Witty, energetic and uncompromising, the Indian-born, Manchester-based poet Reshma Ruia’s latest collection A Dinner Party in The Home Counties challenges contemporary social, racial and cultural divides. In this collection, the poet takes the reader on a vivid, multicultural journey filled with intriguing encounters and enigmatic characters.
Born in India and raised in Italy and the UK, Ruia’s musings and the trajectory of her imagination are diasporic to the core, and her work engages the unsettling nature of people’s multiple and overlapping identities, as well as the complexity of their faiths and beliefs.
From humorous caricatures to social satire, many of Ruia’s poems expose the cruelty, callousness and deep-rooted social problems that underlie racial prejudice and perpetuate class struggles. In “Mrs Basu Leaves Town”, a Mrs Basu shouts at the police to assert that “I have a name!” while she waits to be deported and repatriated to her own country. “Brexit Blues” captures the community’s pent-up anger and misdirected frustration arising from a post-Brexit England: the antagonism against “high-pitched consonants and vowels”, and how “[y]ou half-smile at them in the Aldi aisle”, causing “what’s small and spiteful inside you shouts. Run back!” Ruia is direct but one almost wishes, however, that more was left unspoken in these narratives, leaving room for the reader to imagine.
In “1947”, Ruia reflects on how history leaves its mark on the year India achieved independence:
Say it quickly — it’s a number.
Say it slowly — it becomes a code
and that the same year resonates differently to everyone or each generation, from the girl doing a PhD on borders and dividing lines, to the father who is troubled by the thought of what he left behind.
In the title poem, “A Dinner Party in the Home Counties”, the speaker is self-conscious that “I am a different breed of fish”, and feels unable to reveal her authentic self:
I chose not to talk of sacred cows. Gurus striking dog down pose.
I have earned my right to claim this slice of sky as my own.
To plant my flag. To sow my seed.
In “Southall Stories”, Ruia alludes to the complex, multi-layered and conflicting identities of an immigrant, who struggles to forget her former world, and is almost too eager to please or assimilate:
The language, an alphabet soup
bubbling inside my mouth.
The grey days shut me in like a wall. […]
I learnt damn fast: to stop waiting
for the street vendor’s call,
to leave my gold bangles behind
when I caught the bus 151 to Asda.
Drawing from John Lennon’s “Imagine”, “This Could Only Be of Lennon’s Doing” is an ironic and playful account of what a utopian future might look like with mutual trust:
There is talk of love, not cybercrime.
The airwaves jam. Husbands call wives.
Even the Queen comes down for a pint.
One of the most striking features of Ruia’s poetry is her willingness to experiment, her playful use of language, dialogue and humor, her fascinating insights into people’s interior lives. For example, “A Mrs Dalloway Kind of Day” is a riff on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. The poem opens with a flamboyant, scented bouquet, but gradually deepens into a more profound wound or a lack: “The hurt, the bruise, the dripping faucet of an eye.” The poem ends with Clarissa’s longing for Peter’s return, and “his fingers, they were always round and rough, but soft like winter light on her breast.”
Evocative and rich in storytelling, these myriad poems prompt the reader to reflect on the meaning of home, migration and race. Traversing histories and conjuring vivid portraits of immigrants’ lives, Ruia’s poems offer glimpses into a diverse range of voices, anecdotes and subjectivities across diasporic spaces, expose the threat of stereotypes and hypocrisy, and convey the need for sympathy.