I started this blog with no intention of posting book reviews on it (many other bloggers already do it, and better than I could), but I finished The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla this morning, and have so many thoughts and feelings about it that a full review seems more appropriate than my usual one-sentence summary on Instagram!
Shukla is probably best known for editing the brilliant The Good Immigrant anthology of essays, and this is how I was first introduced to him. He’s now a columnist for the Guardian and a general champion for BAME writing. He has written other novels in the past, but this is the most recent and the first one I’ve read by him.
The One Who Wrote Destiny tells the story of several generations of the Jani family, who have roots in Kenya and, before that, India. It opens with the story of Mukesh, who moves to Britain from Kenya in the 1960s in the hope of going to university in London, but ends up staying in Keighley and falling in love. The narrative then moves forward in time to his grown-up daughter Neha and her twin brother Raks, and then loops back a bit for the story of the twins’ maternal grandmother, Ba.
The main theme of the novel is, as you might expect, the question of whether we all have a fate or not. Do we live our lives according to some preset plan, or do we really have the control over them that a lot of us think we do? All four of the main characters muse on this quite frequently. Neha, an IT whiz and Star Trek obsessive who has cancer stemming from a genetically inherited disease, goes further than the others in trying to come to a firm conclusion, but ultimately doesn’t get the results she expects.
The other main theme is race and the immigrant experience. This interested me more than the destiny theme, although the two cross over quite a lot. I found it fascinating how the novel explores the different ways in which racism manifests itself. There’s the version that most people think of – violence and insults – which is mainly experienced by the older generations of the family, then there’s the quieter and more insidious type that most of the Asian characters come up against both in the past and present, from the waiter who writes ‘Mr and Mrs Apu’ on Raks’ drinks bill, never thinking that he’ll see it, to Ba’s recollection of her husband being called ‘Smiley’ by a condescending white man when Kenya was still under colonial rule.
What particularly resonated me was the characters’ thoughts and experiences on this second type of racism and on generally feeling like outsiders, even when they’ve ‘integrated’ to all intents and purposes. This paragraph from Raks’ section rang particularly true for me, having recently had my eyes opened by Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race:
I never thought about any of this stuff growing up. Race shit. Suddenly everyone’s talking about diversity and you start to notice it and then once you notice it, you can’t unsee it. Suddenly I’m obsessed with it, and still figuring it out. And I’m starting to wonder what I’ve let slide ’cause I just never thought about it before.
This observation from Mukesh in the present day also made me nod, as a somewhat frequent pub-goer:
I […] look around the room. One of the things I still find strange in the UK, even after forty years, is how it feels to be the only brown people in the pub, yaar.
I also enjoyed this flashback of Mukesh’s, having had to deal with this question a few times over the years (the answer is always Bolton for me!):
Mrs Simpson asked me on that first day, where are you from? I told her, Kenya. And she said, no, but where are your parents from? I told her, Kenya. No, but where are you from originally? Kenya, I told her again. I think she did not understand me because I was not saying India, the land of my forefathers; I am in an in-between world. It seems such an innocent question. Where are you from?
I don’t know. Why does it matter so much?
This question ends up mattering more and more to Neha and then Raks as the novel progresses, leading the story to a recounting of the week they spent with Ba in Kenya when they were children, told from Ba’s point of view. I found this section quite emotional to read, because it reminded me of the last time I saw my maternal grandmother on my last visit to India 18 years ago (she has since died). There was a significant language barrier between us, as there seems to be between Ba and the twins at first, but somehow our blood ties made that barrier feel fairly insignificant.
Major themes aside, I also loved just how funny the novel can be while also threatening to emotionally undo the reader. You can particularly see how Raks, a stand-up comedian, uses humour as a mechanism for dealing with the complexities of being a person of colour in the UK, which has both good and bad consequences for his career. But there are funny bits throughout – in Mukesh’s clumsy way of getting close to the object of his affections, in Neha’s scathing opinions of other people, in Ba’s changing attitude towards the young twins.
I also enjoyed the references to some of Shukla’s bugbears regarding cultural (mis)appropriation. If you’ve read his essay in The Good Immigrant or follow him on Twitter, you’ll know all about his feelings on calling chai ‘chai tea’ and naan ‘naan bread’, which are referred to in the novel. There are also other references that I recognised and appreciated, such as the tendency for immigrants to have different ‘voices’ for different occasions. I think it’s really great that he was able to put so much of himself into the novel, especially when some BAME writers are told by the agents/publishers to write works that fit within a certain narrative, which is not necessarily the story they actually want to tell.
As you can tell, I loved The One Who Wrote Destiny, probably mostly because it resonated with me so much on a personal level – if this hadn’t been a library book, I would have filled it with post-its and pencilled underlinings! I’m not quite sure what other readers will think of it, especially as there isn’t a straightforward plot as such, the pace can be quite slow at times, and there are a few bits that I think only those from a certain background will truly appreciate. Still, it’s an incredibly well-written book with characters you can’t help rooting for, even when they annoy you, and there’s a lot for white Britons to learn about their fellow BAME citizens’ experiences in the UK, especially those of us caught in that “in-between world” of being born in the UK to immigrant parents.