Sunday, April 23, 2006

Of hairdos and hen-dos: Brideless in Wembley review

Two recent visits to London, brief though they were, helped my appreciation of some of the anecdotes (which I might otherwise have thought exaggerated) in Sanjay Suri’s entertaining Brideless in Wembley. Those trips gave me many memorable insights into the insularity and cultural confusion of Indians living abroad: a sense of the divisions, sub-divisions and sub-sub-divisions not just between one community and another, or one religion and another, but within each community and religion too. These are insights one rarely gets while living in urban, middle-class India, especially if one's family is not heavily into religion or rituals; many things are more easily avoided here.

In London in 2004 I was amused by the response of my uncle’s circle of right-wing buddies to the news that a Congress-led government was coming to power in the home country and that Sonia Gandhi was set to become prime minister. There was serious angst in their conversations about this terrible thing the Indian voters had done in casting the BJP out. “A foreigner becoming PM,” they shuddered. “What has gone wrong with the country we loved and left?” (Okay so they didn’t say it quite that way, but one of my boredom-deflecting techniques on that trip was to construct speech- and thought-bubbles.) Then they would direct sarcastic remarks at waiters at an Italian restaurant, whine about Muslim conspiracies and generally behave like racist boors.

Then, last year, when my Punjabi cousin and his long-time Gujarati girlfriend decided to marry, there was much dismay among the elders on both sides – but especially among the groom’s family, who spent most of the time leading up to the nuptials exchanging “Gujju” jokes in private, and generally shaking their heads and clucking their tongues over this new radicalism that allows youngsters to determine the course of their own lives. At the wedding ceremony, when the bride’s side briefly interrupted the pre-planned schedule with a quick recital of a Jain chant, the groom’s relatives responded by standing up and singing a particularly rumbustious version of “Om Jai Jagdish Hare”. The little games of one-upmanship being played out in this and many other incidents were quite obvious even to an outsider (which is what I felt like though I was surrounded by Indians – including at least a few relatives I'm genuinely fond of when they aren’t busy organising themselves into packs of wolves).

There are doubtless hundreds of more such stories to be told, and many of them can be found in Suri’s book. Brideless in Wembley is essentially a compendium of the author’s encounters with the many Little Indias that have come up in Britain in the decades since the first lot of immigrants travelled uncertainly to the once-Mother Country.

Suri is a journalist based in London since 1990, and observation and reportage are his fortes. The book opens with an account of the Asian presence in Leicester, “the first big town in the West where whites are steadily declining into minority status”, and of some of the earliest settlers from India – people who came to England soon after India’s independence, struggled through years of racism and loneliness, and eventually, by dint of hard work and fortitude, carved a niche for themselves in this foreign land. The author meets some of them and then, in a decision that smacks of whimsy, spends hours at a shopping complex noting the demographics of the thousands of people who pass by, eventually concluding that Leicester isn’t so much multi-cultural as “a city of adjacent cultures” (a variant of “plural mono-culturalism”, Amartya Sen’s term for cultures existing side by side in the same place without ever really interacting).

Ever the questing vole, Suri attends a meeting of Sikhs trying to overrule an order that would make helmets compulsory in high-risk factories; he listens in on a poignantly funny dissection of the turban as protective gear (“for impacts to the front of the head the turban gave 141.7 per cent better protection than a helmet…Sikhs had been known to pick bullets out of their turbans during and after battle”). He learns about the usefulness of the dandia as a courtship ritual in the Gujarati community – a pretext for youngsters to interact with suitable members of the opposite sex, all under their parents’ watchful gaze of course. He notes that Indian youngsters abroad often fall in with their parents’ ways and beliefs to a larger degree than those living in India do. It’s a familiar enough observation, but Suri speculates that this isn’t only because the parents are so unbending in their ways; many of the youngsters are genuinely compliant. “The overwhelming proximity of a wide species of alien cultures and colours brings you closer to your parents than you might otherwise have been.”

At an educational mela where children must learn about Hinduism, there are a series of near-surreal exchanges. (“What’s a Hindu?” asks a teacher. “It lays eggs,” says a child who must have heard “What’s a hen do?”) Suri meets holy celebrities like Morari Bapu, who once performed a katha ritual on board a Jumbo jet, 30,000 feet up. And he interviews the legendary Kailash Puri, agony aunt to thousands of confused NRIs seeking counsel on inter-caste love, lesbianism, virginity and penis size.

