Letter from Slough: A balanced passage to England

IT WAS 7.35, and the Mayor of Hounslow, Mr Kanwal, hadn't showed. Mr Bhattacharya, the town clerk, was getting worried. He began to thank the Deputy Mayor instead, but suddenly the door of the community centre swung open. 'His Worship has arrived]' Mr Bhattacharya whispered into the microphone, at last able to anoint the proceedings properly.

Four Indian writers on a tour of England had ended up in Slough for their seventh and final venue. They were as varied a selection as you could hope for - typical of India only in their diversity. The 'gender balance' and spread of ages had been planned, the Arts Council said. The spread of religions had not. Even so, they had managed to assemble a Christian, a Parsee, a Hindu and a Jew. Had there been a Jain among the Sikhs and Muslims in the audience, there would have had a full complement of India's major faiths.

It was to be a novelist to start. Nayantera Sahgal had been first before, a couple of nights back, in Bradford. It's probably her commanding air that lands her the part. She is the niece of Nehru, after all, and leading is in the blood. Having Nehru as an uncle makes her also the cousin of the late Indira Gandhi, but this Mrs Sahgal is less inclined to boast about. She looks like her cousin, though. Even the voice is similar. She has those lilting, cultivated tones; the patrician touch.

The man from Waterstone's told me he had started one of Mrs Sahgal's novels out of duty and got hooked. It was Rich Like Us, he said, the one with Mrs Gandhi in it, portrayed unflatteringly as simply 'Madam'. She may be hard on her family, but Mrs Sahgal writes a damn good story. Her privileged insight into India's elite makes for sharp, fluent satire. Indians of the younger generation have learnt from her novels - nine of them in all - and from her journalism especially. Both are informed with an unstrident feminism, and the sort of humane, liberal principles that Gandhi (Mahatma, not Madam) would have been proud of.

Nayantara Sahgal writes in English, like the other writers on the tour. It is the language they were taught in and brought up in, and whose literature they know best. For Firdaus Kanga, though, there is something more: writing English is part of his homage to all things British. Kanga is, in the memorable words of his own publicity, a 'gay, disabled, pro-Thatcher Parsee'. When he came to England for the first time about four years ago he discovered that being gay, disabled, and pro-Thatcher were easier here than in India, and he decided to stay. An account of his visit was published in his second book, Heaven on Wheels. Now Kanga lives in London, a pillar of the Asian gay community.

Anglophilia is a constant theme of Kanga's writing, harped on with adoring irony. Parsees, he claims, lined the streets and wept when India gained independence from the British. This obsession proved quite a hit on tour. A diminutive figure with a high voice and flailing hands, in a crimson or emerald shirt, he sat in his wheelchair declaiming from his book, relying on memory for those adored British things. '. . . BBC voices, Boadicea, Bosworth, the Blitz, Wilde, Royal Ascot . . .' (his voice approaches a frenzied peak) '. . . Abdication, Windsor Castle . . .' (pause) 'and the Food Hall at Selfridges.' It never failed to fetch a laugh. 'My parents belonged to that generation of Indian Parsees,' he finishes, 'who considered independence a culinary disaster.'

On his way to Bradford, earlier in the week, Kanga said: 'I turn myself into a comedian, and they seem to like it.' Nissim Ezekiel can make them laugh as well, when he wants. Ezekiel is no comedian, though. He is, as many think, India's most eminent English-language poet. In his jacket and tie, his yellowing cotton scarf and old canvas boat-shoes, he somehow looks the part - distrait and intellectual. But do not be deceived. Underneath he is clever and steely. Only a man of accomplishment could have written the number of book reviews he has, after all. 'Five hundred and forty,' he confided before going on stage.

Poetry, ranging from haiku to contemporary versions of the Psalms; plays; criticism; editing of The Indian PEN ('half a day thrice a week'); teaching English at Bombay University; and at one time advocating, as a Seventies anthology puts it, 'a disciplined use of LSD': Ezekiel has led a busy life, even apart from the reviews. There was once a notorious disagreement with V S Naipaul, too. Ezekiel wrote an essay that managed to express the offence many Indians had taken from Naipaul's book An Area of Darkness. '. . . The core of rightness in his complaint (about India) ought to be taken seriously. It is more valuable than his reckless generalisation, his grotesque exaggeration, his nagging, irritable manner . . . Mr Naipaul shows little humility, spiritual or other . . .' Nissim Ezekiel can be steely all right, when he wants.

Ezekiel has not been uncriticised himself. Very Indian Poems in Indian English, for example, were taken by some Indians as a cruel mockery of the way they speak. In truth the poems are parodies, light and tart, even benevolent. For a white Anglo-Saxon they are a guilty pleasure, tinged with memories of Peter Sellers and an era before PC. At the meetings the audience guffawed.

Nayantara Sahgal and Firdaus Kanga laughed too. Only Meena Alexander remained impassive - uneasy, perhaps, at this strange game of detachment and irony. Ms Alexander herself is not detached. She is committed and modern, a poet who will celebrate Nelson Mandela's visits to New York where she lives, or deplore the events of Tiananmen Square. Her poetry is distant from Ezekiel's formal clarity. By favouring a mode of still contemplation, Alexander risks a certain lack of dynamism. But in the individual imagery of her poems, derived often from Indian mythology or her own Indian background, there is a sensuous precision and an unusual force.

How did the writers enjoy the tour? Earlier on Nayantara Sahgal felt she had been 'roped in' but in the end she was delighted - especially by the response of the Asian community in Slough. Nissim Ezekiel was the happiest. After the final curtain I waited for him to finish advising a budding Sikh writer on how to have his book published, and I asked him what he thought. 'Only an arts council would do such a mad thing as this,' he said. 'I love it, I love it.'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition