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It feels unfair to have to pick five favourite scenes from my books, but there’s no denying that some scenes have indeed stuck in my mind, whether because of their humour, irony, or because when I was writing them, they practically flowed onto the page (a rare, but special occurrence).
Therefore, in no special order:
The first such scene that jumps to my mind is in The Coral Strand when Champa goes to see Emily – both women are connected to one man, Thomas Millar, who was involved in seedy enterprises and has been murdered. The story is set in Britain and in 1940s Mumbai; it’s a Raj novel, but very different to most Raj novels – The Coral Strand re-writes the Raj; it does portray the glamour but also the dark brutality. All empires are based on violence and unchecked power, just look at Star Wars. The women, trapped in the cogs of the Raj, have to fight for their survival. Fierce and determined Emily, the widowed bride of Thomas Miller, facing destitution, has set up an ‘establishment,’ which breaks the taboos of the Raj. Champa, Thomas Miller’s secret lover, through unthinking grief, comes to Emily to offer her help. A battle of wits ensues between the women, in which they learn, and unlearn, things about each other. This is a pivotal scene which ends with them being irrevocably connected to each other.
My second scene comes from the novel A Wicked Old Woman. Kulwant, the main character, has dressed herself in shabby old clothes and walks with a walking-stick, pretending to be much older than she is. It’s a stratagem, an imaginative invention to turn her world upside-down, shake out the cob-webs, pull the skeletons from their closets and generate a new dynamic in her life. After getting an amusingly racist rant from a woman with a buggy, Kulwant, in true subversive style, does a little war dance round her walking stick letting out little whooping cries, then breathlessly sinks to the ground closing here eyes. She’s helped up by a young man, who’s gloriously and colourfully dressed in a mix ‘n’ match of leather, ethnic and punk. Both recognise each other as kindred spirits, rebels who’ve broken through the mould of respectability demanded by Asian society, and are doing things their way.
Beauty and the Beast (originally titled Hari-jan) is an Asian teenage romance with a heroine who is smart, funny and confused, and who’s trying to work through the complexities and dilemmas of life, romance and cultural stuff. Her friend Ghazala has a different set of problems, more philosophical and practical I would say, caused by Ghazala’s father losing all his money in a failed business. I’ve always felt there was something special in the scene, in Ghazala’s kitchen, when Ghazala explains to Hari-jan the calamity that’s hit her family and her father’s declaration that because he could no longer provide for her, she was free to do whatever she wanted. ‘Papa says what he means. Nobody believes him. But I do. I know him. You see, whatever I did from then on, would matter. Because I had the freedom to choose it. I was free, no restrictions, no rules, no conditions, I had to make my own. And everything I did from then on would … be important … have an effect … I would become whatever I did….’ And Ghazala has decided she wants “…to do GOOD” but knows she has to work out what that means. She starts wearing the hijab and abaya because she wants to find out what that really means. Apart from the resonance this scene has for our contemporary world, what I really love about it, is the attempt to drill down to what someone would choose to do if they had completely free choice.
The fourth favourite scene is from the short story Time Traveller (in the anthology Dynamite). Priya is a young girl whose father has deserted the family. They’ve lost their home, they’re poorer and have had to move to a council estate. Priya wishes her life was different, and has set her heart on being an actor, though it’s not really the kind of sensible work her mother wants her to do. Whenever Priya feels unhappy and desolate, she goes to a piece of wasteland near their home and waits for her friend Linda to come and talk to her. She and Linda were best friends for years. Then they got separated – Linda died in a car accident. But she still comes whenever Priya needs her. In this scene, when Linda arrives, she grabs Priya’s hand and rushes her into a spaceship, where they meet the Hindu god, Lord Shiva, who’s both funny and serious. After hearing all about Priya’s unhappiness with life and the world, Lord Shiva declares his experiment with earth hasn’t been very successful and he’ll scrap it – horrifying Priya, whose problems suddenly fall into perspective as she pleads for the world and all the beautiful and wonderful things in it. ‘We’ll work it out,’ she promises him. Priya wakes up shivering with the cold, dead leaves and bits of dirt in her hair.
My personal thanks to Ravinder for taking part in Author August!