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Nikita Lalwani’s ‘You People’ : The battle to belong

Divya Sreedharan | Updated on October 01, 2020 Published on October 01, 2020

What’s brewing: The diverse worlds of the protagonists converge at a southwest London cafe   -  ISTOCK.COM

In her new novel Lalwani delves into what makes us human, and humane

Born in Rajasthan and raised in Cardiff, Wales, Nikita Lalwani knows better than most what it is to be moulded by different cultures and influences. She knows what it is to belong to worlds that collide and also somehow coalesce at the same time.

In her 240-page new novel You People, these different worlds come together at the Pizzeria Vesuvio — Caffe, Restaurant, Pizza, Pasta, a restaurant in southwest London. We meet the three main protagonists — 19-year-old Nia, with an Indian father she never knew and Welsh mother, 35-year-old Shan, a Sri Lankan Tamil, and the enigmatic 30-something Tuli, the owner of the cafe.

The UK-based author’s third novel, set in 2003, examines what lies at the heart of the choices we make and how something wrong can still be the right thing to do.

You People / Nikita Lalwani / Penguin RandomHouse / Fiction / ₹599

 

What lies beneath

The cafe is seen through Nia’s eyes. On the surface, there’s nothing extraordinary about it, despite the rather baroque, gold lettering it bears. The waitresses are a mixed lot, from Spain, Italy or from Wales, as in Nia’s case. But look deeper and one finds that the kitchen is another world. The ‘illegals’ work here — mostly Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing the violence in their country. (The civil war is raging between the minority Tamils and the Sinhalese-majority Sri Lankan government.) This is Shan’s world. His is the most delineated character in the novel. Like his fellow undocumented immigrants, he has journeyed via boat and truck to escape death and destruction. He is determined to do anything, everything to make a new life here. And, somehow, reunite with his wife and young son.

Through Nia’s sporadic pain-filled forays into her past, we learn about Mira, her younger sister, and their alcoholic and abusive mother. The sisters have different fathers. As soon as she is able, Nia has come as far as she possibly can — to make a new life for herself, away from the world of her childhood.

Pony-tailed Tuli is the force that touches these varied worlds and forges the direction of every person who lands up at his cafe. Yet he also appears the most elusive. Flamboyant with his floor-length leather trench coat and one gold hoop earring, he is also fastidious in revealing bits of his inner self. He has told Nia he is from Singapore and not much else. She finds him extremely good-looking, “even beautiful”. But what makes him tick, this god-like man whose cafe bills itself as ‘Your Home from Home’?

Lalwani, through her fine and fluent prose, has a clarity of thought that comes from chronicling people, their lives, love and loss, flaws and faults. In a sense, she has always looked deep into what makes us human, and humane.

Her first novel, Gifted (2007), about an Indian math child prodigy, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and deals with the burden of expectation that stifles and shapes lives, especially in Indian immigrant families. In 2008, Lalwani won the £10,000 inaugural Desmond Elliott Prize for Fiction and donated the prize money to UK-based Liberty, a human rights campaigner.

Her second novel, The Village (2012), is set in an open prison in North India. The protagonist is a British-Asian woman, part of a BBC crew filming a documentary there. The novel tracks what happens when lines are crossed in the pursuit of a good story. Do journalists simply report, or do they also create a better ‘angle’ to a story? A question that feels truly relevant in India today — given the coverage over actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and the resulting (alleged) drugs controversy.

When worlds collide

Lalwani explores the journeys we make, within and without. A few pages into You People, the different worlds in the book come into sudden, violent collision. The UK Border Police are nearby and Shan, like the other illegals, is in danger of discovery.

Lalwani’s simple, powerful prose tells us more: “Here he is, saving himself again, rather than those he loves. Now that he is out of there, he feels a sudden desire to scream. A single note, over and over. Where do people go to scream in privacy? His legs are shaking as he walks, he is tripping over his feet as he tries now to run, so that he falls over in the alley itself. He hits the pavement on his side as an image of a dead body comes to him, the same body as always, wrapped in white, dark blood blotching the fabric with the remnants of life. Ratatatatat go the bullets in his chest, faithless and worthless. Ratatatatat.”

Will Shan be free of his demons and will he see his family again? Does Tuli help him? For that matter, does Nia? Perhaps the most important message here is that the law will always state what is right and what is wrong. But, sometimes, to care and be compassionate is the right thing to do. Because hope, that most enduring thing, is also a fragile flower easily crushed.

Divya Sreedharan is a Bengaluru-based journalist

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Published on October 01, 2020
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