It’s one of those unsettling questions endlessly asked: what makes immigrants stay on in their land of adoption (generally western) if they end up unhappy, can’t strike roots, feel alien, homesick or abused; if the culture shock is hard, if memories of the motherland wring the soul, if the sunshine and yellow mustard fields of Punjab that put a song in your heart are so swiftly removed by England’s grey skies and fickle rain? If, as writer Gurnam Gill says in his short story ‘Trees in Kew Gardens’: “We are all trees of Kew Gardens. Our roots don’t run deep…it just doesn’t happen, or perhaps we don’t really know how to do so. In Kew Gardens, you do find mango trees, but they don’t ever flower.” From Across the Shores: Punjabi Short Stories from Asians in Britain (a project sponsored by Charles Wallace India Trust fellowship) is an inaugural offering in English of short stories by first generation immigrants-turned-writers. In a reflective introduction (which appears to place on the stories greater critical analysis and commentary than they warrant), translator Rana Nayar explains as well the dynamics of the Punjabi immigration experience as to why he selected the works he did.
Taking these stories to a larger circle of readers was more than overdue, he remarks, not only because Punjabi is, according to one survey (he does not mention which), “the most widely spoken language after English,” but equally because an England-based Punjabi readership simply does not exist, regardless of the fact that Britain boasts some six hundred and twenty-five writers writing in Punjabi.
The situation as described by Nayar, is perched on some shining contradictions. During colonial times, the inherently rebellious and proud people of Punjab resisted British hegemony, in fact they were driven by a “subterranean hostility and antipathy” towards the British. Yet they migrated. Many of the present set of writers moved westwards in the sixties, their move propelled by a conglomerate of factors: expansion of the education base and the lack of an industrial one, limited job opportunities and shrinking land holdings among others. The trouble started once they reached England. Lured there by teaching prospects, few actually landed teaching jobs, and educated Punjabis settled for semi or unskilled work (local transport, factories, post-offices). Many probably intended to make money and return. But stayed on. They suffered thereby the dilemmas and complexes of early settlers: backward gaze at their cultural roots, as Rana explains, sustenance from India, and protest against assimilation into the mainstream by writing in Punjabi. In an imitation—if for different reasons—of the colonial practice when the English in India did not learn native tongues, the Punjabi immigrant, too, refused to learn or to speak English. Doing so, he believed would amount to “an act of capitulation to a dreaded alien culture.” Curiously, even today, after some forty years in Britain, “only a small percentage use English in public or private discourse.” This, after settling there of one’s own free will.
Astonishing realities. Little wonder, then, that although this selection of stories is “guided by a well-defined criterion: a common concern with the dynamics of cultural negotiation”, the stories themselves are circumscribed in an extremely limited universe of pain, guilt, ostracism and nostalgia. This narrow plank, and the refusal to dialogue with the larger society have placed severe and disturbing limits on the nature of experience. Moreover, I found myself perplexed by the articulation of this experience. The stories, almost all of them, are too stated, too literal, ceding little space for the reader’s imagination even when the situations faced by the characters remain unresolved. And since interaction with society at large is minimized, these problems, sometimes unconsciously self-created, are like so many streets without intersections. A peculiar, ‘hanging’ situation, this one: emotional misery and the refusal to snap out of it. Self-pity and obduracy go hand in hand.
Nayar, however, chooses to look at this in another way, as reflecting the “multiple perspectives of the immigration experience”, with the advantage that writers enjoy of “swinging back and forth, forever expanding the margins of existence and creating new metaphors of survival.” But plain nostalgia breeds an emptiness that has little relation to survival. The very first story, for instance, ‘Behind Open Doors’ by Kailash Puri is about a retired Indian couple whose children, now second generation, do as the British do and send their parents into an emotional turbulence (in most stories this imitation of the English way of life is all about ‘loose’ man-woman relations, so repugnant to first generation Indians). A letter from a relative announces the grand forthcoming wedding of their nephew, and the jealous couple’s world collapses. Pritam Sidhu’s ‘In the Distant Lands’ is a lachrymose tale of an Indian rendered destitute by his son and English daughter-in-law. “What happens to blood bonds in Walayat?” he asks helplessly. In ‘The Divided Shores’ by Tarseem Neelgiri, the ‘anti-hero’ visits his family in Punjab. Everyone expects him to return, (staying back is naturally a sign of failure) and take his family back with him. How can he tell them that he had been knifed and nearly killed by skinheads, and that he had no intention of going back? In his mind he weighs the pros and cons of an impossible life abroad and poverty in the village. Or take ‘The Smoke’ by Harjit Atwal. The son of a Jain family, who lives on in England owing to stereotyped, financial burdens at home (father’s illness, brothers’ education, sisters’ marriage) which he must help sort out, meets a nice Jain girl (his family, of course, insists that he must never at any cost marry outside the community), is excited, proposes to her, but when he meets her father he learns that the girl had had an affair before and had even become pregnant, like the sturdy, good old Indian that he is, he chokes and leaves the room.
Then there are passing encounters with the English. In Darshan Dheer’s ‘A Nest of Straw’, a story which stretches credulity, a young married Indian man (the wife is in India) who boards a train, sees an English girl seated there, reading. He wonders whether to enter – so many misconstrued incidents can happen – but enter he does. Before the end of his short journey, they have fallen into each other’s arms. When Manchester arrives, they get off, and she walks on alone without so much as a glance at him. And the story ends limpingly: “It was as if he hadn’t quite understood the reason for Sandra’s sudden change of heart.” In ‘Samskaras’ by Shivcharan Gill, once again a married Indian male with a liberal-hearted Englishman as a close friend, has an affair with an English woman. The Englishman who has defended him stoutly in contentious professional and social issues, confesses to him at the end that “somehow I can’t bear the sight of an English girl enjoying the company of a Black Man.” Then apologises. And all is forgiven and forgotten.
In Baldev Singh’s ‘A Wicked Girl’, a man the reader presumes to be in his middle age, takes home an unknown inebriated English girl in his car. He is separated from his wife and children. Thereafter, he meets her occasionally and they tell each other about their lives. While in ‘Shifting Sands’ by Gurbaksh Kaur Dosanjh, an Indian family lives across the street from an English family. They know each other without being intimate. As the Indian woman learns of the failing health of the Englishman, she tries to reach out; her efforts are only partially rewarded. The English family keeps to itself, simply because that’s how it is. But the Indian family, witness to death and suffering in the English home, renews its interest in the small things of life and makes them beautiful.
And then you have the Indo-Indian stories, set in England and entirely within the Indian fold. In ‘Crazy for Pounds’, Serbjit, a mother of two, is all efficiency on the surface and deeply unhappy beneath. For years, her life is trapped in the web of work; her husband is virtually married to the store he runs. Her new store assistant, an Indian to whom she pours out her woes, wonders why she hung on for so long. Wouldn’t you like to break free? Will you help me, she asks? Let me think about it, he replies. Parveen, in Gurdial Singh Rai’s ‘The Daughter of Eve’ is a young Punjabi of Pakistani origin whose parents had married her off to a drug addict; she leaves him, returns and finds a job in a nursing home, the father who forced her into marriage now disabled and in a wheelchair. Little phases of life these stories are, open-ended, often unstructured. And where they do have a central argument, they lack either a build-up or a resolution. But that would have mattered little had the writing appeared less trite. Alas, the stories sometimes read like college scribblings, sometimes like reports. Sample this: “The moment she felt his rough hands, a sudden tremor ran through her body, as though she had touched a live wire.” “Each rippling muscle, each single limb in Harpal’s body was now throbbing for Sandra and hers for his.” “…while they were splashing water to douse the leaping flames of desire.” (‘A Nest of Straw’) “I’m yearning for the pulsating touch of my own soil.” (‘In the Distant Lands’) “Man’s internal being is so weak that he cannot ever completely liberate himself from the pressure of external influences.” (‘Samskaras’) “All that Pakhar Singh wanted to do was to step forward and enfold her in a tight squeeze.” (‘The Divided Shores’) “The only reason for my being so happy about my wife’s return from hospital was that now, without having to lift a finger, I could still look forward to a decent, well-cooked meal or a spruced-up house.” (‘The Dustbin’) “The progressive leaders of the Congress, especially Dr Ansari and Abdul Gafar Khan, were busy drumming up support against the communal propaganda that ‘the leaders in the red shirts’ operating in the North West Frontier were trying rather hard to whip up” (‘A Relationship with Fragrance’).
Pilgrims of time and space, the jacket tells us, is what these characters are. But their ‘in-between-ness’, their quandary, their social isolation and loss of context and meaning are trapped in a language that rarely rises, moves away from the workaday. This time-warp could have yielded stories of great density and richness. Unfortunately, as the examples cited above indicate, they drop to bathos rather than rise to a high craft.
Latika Padgaonkar is Press Information Officer for UNESCO, New Delhi.