Belonging and inclusion are the themes which bind together this offering of short stories and poems from The Whole Kahani, a collective of award-winning female writers of British-Asian origin. The preface, written by Preti Taneja, acclaimed author of We That Are Young, outlines the mission statement of the collective, whose name translates as “the full story”. Taneja argues that in mainstream Western media, women from minority communities are generally portrayed in two-dimension. South Asian women are particularly stereotyped as “docile, servile, perfect daughters, sisters, brides and mothers: sensual not sexual, good for nothing but to be handmaids to patriarchy by making sons.” This is, Taneja writes, a myth, perpetuated by a dominant culture (both in the East and the West) which uses such narratives to reinforce the status quo. The collection is targeted at upsetting that “single story” by presenting alternative perspectives and atypical characters, as well as showcasing the female authors and poets who create them.
The writing that follows focuses on a range of characters (male and female) attempting to find their place in the world. Some are immigrants trying to build a life in Britain while others struggle to return “home” to India from UK. In other stories, natives find their own culture alien or battle to reconcile the past with the present. Wanting to fit in or belong, either to a culture or at least another human being, is a shared concern. This is most poignantly demonstrated in “This Can Be Mine” by Mona Dash when her heroine is touched by a kind gesture of a fellow traveller on the London Underground. She writes:
On the platform, she looks back, wondering if he’s looking at her, but his head is bent, back in his own world. Everyone in their own worlds. Everyone belonging.
While several stories reveal the discomfort of being in the hinterland between East and West, others suggest that it may actually be liberating. For example, in “Lost and Found” by Shibani Lal, Londoner Nik finally embraces her Indian heritage and derives strength from calling herself by her real name, Nikhila. Meanwhile, in her poem, “Implications”, Mona Dash writes of being not between cultures but on a point (“intersectionality”) where they merge. Much like a Venn diagram, she can find uniting commonalities, not divisive differences.
The book is most successful when it finds such universals. A fine illustration is “Living with the Dead” by Nadia Kabir Barb, which explores attitudes to death and burial. Its conclusion is that death sees no religious differences and treats everyone the same—fatally. The opportunities which life presents, therefore, should not be allowed to pass by.
Another perceptive tale is “Natural Accents”, also by Mona Dash, which imagines the outcome of being able to change an accent merely by inserting a chip into the voice box. The experiences of the patient, Renuka, highlight and question the prejudice surrounding accent not just in English but the Indian languages and beyond.
Other writers also choose to reflect on the notion of “in between”. Radika Kapur, in her story “Inbetween”, sees it as an opportunity for self-reinvention and celebration, prizing it as a space for deeper self-knowledge through learning to “be comfortable with being, just being, without being something.”
The collection ends, however, on a different tone. Reshma Ruia’s poem “Dinner party in the Home Counties” is a rallying call to other unheard voices for inclusion. Her narrator stakes a claim to the creative mainstream and refuses to be sidelined as “minority alternative arts”. May We Borrow Your Country might be one step on the way to that goal.
Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.