Tuesday, April 03, 2007

In Conversation with Ravinder Randhawa

Ahmede: Your first novel, A Wicked Old Woman, has been described by Susheila Nasta as "the first explicitly Asian British novel". Does Asian British novel actually exist as a genre?

Ravinder Randhawa: Yes. In terms of categorization. Particularly in the eyes of publishers, literary critics, academics, the ‘Identity’ industry and P.R. people who love niche marketing. In general, ‘British-Asian’ pertains to novels that are specifically about the Asian community, in terms of its everyday life, traditions, religion, immigration, racism, adaptation or non-adaptation to English culture, culture clash, generation gap and arranged marriages.

Novels are always for universal consumption. Through the chemistry of imagination, intellect and empathy, the stories of one place or people, can generally make sense to ‘outside’ readers. Often they serve as bridges or messengers, carrying information from one group to the other group, ‘explaining’ one group to the other group. This is what the Asian British novel, to a large extent, is still doing and still expected to do: carry ‘information’ from the minority Asian community to the majority English community.

However, I believe that this categorization of the ‘British-Asian’ novel can be a restrictive influence. To explain the ‘stranger,’ the ‘outsider’ to the majority community has always been a function of literature, whether that strangeness is in terms of race or beliefs i.e. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. British-Asian writers may traverse all the territory from fantasy to reality, chick-lit to crime novels, but, in general, if a novel is by a British Asian author and has Asian characters it is immediately placed in the category of British-Asian novel. Or, additionally acquires the embellishment of ‘a multi-cultural novel.’ Whatever that is! This tends to sideline style and substance, intellectual content and exploration of ideas.

Ahmede: In A Wicked Old Woman we see you dissect the idea of being marginalized in an alien, quasi-alien society. Will you share your idea of an individual's place in history for us, especially in the Asian British society where one's sense of belonging is meant to be somewhat fuzzy?

Ravinder Randhawa: This is a fascinating question and a real issue for our times, in terms of globalization and the rise of fundamentalism. I believe that free-will, exercised within the strict implementation of moral and ethical principles is the essence of an individual. Thus, the individual is required to examine all actions in terms of their impact on the self and others; to grapple with conflicting ideas and demands. Individuals should question traditions and values which cause unhappiness, suffering, and violence; whichever society they live in, whether western or eastern. We all live within a ‘pool of knowledge’ and we should all contribute to the development of this ‘pool’ so that humanity progresses for the benefit of the individual and everyone else.

British Asian society provides Asians with a particular opportunity to compare two types of societies and their many different values. Most British Asian’s talk about having a good mix of ‘eastern/western values’. I think it’s very healthy to have to examine ideas such as ‘belonging’ ‘identity’ ‘culture’ and not take them as immutable.

Was it George Eliot, who said that ‘convention is not morality.’ Neither is convention, belonging. History and race are definitely signifiers of belonging; British Asians are very proud of their backgrounds. Belonging is a very complex issue and should be seen as such.

Ahmede: You were born in India and grew up in England, what "role" (I am using this word grudgingly) do you think English plays in South Asia, where the language has once been a tool used by the ruling class?

Ravinder Randhawa: I understand what you mean. Perhaps the answer is in the word ‘tool’. If the globe is growing ‘smaller’, then we all need a language we can talk to each other in. It appears that English is taking on this role. So why not view it as a ‘tool’?

It’s not possible to detach it from its imperial past, but equally, just as Madonna constantly re-invents herself, perhaps it should be re-invented: seen as a tool for international commerce and inter-change; a tool to be employed for the benefit of South Asia.

It’s up to individual countries to encourage and promulgate their national languages. But all countries teach foreign languages, and English has a long history of being used in South Asia. Why not turn a disadvantage into an advantage?

What is really at the core of this question is how far will English, as a foreign language, as a ‘tool’ filter down? Or will it still only serve the needs of a particular class?

Ahmede: Your second novel Hari-jan's central character Harjinder is neither Asian nor does she belong to Britain. Where do you as a woman of South Asian descent stand in the British society?

Ravinder Randhawa: I stand as myself.

With my Asian background and gender. And I stand as an equal to anyone else. Whether Asian or English.

England is a secular democracy. However flawed and imperfect; however class-ridden. Through the sixties, seventies and eighties, England witnessed many social changes; to do with worker’s rights, feminism, anti-racism. All these movements left their mark, some for better, some for worse. Societies should never be dormant; they should always be ‘rippling’ with discussion and debate.

