Nikesh Shukla has recently risen to prominence as a diversity champion for literature, setting up various initiatives that offer opportunities for underrepresented writers. But we mustn’t forget that, first and foremost, he is a powerful chronicler of British lives with Asian roots. In his fabulously funny 2014 novel, Meatspace, he captured the zeitgeist with his protagonist, Kitab Balasubramanyam, a young man whose online persona masks his real life and personality. Shukla was particularly adept at portraying Kitab’s difficult relationship with his widowed father, who, to his annoyance, had more online dating success than himself. In this new novel, he shines a light on a wider Gujarati family settled in Bradford with roots in Kenya. This family is inter-generationally doomed, it appears, by fate. To what extent, it asks, are our lives predestined? And what are the consequences on those left behind when young lives are tragically cut short?
Shukla deftly orchestrates the multiple voices beginning with Mukesh, a seemingly gormless teenager from Kenya who arrives in Bradford in 1966 and falls in love with Nisha, the girl across the road. Within weeks he has stood up to a racist mob intent on murder, and proved his heroic credentials to Nisha. When his son, Raqs, accuses him years later of not integrating, he replies: “Why integrate into a country that wanted me annihilated?” Mukesh bemoans his son complaining about “micro-aggressions” and “white girls wearing bindis at festivals”, when he himself was almost killed because of the colour of his skin.
Whereas much contemporary British fiction is a racism-free zone, Shukla does not shy away from the subtle and brute realities of it, past and present, which Raqs both exposes and exploits in his routine as a standup comic. Hipster Raqs is twin brother to Neha, whose own tragic narrative is heart-rending. An emotionally repressed computer geek, she matches her father’s courage when facing terminal cancer head-on and alone. She has the crazy idea of trying to hack into her family medical records to see if she can uncover the patterns of bad DNA that run in the family. She eventually concedes: “You cannot combat fate. It is the override code.” She’s disconnected from her brother and thinks of her father as a buffoon until she finds out about another brave act of defiance and begins to respect and understand him more.
Lurking in the shadows is the mystery of the twins’ grandmother back in Kenya. She is remembered by them fondly, but neither knows what happened to her. At the end of the novel, she appears to fill in the gaps.
This is as much a tale of our times as it is about the way the past encroaches on it.
The novel sprawls between Bradford, Kenya and Brooklyn, where Raqs has some gigs lined up. He meets Rakhee, a super-cool New Yorker working in a cafe with “chai tea” on the menu. He tells her: “It’s cultural misappropriation. Chai means tea, right?”
“I remember a guy said ‘namaste’ when I walked past a yoga studio,” she responds, “I was like, guy, what the fuck man, you wanna say hello to me? Say hello. Don’t think you’re being all spiritual and shit.”
Shukla’s exploration of trauma and intergenerational relationships is nuanced and fascinating. Characters who at first appear to be pigeonholed quickly transcend reductive cultural assumptions. Neha muses on the idea of a good immigrant being one who avoids the stereotypes of “‘benefit scrounging and job stealing”. She has decided not to try and “outstrip race”, accepting her fate as British-Asian. Both she and her brother really come of age when they are able to put themselves in the shoes of their parents’ generation and understand why they chose not to raise their heads above water.
In this novel, the threat of death and the reality of societal inequality are never far beneath the surface, encouraging us to remember previous struggles and reconsider how far progress has taken us.
Bernadine Everisto’s latest novel is Mr Loverman (Penguin)
• The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla is published by Atlantic (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
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