The common thread in all these stories is the desperate, almost manic search for identity; the need to belong to a group, to share beliefs. Many of the people Suri meets are ensconced in homogenous little cliques and one can, in a sense, understand their fear that their own culture and traditions might be subsumed by those of others. But what they don’t realise is that by seeking superficial comfort in numbers they are really insulating themselves from vast swathes of other people – including some who are “different” from them in only the most minor ways.

This is illustrated in the author’s description of a cricket match in a local Middlesex league where every player on the field is a Patel, but there are still fine divisions: both teams are Swaminarayan Patels, both from the same 24 villages of Kutch in Gujarat – but they go to different Swaminarayan temples, “and that point of separation alone had made this match possible”. The same story is repeated elsewhere, with small variations. Suri meets the Ravidassias, descendants of families who worked in the leather and hide trade and were considered untouchables; they worship a 14th century preacher named Ravi Das, but this causes friction between the Ravidassias and the larger Sikh community, which does not count Ravi Das among the 10 Gurus. And so it goes.

Brideless in Wembley is a consistently engrossing, informative read, and one that makes its claims explicit early on. “A quick word about what this book is not,” Suri says in his Introduction, “It does not offer dining-table wisdom of the ‘caught-between-two-worlds’ variety…nor is it a history book. I do not have a first chapter called ‘Early Arrivals’ followed by another called ‘Settling In’.” Authors’ warnings of this sort can safely be ignored in most cases, but the reader would do well to heed this one, for this is a book that is best not approached with pre-conceptions about what it should be.

I initially faced that problem myself – I wondered why Suri was moving randomly from one topic to another, instead of trying to provide some sort of overview – and it was only more than halfway through that I made my peace with what he is trying to do here. This is more than anything a book of vignettes, a largely affectionate account of some of the Indian communities living in the UK – of their whims, insecurities, inter-communal and inter-generational divides. The author’s purpose is to observe and record the details of these many lives, not to pass sweeping judgements on them – though he does throw in the occasional sharp commentary when discussing the things parents make their children do in the name of tradition and culture (Muslim youngsters being made to go to madrassas to learn an “Islamic syllabus” in the evenings after regular school hours and recite lines from the Koran without knowing their meaning; five-year-old children “gyrating hips that weren’t there” at Bollywood dance classes where they are primed for possible future careers in the industry; other young children “being pulled into caste long before they’d ever hear that word”).

Brideless in Wembley reads like a book written by someone who is principally a reporter – even the chapter titles have the feel of lazy newspaper sub-heads and captions (“Patel Power”, “London Leather”, “Aunt and Agony”). And it doesn’t work quite so well when Suri tries to be more a writer than a journalist. At such times he produces embarrassingly trite passages like this one (at a meeting of Gujarati limbachias, a caste bound by the detail that their families were traditionally hairdressers):

“I began to survey hairstyles again. They looked no different from hair at any other gathering; for some reason I was disappointed that hair, which had brought everyone together, was not announcing itself in some way…I saw only my eagerness to believe that all hair is special but limbachia hair is more special than
Or this one, in an otherwise poignant sub-chapter set in an old people’s home:

“The quietness of death seemed to linger in the air – unless I was seeing an imminence of death that they were not.”
But such missteps aside, the strengths of this book are the quality of observation, the eye for detail and the sense of humour running through even the bleakest stories. The discreteness of the chapters and the general lack of structure can make it seem unsubstantial at times, but Brideless in Wembley is best read as a series of (very long) feature stories about Indians in Britain. The book works because these are fine feature stories, with just the right mix of anecdote and insight, and a sharp perspective into lives that are in flux and disarray.

[Have written a slightly extended version of this for Biblio magazine]

[And an earlier post: Bigotry and confusion in NRI-land.]


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. You're making me miss my reviewing days. Haven't done any worth speaking of since last year because of the million other things in my life, but maybe it's time to get back. 'Indian' writing in English used to be a favourite kind of reading for review.

  3. You throw up very interesting questions and observations. I'll definitely be looking out for this book...It sounds like something we should all be reading.