COLUMN: THE NOWHERE MEN

September 22, 2019

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As I drove through the unfamiliar suburb of Acton on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I was thinking how London, with its narrow lanes and cramped terraced houses, always seems like a foreign place when I come back from Karachi, my native city. On the radio, a journalist was interviewing several people about Brexit and its implications. The recurrent theme of the programme was the fear of migrants — particularly Muslims — taking over this country. Young couples, with prams and shopping trolleys, strolled by the green squares of Acton; not one of them looked foreign. Yes, London has a large population of Asians and Africans who work as doctors, dentists, pharmacists, nurses and hairdressers, but not one was in evidence on this sunny Sunday.

Driving through Acton I was reminded of my 28 months in suburban Wimbledon Park in the mid-’70s. For the first year, used to the cosmopolitanism of Central London, I felt like an exile. For the first time in the five years that I’d lived in London, though, I had many Pakistani neighbours who had made little communities for themselves. While many of them spoke little English, their teenaged children spoke it with marked London accents and considered themselves British.

I hadn’t experienced any kind of overt xenophobia or racial prejudice in my years in Central London, but here I detected undertones of it among my British neighbours. One summer day, I was playing Spanish music on my record player with my first floor bedroom window open. I saw my neighbour, whose garden was on a slope at the same level as my window — though quite a distance away — gesticulating wildly like a shipwrecked traveller. I gathered that she wanted me to turn the volume of my music down. I did, and put it out of my mind. The next day, a note in fancy handwriting arrived, telling me that as a visitor to this country I didn’t understand local ways and shouldn’t play foreign music with my window open. At the age of 20, I hadn’t given much thought to being a visitor from elsewhere — London was where I’d landed up, and that was all.

Now my interest in the literatures of faraway countries, from Japan to Nigeria, became more marked. I borrowed novels by Cyprian Ekwensi and Buchi Emecheta, Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata from the public library. An element of nostalgia had also infiltrated my reading habits; I was drawn to books from what we then called the subcontinent. R.K. Narayan was well-known to British readers; there were also Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, Ahmed Ali, Nayantara Sahgal and the early work of Anita Desai.

Prominent among these names was that of Kamala Markandaya. She wrote (mostly) about India, where she was born and had lived until she was 24. The biography on the jackets of her novels told us she lived in South London. She had a sensuous style, with a cosmopolitan sheen that was attractive to the young readers we were. My older sister and I devoured her novels; both of us wrote, and my sister had decided to be a novelist, while I dabbled in short fiction and poetry without thinking of making writing my profession. Having a writer from our part of the world living in our city must have encouraged us, though we never made an effort to meet her.

Markandaya was most celebrated for her first novel, Nectar in a Sieve, narrated by a peasant woman, but the novel I remember best among her books is Two Virgins, partly set in the world of Indian films. Later, in ’78, I read The Golden Honeycomb, her saga of the Raj and princely India which combined careful research with the author’s usual seductive storytelling.

I am surprised today that The Nowhere Man predated Two Virgins, because I certainly first read it in those Wimbledon years. Unlike Markandaya’s other novels, it was set entirely in suburban London; the eponymous protagonist was an ageing, ailing widower whose only surviving son had no time for him. He shared a home with an Englishwoman, to the disgust of racist neighbours. It wasn’t a novel calculated to appeal or console or transport the reader to exotic lands; it was designed to warn, to chastise, to protect the Other in our midst. I can’t remember my response to it then except that it left a small scar somewhere.

In the mid-’80s, when I began to write, I set off in search of Markandaya’s novels to add to my burgeoning collection of South Asian fiction. They were all out of print. I did, however, locate a shabby Indian edition of The Nowhere Man. Another decade passed before I was asked to teach it in a course at Queen Mary’s College; finally, in that post-Rushdie, post-Kureishi era, academics thought that readers were ready for a novel that laid bare the ugly workings of racism in the ‘nice’ streets of London. None of my students paid much attention to a work that made them uncomfortable and still remained ahead of its time. Around that time, I met the author once; she’d stopped writing and had the haunted air of an exile, which our conversation enhanced.

In the 21st century, White Teeth and Brick Lane ushered in a new era of migrant fictions written by novelists of non-Western origin who were born here and laid confident claim to the territory they charted. But Markandaya’s dark, exilic novel was a contrast to these ebullient, if unsparing, portraits of migrant life. It remained out of print.

Finally, in this Brexit age with every xenophobe in the United Kingdom and much of Europe haranguing us about the migrant menace, The Nowhere Man has found its readership, in a new edition by HopeRoad publishing, festooned with praise by a new generation of migrant writers including Monica Ali and Bernardine Evaristo. This powerful novel is a reminder of the long route that brought us here and also has a stark relevance to these chaotic days in which we live.

The columnist is a London-based short story writer and novelist

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 22nd, 2019