This is a extract from 2016 novel The Handsworth Times by Sharon Duggal, set in the early ’80s in the rioting Birmingham area and in the middle of a job crisis.
I found it quite an easy reading, although I got somehow absorbed into this family tragedy some controversial aspects came out of it and I am not going to write a full review of the book because I may need more time to formulate a clearer opinion on it. It now makes over thirty years after the narrated event, but I couldn’t help reading the book thinking over the definitions of the borders and the concept of “the other” which is affected by the most recent occurrences in the UK and in some other territories.
It is doubtless a novel of loss, suffering, grief, family bonds, social and economical conflicts. The story starts when 11-year-old Billy dies in a riot, killed by a hurrying ambulance, and his family falls apart, each member mingling their personal suffering into the social turmoil that surrounds them. Mukesh Agarwal, the father, rapidly shrinks into alcohol and depression, he loses his job and goes on the dole, old traumas suddenly come back and run him over.
His wife, Husha, seems to keep herself busy with frantic household duties and obsessive cleaning as if by scrubbing every single surface she might remove the family pain. In truth, she feels heavily guilty for failing to protect her own children and keep everyone together. Meanwhile the other four children are tying to get through their teenage problems, shocked by the unjust loss of their little brother for which there’s no justification, each of them reacting in their own way and jostling to find their place into the irregular patterns of the fabric of society.
Overall, I felt there are too many stereotypes and separations in the book, in fact Handsworth houses communities of immigrants mostly from the Commonwealth – there may be other communities but this is not the focus of the novel -, and the majority of them are Indian, Jamaican and Pakistani. There’s very little integration, which is quite realistic, but They are all strangers in a foreign land, some are 2nd and 3rd generations, British citizens (dis)connected to distant imaginary homelands. The different ethnic groups don’t get on well with one another but some of those people do have something in common: they aim to resolve social matters and work together make a better future.
To reach The Shoe, Anila walks past the synagogue, Guru Nanak Gurdwara and gaudy Hindu temple which all cluster around the grammar school on Rose Hill Road. Beyond the places of worship, the shops fall out colourfully onto the main high street that is Soho Road. As she passes the first set of shops Anila sucks in the smell of the garam masalas and ripe breadfruit that fill the air.
Soho Road is full of like: down-at-heel men fester around pubs, suppressing the desperation of worklessness with cheap whisky and stale crisps, while older white haired Pakistani men reek of the sharp-smelling beedies they puff in small groups around the benches in front of the library; behind them a group of young black teenagers sit on the library steps drinking Vimto.
Older girls of all faiths and races drag younger ones in and out of shops while their mothers prod and sniff plump vegetables, looking one another up and down as they pretend to be checking some produce. Soho Road is ablaze with colour – bright cotton dresses, shimmering salwar kameez and saris, African print dashiki and head wraps. The sounds of a hundred languages mingle with jangly bhangra and bassy reggae, filing the air with surprisingly congruous sounds.
Beyond Soho Road on Grove Lane, the red-brick Edwardian houses look a if they still belong to a more affluent bygone area, but behind the unspoilt facades the affluence has dropped away as the former middle-class, white residents have retreated into the suburbs and smarter areas, wary of the new immigrants with their optimistic, anticipatory smiles, strange sounds and exotic clothing.