Tales from the UK migrant's diary

Apr 29, 2013, 00:20 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Granta's fourth Best of Young British Novelists list was announced on April 15. On this list was British-Indian author Sunjeev Sahota whose written works centre on the subcontinental dilemma of immigration, mixed cultures and the psychology around it. In an email interview, he recalls his journey from reader to author and why migrant issues will always fascinate him

What do Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Hari Kunzru, Zadie Smith, Martin Amis and Monica Ali have in common? Each of these writers have been a part of literary bible Granta’s Best of Young British Novelist’s lists since its inaugural edition was announced in 1983. Since then, every ten years, the London-based literary magazine names 20 writers it considers as the Best of Young British Novelists. This time, the list is a mix of eclectic, insightful work, ranging from writers either born outside Britain or as children of immigrants. The scape is huge — Hungary, India, China, Australia, Pakistan and Jamaica. As many as 150 authors below the age of 40 submitted excerpts for the 2013 list. Of the 20, as many as 12 were women. Sunjeev Sahota, a Punjabi Sikh, comes across as an interesting inclusion to this list — an author who didn’t read his first novel until he was 18, and that too, of Granta alumnus, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. We find out more from the low-profile author.

Such a long Journey: An elderly man on crutches passes a Conservative election poster in the suburb of Southal, southwest London. PIC/ AFP

From reading your first novel at 18 in an airport en route to meet relatives in India to being in august company as part of Granta’s Young British Novelist’s list. What’s the journey been from reader to celebrated author?
The journey from reader to author probably feels to me much longer than it’s actually been. But it’s been very enjoyable for the most part. The writing part isn’t fun, though it does get better once I’ve got that first
draft down.

You’ve studied Math, worked in Marketing and Finance; how did the writing bug bite you? Are you a full-time writer or do you juggle between your career and writing?
I probably decided I was going to write quite soon after I started reading novels. But it was several years before I began work on my first book. I’ve recently taken some time off work to complete my second novel, so at the moment I am writing full-time.

Could you tell readers in India about your debut novel and the reasons for choosing this particular theme (A British Pakistani who becomes a serial bomber)?
It’s about a young man, the son of Pakistani immigrants, and his struggle to find somewhere to call home. The subject matter, especially the psychology involved, fascinated me, and it seemed to me a psychology that was meaty enough for a novel.

Sunjeev Sahota. Pic Courtesy/ Simon Revill

Is there a change in the mindset of the average British Indian or Pakistani post 9/11? Does this generation look at their surroundings differently?
I’m not sure. If I had to guess, I’d say that there hasn’t been a significant change, and that things tend to go back to their previous level once enough time has lapsed.

Does the theme of migrants and their concerns become an inevitable subject to draw upon from, for the British Asian writer?
I wouldn’t say it’s inevitable, but it’s certainly true to say that I am interested in understanding what having no real sense of home does to a man, a community, a generation.

Do you visit India often? What sort of inspiration do you draw from the country and its people?
I go to India often. It means a lot to me; it’s where my roots are. I do probably draw inspiration from having a large family still living and working in India — to me, that’s a powerful illustration of that Salman Rushdie line: ‘to understand just one life, you have to swallow the world’.

What is your next book about?
It’s about a group of illegal immigrants living and working in England. I think I’m about halfway through the first draft.

What sort of an impact has writers like Rushdie had on your work? Are there other names (Indian or international) that impact and inspire you?
I did go through a phase when I read Indian writers pretty much exclusively. I loved hearing about that country. I read writers like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Amit Chaudhuri, Pankaj Mishra and Rajinder Singh Bedi.

The Granta list - 2013
Ned Beauman * Naomi Alderman * Benjamin Markovits * Adam Thirlwell * Joanna Kavenna * Xiaolu Guo * David Szalay * Sarah Hall * Steven Hall * Adam Foulds *Tahmima Anam * Nadifa Mohamed * Jenni Fagan * Ross Raisin * Evie Wyld * Helen Oyeyemi * Taiye Selasi * Kamila Shamsie * Sunjeev Sahota

“Saddar Bazaar is like Colaba”
In January 2011, this journalist had interviewed another entry that made it to the 2013 list, Pakistan-born Kamila Shamsie, while she was in India for the Jaipur Literature Festival. Her debut novel, In the City By The Sea was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and she bagged the Prime Minister’s Award for Literature in Pakistan in 1999. Shamsie, a Pakistani Muslim, who studied in America, now resides in London.
She’s authored five novels to date. Her writing effortlessly crisscrosses a clash of civilisations. We reproduce excerpts from that interview:

Were you fond of writing as a child?
I was a voracious reader. By the time I was 9, I was reading a book a day…mostly fiction. I love dogs so when I was 11, I co-wrote a book with my best friend Asad Haider, about what happens to a dog’s life after he dies; it was about dog heaven. It helped that I grew up in a house that was filled with books. I have memories of my mother (Muneza Shamsie, famous literary journalist, compiler and editor) constantly working at her typewriter. In Pakistan, as kids, our reading was limited to Enid Blyton. It was only after I went to America to study that I came in contact with Indian fiction. I was 18 at the time — that’s when the realisation dawned that fiction can happen anywhere. I read Indian authors including Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry and Anita Desai. At University, I had enrolled in a BA in Creative Writing. I was missing Karachi terribly and soon began writing short stories about memories
of home.

Kamila Shamsie

…You seem to like coming back to Karachi.
Always. I return for the winters. I moved to London four (now six) years ago. I love Karachi’s people — it’s so cosmopolitan, with people from all parts of the country, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Bangladesh. There’s every kind of social interaction with a liberal ethos. (When I ask her if Mumbai reminds her of Karachi, her eyes light up.) Both cities are by the sea, and were built by the British. Karachi’s Saddar Bazaar is a lot like Colaba. You’ll spot the similarities in its Victorian and Gothic structures and its streetscapes. Both possess a commercial character. The big difference is that while Mumbai is known for its high rises and appears congested, Karachi is a sprawling metropolis.

How much has changed in Pakistan since the time when you were a teenager?
Back then, we only had the state-owned PTV (Pakistan Television). Today, the media has a bigger influence. There is so much creativity; we have fantastic bands making great music. There is more radicalisation. Though the concern lies in the fact that the youth are getting discouraged with the overall

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