Earlier today, I reviewed Ravinder Randhawa’s excellent Beauty and the Beast. Next up, it’s the turn of her new anthology, Dynamite.
‘Normal Times’ is a story about art and what happens when an artist breaks from the norm. The lead is the daughter of a woman exiled from a (fictional) region for daring to break the artistic traditions of the place. Unable to practice the construction of Majkari sets there, she embraces that isolation and continues to practice outside the accepted norms. What she does not embrace is either her adoptive country or the fact that her children both want to follow her example and rebel in their own defiantly unique ways. Her daughter wants to be an artist, one on her own terms rather than that of the traditions her mother both embodies and stands apart from. Her son wants to do the one thing no man is allowed to; document the very same traditions. As a result, the mother finds herself having to deal with children who want to follow her example and embrace the very country that confirms her status as an outsider. Society, culture and gender norms are all wrapped tightly around one another here in a story that doles out the truth the same way families do; anecdotally and a little at a time. Its beautiful prose, emotionally completely honest whilst remaining deliciously opaque.
‘India’ builds on that combination of honesty and caution. Innerjeet, the lead is a young girl who falls in love for the first time and, in doing so learns a lot about how her culture changes how people perceive her. Randhawa excels at the sort of shared secrets that couples and teenagers have and there’s a barely contained, fizzing glee here when Innerjeet falls in love. The text is exuberant but clear eyed, and that’s mirrored by the ending which simultaneously brings her down to Earth and empowers her.
‘Sunni’ again builds on the theme of the stories before it. Here, the lead, Sunni, is a teenager in 1970s Southall. The story unfolds around the racist murder of Gurdeep Chaggar in 1976, the Southall Riots of 1979 and the murder of Blair Peach the same year. That horrifying set of events is used as the canvas Sunni grows up against. Attracted, and very annoyed by, a local community leader she begins working with him and finds she has hidden strengths. This is one of the strongest stories in the collection, Randhawa expertly balancing some moments of spot on humour with the clenched fist grit and determination Sunni develops to survive. She’s never safe, she never backs down and she leaves the story with far more than she entered it with. Plus, Firoz, her ‘boyfriend’ is a really smartly drawn character; hard working, virtuous, immensely arrogant and sanctimonious. The fact he and Sunni change one another, and their ending is untidy, is the emotional core of another very impressive piece.
‘The Heera’ opens with a heist and expands out from there. What turns out to have been stolen is much more interesting than the jewel at the heart of the story too. The lead is wonderfully sparky and no nonsense and is asked to recover a jewel belonging to the very family that have all but thrown her out. She does so with a refreshingly practical lack of emotion, calmly walking her way up the food chain until she gets to the dangerous and surprisingly sweet conclusion. Again Randhawa cleverly uses other fictional frameworks to tell very different stories. What’s really been stolen here is power. The willingness to give that back, as well as the knowledge of it being lost at all, is what drives the story. Gender, culture, age and tradition all collide in a piece that’s one part action movie, one part gentle character study and altogether a highlight of the book.
As is ‘The Maharani’s House’. The story, set in London, follows Dilip and Mona, an Indian couple who move to a new neighbourhood. They’re successful, prosperous and ready to feel the benefits of both. Nearby is the Maharani’s House, a derelict building that was supposedly home to an Indian noblewoman decades previously. It’s a husk but Mona is fascinated by it. More so when their fortunes take a turn for the worst and she and Dilip, like the Maharani, have to choose between ‘Gamble and ‘Survive’.
This is the most ambitious story here and also one of the two best. The narrative cuts between the Maharani and Dilip and Mona, each plot line echoing the other. The Maharani’s grand lifestyle and house is a sharp contrast to Dilip and Mona but their choices are the same. The comfort, and inspiration, that Mona finds at the house is subtly and affectingly played and the story does an excellent job of showing how times change, but problems don’t and, as a result, neither do solutions. It’s an odd, slightly sinister and immensely hopeful piece.
‘Time Traveller’ closes the collection out and focuses on Priya. The oldest daughter of a single mother, Priya is clever, kind and frequently ignored. Her mother wants her to stay true to her culture, her family don’t view her as an individual and the run down area they live in is full of people doing the exact opposite. So, stealing some time for herself, Priya meets her best friend and has something very odd happen. The second half of this story could be read any number of ways, as a paranormal experience, an externalized Socratic dialogue or the rich fantasy life of a quietly bereaved girl. I read it as a little of all three, and some of the experiences Priya has are both universal and talked about in a heartbreakingly realistic way. Priya’s grief is a constant, a part of her life that heals over after time but never quite looks the same. Randhawa’s work is at its absolute best here as Priya deals with what’s happened with a pragmatic, sensible courage that’s intensely moving and not even a little bit showy.
There’s one other thing here though. The closing scenes explore not just Priya’s worldview but how she sees other’s perceptions of er. One quote in particular stands out:
They break down boundaries, create new fusions, bring together different ideas and make new ideas. They are the real time travellers on Earth. Every society that has immigrants gets a rush and injection of energy. They, I mean the people who live there already, don’t like it because they’re scared, and no matter how much they talk about freedom and individuality they don’t like anything that’s really different. Immigrants are the ones with courage and go-go-go.
That fierce, self-aware pride runs through the entire book but bursts forth here. The fact it does so with such enthusiasm and determination makes the point all the stronger and it’s a perfect capstone for both the story and the book. Each story here is about cultural conflict and the personal peace that comes after it. Each story is crammed with wry, grounded humour and people who live on every street in the country. Most of all, each story is focused, under the endless cultural chess, on us. Humans. Brilliant, difficult, strong, tragic, stupid humans. Each crackling with energy and potential, each fizzing like dynamite and each unforgettable.