Immigrant story

A Small Fortune

Rosie Dastgir
Quercus
2012, pp 389
450

What is it about the Pakistani/Bangladeshi immigrants’ experience in Britain that attracts writers and screenwriters of diverse literary proclivities such as Hanif Kureishi, Monica Ali and Ayub Khan-Din? The scope of drama as well as sociological observations provided by the culture clash between the liberal English and orthodox Muslim protagonists, perhaps? A Small Fortune, Rosie Dastgir’s debut novel, follows the basic template of earlier works in the genre and yet speaks with a voice of its own.

The novel begins with Harris Anwar moving from London to the largely Pakistani neighbourhood in North England after his divorce from his English wife. He is trying to run a convenience store with the help of his cousins when he is not worrying about Alia, his 18-year old-daughter living alone in London, surrounded by the temptations of the non-Islamic, liberal British society.

Not that Harris himself has remained untouched by temptations of the consumerist west, given to enjoying his occasional drink, branded clothes and secular literature. But when he finds the white Anglo-Saxon boyfriend of Alia in her house during a surprise visit, he does not think it wrong to set cousin Rashid to spy on her.

It is Rashid’s story that opens another strand in the narrative. Hitting a dead-end with his real estate sales job, Rashid is drawn towards the charismatic imam Mohsin Begg, who calls upon young Muslims in the west to resist getting ‘assimilated’. Soon Rashid has given up his day job and is working on Begg’s Islamic website. One can very well surmise what all this is leading to.

The most charming and subtly crafted segment of the novel is Harris’s courtship of Dr Farrah, a Pakistani, Shakespearean scholar who has recently lost her husband. His eagerness to take her to the best eatery serving chicken karahi, kababs, lamb stew and kulfi, but forgetting to give her the box of After Eights he had thoughtfully brought for her, is touching. When they go to visit the Royal Observatory, he puts one foot on either side of the Meridian Line and exhorts Farrah to do the same, exclaiming, “Look! I have one foot in the eastern hemisphere and one in the west — at the same time. This is us, Farrah, isn’t it?”

Unfortunately for Harris, it seems he was only speaking for himself. Farrah has no intention of living a double life where you relish the good things that the west has to offer: good books, good whisky, good clothes, the freedom to forge romantic liaisons as per your heart’s desire and try at the same time, be a ‘good Muslim’.

The book’s title is a kind of red herring — the small fortune referring to the tidy sum that Harris receives as his divorce settlement, upon which many eyes of needy relatives are fixed. The eventual fate of this small fortune is of little consequence. Come to think of it, even the melodramatic anti-climax of Rashid’s misadventure is not of much consequence in the novel.

In Rosie Dastgirs’ soap opera, and I don’t use it in a derogatory sense, what matters most are the little things of everyday life, for, our happiness and the lack of it is
largely made up of these and not the big events of global significance. Food, for
example, plays a big part in the lives of all the characters in the book: “When she hugged Nasreen, Alia noticed that she carried the tang of the village with her, a hint of the last meal she cooked for her husband, lodged in the fabric of her clothes, her hair.”

Physical spaces and living quarters are also lovingly described in fine detail. This is how Nasreen (Rashid’s mother) and her two daughters make themselves at home in Alia’s pad : “Their modest collection of possessions…combs, kurtas, chappals and socks — were nestled around the wall and piled upon the dressing table.” Dastgir evokes the bleak urban landscape of North England, the bustle of White Chapel Road in London and the beautiful English countryside, exemplified by Haworth, where the Bronte sisters wrote their famous works, with her precise and elegant prose.

But towering above all this is the humanity of all the characters, major or minor. While one could make the case that the women here are spunkier, more free and more in touch with their real selves than the men who are rather shifty, confused, and full of ego and bluster, there is no denying the palpable reality of their existence.

So in the end, A Small Fortune may not tell an earth-shattering tale or reveal anything new about the clash of cultures, but it surely presents a finely-etched portrait of the immigrant life, peopled by characters whom you can touch and feel, sharing their sense of achievement and loss that is inevitable in setting up a home away from one’s own cultural moorings.

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