Kulwant has decided she’s an old, frail lady. Some of that description is true and some of it is the careful construction of a woman tired of the world who has decided to play an elaborate trick on it. Her stick and clothes are armour, not support, a means of both handling and keeping the world at a distance.
The only problem is, the world has no intention of leaving Kulwant alone.
Ravinder Randhawa’s work is shot through with a playful love of language and the sort of rolling, informal formality that defines families. This, her first novel, revised from original release, shows both those qualities by the bucket load. There’s some wonderful, chewy language here as Kulwant interacts with family and friends, using shorthand to define people and their place in her world.
But there’s also a rich history that Randhawa unfolds with a postmodern, almost stream of consciousness, approach. At first that can be a little dizzying but it’s a fiercely accurate representation of family’s oral histories. We all live in a complex web of reference and in-joke, ‘that time that’s and nicknames that have outlived the circumstance, or person that created them. We all see the world differently and we all make the world different in that seeing. That, and what happens when those different versions combine, is at the heart of the novel.
Those stories combine in Kulwant, how she’s perceived and how she perceives herself. There’s tremendous anger, intelligence and guilt wrapped up in her clumpy, old lady frame and both she and her author have a lot of fun with what that does for and to her. For Kulwant, the armour is a means of dealing with her world and keeping people where she can handle them. For Randhawa, it’s an excuse to show a peculiar kind of penance in her leading lady. Kulwant is defiant, belligerent and completely unaware that she can mend the bridges she’s set fire to. The armour isn’t just there to protect her, it’s there to restrict her and its eventual loss is all the more powerful for it happening off the page. Besides, Kulwant’s a busy lady. She’s got stuff to do.
Likewise Randhawa who uses Kulwant’s grumpy travels across her neighbourhood as a means of showing the consequences of living in a small, tight community even when you don’t especially like it. Everything that happens here is connected to Kulwant, whether it’s through a relative, a friend or an old lover and none of it is easy or especially pleasant. British culture is explored here as a complex knot of obligation and shared history, a knot that’s made all the tighter by the arrival of Kulwant and her family in the country.
Except of course that’s not true. A knot like that is tight and complex wherever and whenever it’s tied. The different Kulwant and co bring is not added complexity but added practicality. There are as many hands untying the knot as tying it and all of the strings, all the threads of causality and coincidence, happiness and happenstance, are wrapped around the magnificently grumpy leading lady. Everything changes, but only when Kulwant realizes it not only can but should. Even then, nothing’s simple, or easy and life remains the great performance it has been for the entirety of the book.
But this time, the stage is full. And Kulwant’s costume is so much better.
A Wicked Old Woman is funny, laconic and absolutely refuses to back down, just like Kulwant. And, just like Kulwant, it’s unmissable.