Yusuf also notices how, in the short span of time that he had grown up, racism had reared its head and become more threatening. “These words like ‘Paki’, which we did our best to pacify at school, had come back sharper and took chunks out of faces like my own and Freshie Dave’s. That was how we were really linked, innit, by the threat of smashed-up windows and pictures of our mums crying in The Guardian.”

The council estate witnesses a rise in ethnic tensions after the death of the imam, Yusuf’s father, as he is replaced with another imam who espouses a more radical approach. Pretty soon the neighbourhood is clamouring with youngsters wearing red-brown Muslim dress and identical skullcaps, carrying around leaflets and calling themselves “Muhajiroun.” Yusuf finds these people closing in on his family as well as his neighbourhood, creating a stifling environment in a place that is already threatening to come apart at the seams.

A debut which is at once bold and extremely relevant, Gunaratne’s book is a heart-wrenching story of shattered dreams and fractured community. In Our Mad and Furious City is an unorthodox, highly political novel for our dysfunctional times which shines its light on exactly what is wrong with our world right now.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic

In Our Mad and
Furious City
By Guy Gunaratne
Tinder Press, UK
ISBN: 978-1472250193
304pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 22nd, 2018