About ‘the Challenges and Agony of Reading Between the Lines in Relationships’

Once in every ten years, literary magazine Granta takes out a list of twenty best British novelists under forty who not only define their own generation but are likely to inspire the next. The first list came out in 1983. In April this year, the fourth list was unveiled at the British Council, London. Many talented names like Nadifa Mohamed, Ross Raisin, Sunjeev Sahota, Steven Hall, Sarah Hall, David Szalay and Jenni Fagan made it to the prestigious list.

The following months of 2013 saw the international collaboration of British Council and Granta. Together, they presented the ‘Best of Young British Novelists’, traveling to more than ten countries around the globe including Brazil, Canada, Kenya, Russia, Qatar, the United States and India, to read to new audiences, experience other cultures and inspire a new global generation of readers and writers.

The British Council India toured twelve of the twenty writers to ten cities. The British Council of Ahmedabad was honoured to have David Szalay (DS) and Nadifa Mohamed (NM) on a two-day visit after which they visited Mumbai and Chennai.

David Szalay was born in Canada. His family moved to the UK when he was a baby. The forty-year-old has authored three books till now: “London and the South-East”, “The Innocent” and “Spring”. He is currently working on his fourth novel “Europa”. Szalay wrote a passage of the novel for Granta – Best of British Young Novelists 4”. He says he will have to write the whole novel around that ‘passage’ now! Szalay lives in Hungary with his wife and two small children.

Nadifa Mohamed was born in Somalia in 1981. She soon moved to the UK when she was around 5 years ago. Her first novel “Black Mamba Boy” published in 2010, was long-listed for the Orange Prize and won her the Betty Trask Award. Her second novel was “Orchard of Lost Souls”. Now she is working on her third novel “Filsan”. Nadifa lives in London and works with a documentary-making company.

On November 13, I attended a Panel Discussion on the theme of “The Challenges and Agony of Reading Between the Lines in Relationships” moderated by well-known Ahmedabad-based author/columnist/writer Raksha Bharadia (RB).

Excerpts from the panel discussion:

RB to NM: How universal is the search for home?

NM: Home is a complicated concept for Somalis. When we left Hergeisa and came to London, I didn’t like it even a bit. I didn’t want to go to the school. I just wanted to go back to the place I was familiar with. But now London feels like home. The first time I went to Somaliland after leaving it was in 2008. Till now, I have been there four times. It’s like I have one leg in Somaliland and one in London.

RB to DS: Let us talk about the complexities about man-woman relationship in the urban scenario.

DS: It is difficult to talk about these things in abstract. In cities, everything is so atomized that the sense of loneliness is more intense. That puts pressure in your relationship. Then there is also the influence of consumerism. We look at everything with a critical eye. We are never happy with one thing. We also look towards attaining the best. In western culture, people have a series of relationships. The biggest question is ‘is this the right person?’. There is an element of doubt that makes people pretty insecure.

RB to DS: Why is there a need to know if everything’s alright in a relationship?

DS: In early stages of a relationship, you are working on whether or not this is the right thing. If one partner feels positive about it and the other doesn’t, it leads to worries. In the past, there was no such insecurity. I guess it’s always better to be the more loving one. I don’t want to sound cynical but love is idealized in today’s world. We have imagined pictures of love.

RB to NM: How different are man-woman relationships in London and Somaliland?

NM: It’s shameful to be in contact with someone in a romantic way in Somalia. You keep such things a secret. Ideally, it shouldn’t happen before marriage. It doesn’t happen like that in London. Today Somalian women are doing better than the menfolk both professionally and academically. The women want social acceptance that comes with marriage, they want kids but not at the cost of the life they have made for themselves.

RB: How does international displacement affect your perception about the world?

DS: I came to England as a baby. My parents are not British. My dad is a Hungarian. I came to know about Cricket in school. My parents still don’t know what Cricket is. International displacement definitely sharpens your observation skills. It creates the habit of looking at things in a questioning way.

NM: I left Somali when I was 4.5 years old. Obviously when I moved to London, there was a huge cultural shock. You have memories that remain with you and you want to cling on to them. I remember my first day at school. The whole building looked some sort of a Victorian prison. I ran away. I wanted to go back home. Certain distinct smells and sounds stay with you. You get nostalgic. This helped me in writing my second book.

RB: Lastly, do we really settle down in a relationship or is it transient in nature?

DS: A long relationship is really like a series of short relationships with the same partner.

NM: Somali marriages aren’t about settling down. My grandmother married 6 times. She was very independent. In London, it is more about comfort. Somali life is unstable. I personally find the concept of unity very claustrophobic.


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