As words well up
Nathacha Appanah's writing is deeply relevant to Indians
By: Anuradha Roy
When Nathacha Appanah began to write The Last Brother, it was 2005, the seas around Europe were calm and the boatloads of desperate people in flight from wars were still in the future. It appears prophetic then, that she placed a ship laden with 1,500 Jews fleeing the holocaust at the centre of her book – something that actually happened in 1940. The refugees reached Palestine, which was held by the British, but they did not have the right paperwork. They were deemed illegal immigrants by the British authorities, who deported them to Mauritius, then a British colony. Here, they were imprisoned till the end of the war and, through those four years, 127 of the prisoners died.
The Last Brother was translated into 16 languages, including English, and needs to be better known in India. Its protagonists are two little boys, both raw with different kinds of sorrow, guilt, and loss, both in search of a hiding place to share with a friend. They speak no common language and yet, seeking refuge in each other, find the strength not merely for survival but also happiness. Tempests, both real and metaphorical, rage over the island that is home for one and prison for the other. The novel is bathed in the green half-light of a tropical rainforest through which, in a memorable scene, a red parakeet alights upon the blond head of David and then flies away, leaving the boys mesmerized, “as if it were a shared dream we… were having at the same time”.
But it is a dream and will be over soon. David does not know why he is imprisoned, and Raj, the Mauritian boy who lives an isolated life, doesn’t know about the war. All they want is the freedom to be brothers together in a life where neither of them is being brutalized or imprisoned. Appanah uses the poignant naiveté of their dreams and expectations as a ruthlessly clear-eyed lens through which to examine some of the complex themes she confronts again in her fifth novel, Waiting for Tomorrow: migration, racism, alienation, friendship, loneliness, dreams of a different life.
I met Nathacha many years ago, on her first (and only) visit to India, and our friendship began over her confusion about How to Be a Not-Indian in India. When she came here, everyone saw her as Indian because of her looks. If she had on a slightly short skirt she felt people staring at her in a way they did not when a white woman wore similar clothes. Yet maybe the only thing Indian about her is her race. Both her parents are Mauritian (of Indian extraction), she grew up speaking Mauritian Creole, she has long lived in France and writes in French. Last year, for her sixth book, Tropic of Violence, she won or was listed for almost every major French award, including the Prix Goncourt.
This very fluid thing that is identity – this sense of belonging and unbelonging – is what she explores with deep intelligence, sensitivity, and wit in Waiting for Tomorrow, a novel about an inter-race couple, Anita and Adam, whose marriage is falling apart as their original artistic ambitions crumble under the pressure of domesticity. Anita was once ablaze with the desire to write fiction but is forced to content herself with a job as a stringer for a provincial paper, where she is asked to cover events as diverse as a “Houses in Bloom” competition and a “miniconcert by a Johnny Hallyday lookalike”. She goes about it with the fervour of a woman who has to make it work while facing people who answer her “politely but warily”. She realizes she is “all too visible and appallingly invisible”. She is baffled and disappointed by this until she catches an unexpected glimpse of herself in the mirror and understands that she is the odd one out. “A vegetable among fruits… a red flower in a yellow field.” When people hear her voice on the phone they expect a white Frenchwoman; what they get is someone they cannot relate to because of her race.
The implication is that the mental horizons of most people are limited by their preconceptions and most people are disappointed when reality does not fit with what they expect. A sense of alienation builds up inside Anita until, one day, during a party of the kind where there are perfumed candles and “the wine comes from a little vineyard not far from here”, she finds herself lashing out at an old friend who asks about a black woman in the room. Is “the chick” a nanny, he wants to know, or a friend of Anita’s. “So because she is not white she must be either a nanny or a relative of mine,” she replies – doesn’t he realize his remark is racist? Her outburst is followed by an instant of “stupefied silence”.
Although the novel has many themes – creativity, love, friendship – subtly and tenderly explored, it is race that is placed on the dead centre of its immaculate dining tables: a festering, ugly thing every gaze wants to avoid. Waiting for Tomorrow refuses to skirt the issue as polite people do; instead it points a stark and unforgiving light at the problem. Could it be that people like us are racist? Could it be that we ourselves are racist? Nobody is spared, not even the enchanted couple who end up exploiting their nanny, Adèle. An illegal immigrant who lives in “a world with no plans, no dreams, no pity, no one to turn to, no friends, where everything is in cash, where everything has its price…”, Adèle miraculously transforms their lives and is transformed in turn, but there is a steep price to pay.
What unites The Last Brother and Waiting for Tomorrow is that, miraculously, despite the painful themes they explore, there is nothing cheerless about them. Both novels brim with colour, sensuousness, beauty. You could describe Nathacha Appanah’s writing the way she describes Anita’s: “Words well up inside her, arranging themselves almost involuntarily into poems.” You want to quote whole pages, the prose (in brilliant translations by Geoffrey Strachan) is so good. I am waiting now for the English publication, later this year, of Tropic of Violence.
English-language readers in India are justifiably scolded for being blind to the literature in our many languages. There is a similar blindness to writing from distant countries – unless the author has been lionized in London or New York. In earlier times, we depended on enlightened booksellers to open our eyes to writers from Colombia or Japan or Ukraine. The pavement stalls in College Street, Free School Street, and Chowringhee were as valuable to us as our classrooms; the booksellers were teachers too, after a fashion. Now, given how quickly and easily books can reach us and the range of excellent translations available, missing out on brilliant voices like Nathacha Appanah’s only contracts our already shrunken worlds.