Immigration is nothing new. People have moved around the globe throughout the ages. And generally it’s been because of economic need or political persecution. This holds true now too. The migrant adapts, and over the generations achieves an accommodation, a partnership with the ‘host’ community.

I think it is essential to play a full role in the wider society that one’s living in, wherever that happens to be. It is important to take part in the political, educational and social issues. And also, to look after the society where one has made a home. To acknowledge and support all that is valuable in terms of its ideas and practices. Equally, it’s important to press for changes where necessary. Complexities and difficulties still exist in England, as do racism and poverty.

The South Asian elements of my life go hand in hand with everything I do. They’re not disconnected from anything else. Having a different cultural background shouldn’t mean having to be separate, whether that separation is advocated by the majority or the minority. The public and the private are what make an individual.

Whether it’s Diwali or Christmas both have a place in my life, as they do for most South Asians.

Ahmede: The question of belonging is indeed important. When diasporic writers handle a plot set in South Asia, many say, they do it with the eye of an outsider. In Shame and Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie has to resort to magic realism and unreliable narration…

Ravinder Randhawa: Desperate Diasporic Writers!! What creatures are these with their overseas liaisons, loyalties and disloyalties?

Distance inevitably changes the lens; however that doesn’t mean that what they see can be discounted.

I’m afraid I disagree with you about ‘magic realism’, and I’m not sure what you mean by ‘unreliable narration’. ‘Magic realism’, is a literary device; Rushdie could have used it, wherever he had been living. Fiction, as a whole, is not about being literal; it’s a tool, an artifice, a vehicle for touching every aspect of the human being, from the emotional, to the hidden, to the physical, spiritual or intellectual. Textbooks deal with facts and evidence. Fiction deals with the spaces between our heartbeats.

‘….the eye of the outsider.’ Yes and no. Those who spend a major part of their lives living away from South Asia and whose homes are beyond its boundaries cannot possibly have the day to day experience, the integral composition of living and being a South Asian. In this respect they can be considered as outsiders. But that is to interpret belonging merely in geographical terms. It discounts the commitment of South Asian communities and parents in the West who strive for cultural continuity, the bequeathing of South Asian traditions, values and social structures. Why else would there be so called ‘culture clashes’ in the west, between generations. Such a geographical view also reduces belonging merely to mass absorption, i.e. being part of a particular group of people in a particular place at a particular time, and devalues the heritage of family and social history, of philosophy, art and religion; and further confines the person to the borders within which they live.

Inevitably there is the stranger/not stranger effect. Diasporic writers do come from a hybrid background; they will not have the ‘up close and personal’ knowledge that writers living in South Asia have. But equally they will have more knowledge than a writer from a completely different background; together with an active and inquiring relationship with South Asia, however they may choose to manifest it, interpret it, describe it. Isn’t that what’s interesting?

Ahmede: How important do you think class is to South Asian reality?

Ravinder Randhawa: Don’t we live with it all the time!

And not just class but caste!

And not just class and caste but a supposed hierarchy of religions.

A poisonous brew if ever there was one.

The world relives the same story over and over again, and its title is “Division”.

Division: along class lines, caste lines, religious lines, racial lines, gender lines, colour lines, age lines….etc. etc.

The South-Asians, who emigrated to the west, brought a lot of baggage with them. Along with their tightly packed suitcases, they brought tightly packed minds. Full of their sense of class, status, background, connections, and to a great extent replicated it here. However with the high educational attainments and professionalisation of young British Asians these class divisions have been blurred and diluted. But clearly not in South-Asia.

Recently I stopped at our local Pizza Hut take-away. While I was waiting for my order, I started chatting with the young people working there: mostly young South-Asian students. They all had a variety of views on their life in England, but the one at the till, said to me with a great air of grievance “you know, back home, I wouldn’t be doing this kind of work.”

Well, we all know where, or more precisely, what class that comment came from.

When I asked him, “what’s wrong with this work?” his response was to look away. There was nothing dangerous or hazardous in the work he was doing, nothing unhygienic or inappropriate. He was sitting in a warm environment, on a comfortable seat, working at an electronic till, and able to work hours that fitted around his studies. But, because of his class consciousness, he felt that this work was menial and beneath his dignity.

I think it’s fair to say, that such attitudes do not exist in the majority of young British-Asians.

Perpetuating divisive social systems has no social, economic or psychological benefit; and actively hinders the development of a country.

A country’s greatest natural resource is in the brains of its people.
Educate those brains, give them opportunities to train, treat them with respect, empower them to be creative, innovative, problem-solving, and you’ll have a population that’ll propel their country into growth, wealth, prosperity. And give it clout on the world stage.
A country should aim to empower all of its people, because the benefit to one, does translate into a benefit for all.

