The Sitar – Rebecca Idris

The Sitar

Publication Date: June 23, 2012

Source: Amazon

Format: E-book

Pages: 194 pages

Summary: From the bowels of middle-class England, bona fide Brit Muslim lesbian Jaya Chakarbatti belies her mild-mannerisms and leads her group of Lassi Lesbians from their urban Midland terraced houses, to the smelly back alleys of London’s gay Soho, to seek out other Gaysians. Through the jungle of Bollywood drag queens, unrequited clumsy love, and stark choices between the Quran or The Pink Paper, the group of girls take a snap shot of modern, urban Britain amidst riots, religious tensions, and social discontent, before ending up somehow in the heat of sweaty, uncomfortably straight but shamelessly camp Bangladesh.

Short Version: I wasn’t sure from the summary that this was going to be “my kind of book”. Then I read it and discovered “my kind of book” is anything written with this level of beauty and passion.

Long Version: For the first time, I’m finding myself having to make a few disclaimers and explaining myself before I begin this review proper:

I don’t know the author. After I started reading and realised what a fantastic novel it is, I did track her down on Twitter to tell her, but that’s the only interaction I’ve had with her (though I’d love  to go for a drink with her and pick her brains.) The reason I’m saying this is because, snooping around Goodreads, I discovered that the reviews for The Sitar so far have been incredibly, unfairly negative. I was seriously shocked that others couldn’t see what I love in this. But as I’m not afraid to hate a book others love, I’m not afraid to love a book that others hate, and I don’t have any author’s-best-buddy motives for the review I’m trying to write here. The Amazon reviews are more positive, in any case.

I’m struggling a little with this review because, as other reviews do point out, this is a book focused more on the internal lives of British Asian girls Jaya Chakkarbatti and Kulsuma Begum than on external action. Any description of “what happens” is sort of beside the point of a book like this, and the things that do “happen” are mostly big fat spoilers.

No matter.

On its basic level, the book focuses on the girls and their contrasting experiences of being a three-times minority – Female, Asian, and gay. Jaya and Kulsuma, despite these things in common, have remarkably different experiences of the world. Early on, Kulsuma ponders their different situations:

When she [Jaya] was caught smoking hanging out of the bedroom window, Mr Chakkarbatti advised her to go to NHS Smoking Cessation meetings; he didn’t call the local maulvi shrieking about jinn possession or demons… words like ‘pregnant’ and ‘boyfriend’ probably weren’t rude words in her household.

But for all that, Kulsuma’s own father isn’t a one-dimensional stereotype either:

In his armchair at home he often felt bad for them [English people]; it must have been debilitating to only speak one language (even Shakespeare thought so! He remembered the Merchant of Venice, approved for the Bangladeshi curriculum for its socially acceptable stereotypes of Jews and cross-dressing.)

If I seem to be quoting a lot more than usual, it’s partly because I can’t do justice to Idris’s prose; it’s something that has to be read for yourself. Details shine among it like jewels. It envelops all five senses, as well as touching a sixth that I can’t really describe. But criticisms of its density and complexity are justified in some rare places where the language seems to choke on itself. I’ve read this sentence five times and still can’t make it out:

Apart from Jaya. She listened to things people spaces guts.

There are also moments that are genuinely funny, in a mild sort of way; Kulsuma reflects of a pansexual friend that “Shagufta’s sexuality was Disc Error”, and her father’s rants in the when-I-was-your-age-back-home vein are a nice bit of levity to what is, at its heart, a pretty melancholy tale of the things people do to fit in – and how even those things aren’t guaranteed to work.

But this is not just a tale about Kulsuma’s unrequited love for Jaya, or about the dilemma both girls face about “going straight” and marrying men to please their families. There’s Eleven, Jaya’s lover, a married woman with three children; Ruby Ansari Khan, a Pakistani girl who is perhaps more racist against Asian people than her white-supremacist lover Paul; and Asif and friends, marginalised boys who fancy themselves as terrorists in the making. They’re so incredibly dim-witted that you can genuinely feel sorry for them as you take in Idris’s point: terrorism is stupid, and terrorists are idiots.

But the book doesn’t just present things; it explores them. What would possess a girl to hate her own race so much that she would cheer on racial violence? Why would a girl with gentle, educated, loving parents prefer to marry a near-stranger against her sexual preferences, rather than just out herself as gay and live her own life in a so-called “free country”? And what would possess a group of boys to want to blow anyone up?

There are a lot of thoughts being thrown around in this book, but no clear answers – which I’m glad for. Clear answers would have insulted me as a reader.

On a personal level, the plight of Kulsuma Begum – one of life’s non-starters – hit me “straight in the feels”, as they say. I can relate to her much more than the uber-intellectual and slightly pretentious Jaya, with her idealism and her pretty theories about what life should be like. But then, Jaya’s life is largely inside her own mind – something I can also relate to.

This is not a fast or an easy read. It’s dense, it’s long, and it’s thoughtful. If you know what you’re getting into, I suggest jumping right in.

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