When I wrote about Selvon’s ‘The Lonely Londoners’ on the blog, I critiqued the idea that an extremely macho book from 1950s could be the ‘definitive novel about London’s West Indians.’ It’s with this in mind that I wonder if Ahsan’s debut, ‘Hashim and Family’ could possibly be my current definitive novel about the UK’s Bengali community? I’m afraid the main reason for staking this claim is that I’ve very rarely seen these characters take a leading role in literary fiction. In fact, I think this is the first novel I’ve read in which characters from this specific region of the Indian subcontinent are the protagonists; it’s certainly my first fiction that engages with the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country.
Like the best immigrant novels, ‘Hashim and Family’ focuses on the idea of belonging, the geography, memory and family producing a palimpsest, which we and the characters themselves seek to decipher. For Hashim, whose initial plan to stay in Manchester for only five years imperceptibly mutates into British-based ambitions and dreams, home remains a complex concept. Early in the novel he is baffled by his cousin’s ability to live only in Manchester without feeling conflicted:
He didn’t really understand how Rofikul could possibly avoid thinking of their homeland. Their desh. It was a delightful quirk of the Bengali language. The word literally meant ‘country’ but was also used to refer specifically to their homeland as though there were only one country in all the world, one that predated any borders or passports. The land had officially been granted many different internationally recognised legal names over the years, based on the whims of far-off governors. But those who hailed from there referred to it simply as desh. All other lands were collectively referred to as bidesh: abroad. In Hashim’s mind, to avoid thinking about desh was impossible. It was the natural place his thoughts went to. And no matter how long they might stay, Britain would always be bidesh.
While Hashim is to settle in the UK, and his wife is destined to become ‘more British than the British,’ the other main characters, including the unsettled Rofikul and Helen, whose Irish identity marks her as an outsider in 1960s Manchester, have their own journeys to make as they search for their true homes. As the war in East Pakistan breaks out in Hashim’s desh, and brutal racism shows no sign of waning in his bidesh home, it takes all the warm-hearted courage and sympathy of Ahsan’s novel to keep the story as up-beat and life-affirming as it truly is. Amid past and present challenges to all of us in Britain right now, novels like ‘Hashim and Family’ present an optimism and faith in humanity that have never been more needed.