Anjali Joseph: 'Stop trying to label me!'

Born in Bombay, educated in Cambridge – and dismissive of tags of nationhood for her debut novel, Anjali Joseph makes a combative case for a better understanding of modern, fluid identity

Sunday 24 October 2010 00:00

Back in 1985, when I was seven, my family moved to England from Bombay. My father was a research scientist. He was going to teach at Warwick University. In his first week, a colleague offered to take him to the cafeteria at the campus arts centre. There were sandwiches, salads, baked potatoes, and something else, which the colleague indicated: "Have you tried these? They're called samosas. They're rather good."

When we moved, I had never been to England, or anywhere outside India except for a sabbatical year my father had taken at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh when I was a toddler. I was, however, confident about what England would entail. I had been reading. There would be a village, and a fat village policeman; I would have friends, five or seven of them, and a dog; my friends and I would sit in a garden shed, go on picnics, or sleep in gorse bushes, and feast on boiled eggs (which I hated) and delicious-sounding tongue sandwiches.

Some recalibration was required; I realised that England was no longer in the 1930s and, perhaps, even then, had not resembled life in the works of Enid Blyton, which I'd eagerly read from our local library in Bombay.

Recently, I've been thinking again about those days, which represented both the time when I first encountered the exotic West at length, and the time when I would, unwittingly and unwillingly, first become a slightly exotic specimen myself. One of the triggers is working on my second novel, which follows a protagonist whose life in London, Paris, then Bombay, follows a similar trajectory to my own. Another was the first DSC South Asian Literature Festival, which has been on in London for the past fortnight and is about to move to the rest of the country. I took part in a London event, a panel on storytelling, with the writers Nikesh Shukla, Niven Govinden, Sabrina Mahfouz and Irfan Master, and I'll be appearing at another event on Thursday in Leicester.

It's a weird enough thing, for anyone without a cast-iron sense of their own self, to appear in public as yourself and come up with views which might be taken to define you. It's stranger still when those remarks, or your work, are taken to represent something about your national literature, whatever that means.

Seen from the outside, both Mohammed Hanif and Aamer Hussein are Pakistani writers. But when I read and admired the former's A Case of Exploding Mangoes recently, I didn't think of some of the other Pakistani writers I've been reading in the past few years; I thought rather of the absurdity, robustness and elastic humour of a novel such as Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Similarly, Hussein's elegant, compact Another Gulmohar Tree seems to me to have strong links with European traditions, as well as being at home with strangeness in a way that I recognise from those Urdu short-story writers I've read. Surely this is unsurprising? We all read outside national boundaries, and find books to love without first considering their provenance: there is no incoherence in an Indian writer who reads Flaubert or Beckett, any more than an Irish writer who reads Marquez or Rushdie.

When I began to write my first novel, Saraswati Park, what I found myself wanting to write about was Bombay, where I had begun to grow up and which had remained a place of import in my memory and imagination; writing was both a way of recalling the bookish, quiet family life of my parents and grandparents, and reconciling or juxtaposing that existence with the more brash avatar of the city where I'd lived and worked in my twenties.

I was responding both to the literary and journalistic impressions of the city that existed which didn't happen to be mine – big business, the film industry, the criminal underworld, life in the slums – and to some of the Indian writing I'd read more lately and to which I felt closer: by novelists such as RK Narayan, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Amit Chaudhuri.

The book came out slightly earlier in England than in India; it had some nice reviews, and some less positive ones. But several even of the nice reviews seemed to see it as the latest incarnation of a much-reborn entity probably called "Indian Writing in English": a new version of a manifesto for What Indian Writers Are Doing. I don't happen to see it that way; I see it as a novel that I wrote. In India, there were some good

reviews, again, and some negative reviews: many of these picked up on the good reviews in the English press and then quarrelled with them; some insinuated that I was just another of the writers published outside India who were peddling an "exoticised" India to the West. Strange, to me, since what I wrote about were very small, quiet incidents in daily life, for the most part: it was my characters' inner life that interested me, not large external events.

Unlike those reviews which merely made points about the book's faults of language or structure, these were responses that appeared to be fuelled by personal indignation. I felt almost that if I'd written about the stock-in-trade of a particular type of Indian writing ("repressed marriages or maudlin mangroves", says Nikesh Shukla by way of shorthand), some of the same reviewers would have been less annoyed.

When my parents moved back to India, I was still in university, reading English literature. A decade of feeling, in a quiet way, like a freak, had had its result: I instinctively avoided papers in contemporary or Commonwealth and international literature in English, and stuck to the canon. When I wanted heterogeneity, which did happen, there were Irish and French writers. At the time, I didn't see this as a manifestation of insecurity or embarrassment; now I wonder.

Shukla, whose first novel Coconut Unlimited tells the story of a group of teenage boys in Harrow who form a hip-hop band, recognises the reaction. "The boys in the book have rejected their [Gujarati] home culture and their [independent] school culture because neither allows them to fit in," he says. "They can't just be."

When I was 25 and between jobs, I'd already worked in Paris and London. Living in France unexpectedly gave me new affection for England; I felt more English. The variousness of London made me feel more at home than I ever had growing up. Accidentally, while on holiday, I moved back to India. I'd been drifting around south India, growing increasingly sick of the other backpackers (British, French, Israeli) whom I met, and who reflected my own uninteresting aimlessness. I wrote a few job-application letters, and to my surprise began work a month later as a feature writer at The Times of India in Bombay. At the start of my three-year stint, when I telephoned people for work, they'd complain that they couldn't understand my (English) accent. By the time I came back to England to do a Master's degree, people kept asking where I was from. "Leamington Spa" was no longer a good enough answer; there'd be a pause, then they'd try again: "But before that?" And though I still find myself prickling at the question, that discomfort also amuses me, for it so clearly derives from my English side.

The truth is that many of us, not merely writers, and not merely those who have lived in more than one country, have several different selves and modes of being. Ideas of nationhood or identity are a starting point for encounters – with otherness, with the unexpectedly familiar – or a door to discovering new writers. The South Asian Literature Festival is a good instance. It would be misguided, both for writers and readers, to view such a festival as a United Nations crafts fair, in which each individual or each work represents an instalment of a national story.

The (British-Asian) novelist Niven Govinden points out that any such labels – British, Asian, Indian, diaspora – "confer an 'authenticity' on the author which is never particularly helpful in the creative process". The writer and musician Amit Chaudhuri is equally brisk when I ask him how he feels about the way his work is seen in India or outside. "Those sorts of contrasts and tensions have completely ceased to interest me. Different types of unsettledness do."

I live in England again now, and feel as Indian as ever, though I also see the emergence of a more English part of my personality at some moments. It was when I began to accept the different varieties of unsettledness, or routinely and deliberately to take my discomfort with me no matter where I travelled, that I started to feel at home. Is this one of the joys of literature, and art in general? A willingness to be attentive to difference, not only from other people, or the place in which one finds oneself, but from one's self of yesterday, or half-an-hour earlier.

Anjali Joseph is taking part in an event on Friday from 1.30pm at the University of Leicester as part of the inaugural DSC South Asian Literature Festival. The festival runs until Sunday (

The extract

Saraswati Park, By Anjali Joseph (Fourth Estate £12.99)

'...He held out the book and pointed to the margin. "Do you have more like this?"

The bookseller looked distracted. It was nearly five: a tide of commuters would soon spill past the stalls, towards Churchgate and the trains that would take them home. The heat still lingered but already the light was changing: it was finer, more golden. From the sea, at the end of the road, there spread a pale brightness, as though the street and the bookstalls were a mirage that would disappear with the sunset'

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