While There is Light

Tariq Mehmood’s novel , While There is Light, impresses Mike Phillips

Courtesy: The Guardian-UK

While There is Light
by Tariq Mehmood
220pp, Comma, £7.95

The novel opens with a sentence from a letter written by Saleem, a young Muslim on remand in Leeds. “Mother, I am now in jail, in this bitch of a country called England. I may never see you again.”

As a schoolchild, Saleem had been sent to live with relatives in Bradford; now he is as much an Englishman as a Pakistani. In the 1980s, he has become the leader of a group of disaffected young Muslims, and as a wave of riots sweeps the country, he is arrested and charged with conspiracy to blow up public buildings.

Out on bail, he is told of his mother’s illness, and skips the country to return to Pakistan. He’s hoping to be reconciled with his mother, but she dies before he gets there. Back in the village where he was born, Saleem tries to settle into a relationship with his remaining family, but is haunted by the sense that, in choosing him as the one to send away, his mother had rejected him.

At the same time, he is struggling with the feeling that he has returned as a completely altered individual – a foreigner to his fellow villagers and an awkward stranger to his family. The more of his childhood memory he recovers, the more aware he is of the problems of growing up in the village. Interspersed with this narrative of discovery is the story of his life in England.

While There is Light marks an interesting departure in fiction about the experience of Asians in Britain. The author grew up in Bradford and was a founder member of an Afro-Asian organisation, the United Black Youth League. During the summer of urban riots in 1981, he was charged with conspiracy after the discovery of a store of petrol bombs. He conducted his own defence during what became known as the trial of the Bradford Twelve, and was eventually acquitted.

Since then he has produced Injustice, a documentary film about the experiences of blacks and Asians within the justice system, which outlines a history of deaths in custody. He has also campaigned for the preservation of Pothowari, the mother tongue of a substantial slice of the Pakistani peasantry, which, following the country’s adoption of Urdu as its official language, was systematically discouraged.

Mehmood’s writing is suffused with the influence of Pothowari, which gives the language of the novel a sinuous, corkscrewing feel as it moves between poetic, abstract rhetoric and down-to-earth obscenity. In the plane returning to Pakistan, Saleem sits next to an old lady who thinks he has forgotten the language of the peasantry; she amuses herself by abusing him as the “son of a squint-eyed camel”. Later, he reveals his deception. “Bah gum, you little bastard,” she replies in a Bradford accent. “I knew you understood every word I said.”

The humour is typical, but Mehmood’s work is a far cry from the cuddly charm of the Kumars. He isn’t interested in using exotic confusions and cultural confrontations as an occasion for easy humour or satire; instead, he outlines these matters with equal pain and amusement. The effect is a continual balancing of the harassment and discrimination that Saleem experiences in England against the fear and oppression of peasant life in the village.

Witnessing the death of a worker in Pakistan from an avoidable industrial accident, Saleem argues with his friend Barkat about compensation and industrial militancy, things he could take for granted in England. “What is terrible, Valaiti saabjee?” Barkat chides. “It is life. And if we protest then who against, eh?… Politics is a game for these rich bangla-wallahs. Here if a poor man lifts his head too high, they chop it off.”

Barkat’s words throw Saleem into despair. “I am still a child, I think to myself in English. I thought I understood the world. But Barkat is right. I am nothing more than Valaiti-babu, a gora [white man] imprisoned in the skin of a Paki. A Paki in England, unwanted. A Valaiti [Britisher] in Pakistan, naive, arrogant, despicable.”

Saleem is finally incapable of resolving these two sides of his identity and experience. He is, however, able to live with them, and in the same way the book’s narrative journey negotiates a way of living with the dilemmas faced by young Muslims from similar backgrounds.

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