Letter from Slough: A balanced passage to England

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The Independent Culture
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.'