Ahmede: History is another important issue, isn’t it? It is rather murky in South Asia, where the first text book on South Asian history was written by an English School inspector…

Ravinder Randhawa: History. History! History?

It’s not the “who” but the “how” that matters.

Anyone can write a history of whoever-whatever, but it’s how they treat the material, what ‘spin’ they put on it, what interpretation they give it, what personal and political views they bring to it that matters. What’s important perhaps is to know the history of the historian, before we look at the history that the historian has written.

We do need to be aware when material has been presented from a biased or prejudiced viewpoint. The best kind of ‘history’ usually arises from a passionate interest, a spirit of discovery or intellectual inquiry.

In recent weeks, Asians in England have been gripped by a series on BBC 2, on the history of India, written and presented by the historian Michael Woods. His obvious passion and enthusiasm for the subject, for the truth, for the political, social and cultural issues has held us spellbound. Every Friday evening we’ve had a date with Michael Woods. The series is now finished, but Oliver-like we still want more. Everyone is now scrambling to see if we can get the series on DVD, to catch up on the episodes we missed, or to watch it all over again. Such was its professionalism and integrity. Infused with energy, intelligence and humanity; together with an awareness of the long march of time, the play of personalities, events and chance, an unflinching assessment of the role of his own people, the British, and concluding with a definition of the elements that make for great civilizations, and applying it to India.

The ability to look underneath the obvious, to analyse and make connections, to extract motives and strip subterfuges is what makes for good history.

In all the disciplines, from physics, to literature, to history, I believe there is an engagement, a thoughtfulness, a debate, as to best methods, perspectives, the validity or non-validity of received ideas.

South Asian history is being re-written by South-Asians, and sometimes by those whose intellectual reach is not compromised by their racial or national background, as well as by those who are interested in ‘hidden’ history, i.e. the history of ‘ordinary’ people. An interesting area is the ‘history of ideas,’ for ‘ideas’, whether hidden or overt, have been and continue to be the moving force.

History, like the sea, has depths still waiting to be plumbed, discoveries still waiting to beguile us.

Ahmede: Yet alienation has become a major issue among British-Asians. I know people who are calling Islamic extremism in Britain a deformed display of existentialist angst…

Ravinder Randhawa: ‘Asians have gone from the shop floor to the top floor!’ This is a quote from a recent documentary on British-Asians.

I don’t agree that alienation is a major issue among British-Asians. Just look at their academic and professional achievements, their role in every industry from the media to medicine, from law to local government, from education to the economy, from finance to fashion. Their businesses and earnings contribute to the overall prosperity of Britain. British-Asians actively participate in politics, community and social issues. They are significant contributors to all the arts from music, to theatre, to literature, to drama.

Local areas which have a large percentage of Asians have thriving shops, from grocery shops to estate agents, from jewellery shops to cafes, from newsagents to designer clothes.

The vast majority of British-Asians are confident and proud of who they are, hard working and aware of the sacrifices made by the older generation. British-Asians are as much go-getters as those of any other community. Just consider that each series of the programme ‘The Apprentice’ (in which candidates compete to win a high salaried, executive job in the Amstrad empire,) has always had British-Asian candidates in the competing group; and not just men, but highly motivated, ambitious young women too.

British-Asians believe that their lives do have purpose and meaning. Judge by their actions. They live, work, play, raise their families, go on holiday, attend the temple, enjoy fashion, music, sports, eating out etc.etc. This is hardly the stuff of ‘alienation and deformed existentialist angst.’

British-Asian radio stations, regularly have phone-ins and debates – in which listeners participate. There are newspapers and magazines, which are clearly being bought and read, else they wouldn’t survive. If a community is engaging in ‘talk-talk’ – to borrow a slogan, surely it demonstrates a lively and interested involvement in life.

‘Islamic Extremism,’ is an entity on its own.

If “Islamic extremism” in Britain is a deformed display of existentialist angst…” then what is it in other countries?

When we look at ‘islamic extremism,’ we’re looking at a very, very small group; definitely not the majority. Included in this ‘Islamic extremism’ are many people who are not from the British-Asian community, though it is clear that a few, young British-Asians are attracted to it.

I think there are all sorts of factors which contribute to a young person being attracted to ‘Islamic extremism’, to use a broad term. Some factors are international, some religious, some cultural and some are entirely personal. Also let us not forget the role of self-styled ‘Islamic’, preachers who believe it acceptable to preach violence. Again, they are very few, and definitely do not represent the majority.