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Review: We Move by Gurnaik Johal

Gurnaik Johal’s We Move is much more than an exercise in archiving stories of immigration across generations. The author does not aim to give the reader a still life portrait of the Punjabi diaspora in west London’s Southall. Johal, in fact, has provided a new mode of articulation for the migrant experience. In the maze of interlinked stories that make up this debut collection, each short narrative is imbued with the language of desire or an act of desiring which becomes a mode of being for the migrant.

From material desires to those of the heart, desiring itself takes many shapes and forms throughout these stories. The writer uses intimacy as a mode of narration which makes the act of storytelling as important as the story being told.

Arrival, the award-winning first story, a simple tale of a car left in the driveway of acquaintances living near the airport to be collected later, once or if the owner returns, sets the compositional tone of the book. It reflects how the unclaimed car is able to shift the dynamics of a lived routine for the driveway owners. How their mundane living is interrupted by the convenience of a vehicle they were yet to own and their fears once it inevitably gets taken away. This, in fact, becomes reflective of the precarity that is characteristic of the lives of many of Johal’s characters in the stories that follow.

The writer’s intimate portrayal of immigration is one that is fraught with vulnerabilities that often escape literary representation. The slow and deliberate cadences of Johal’s rhythmic prose are apt to reveal the intricacies of a life lived in constant motion. His characters are forever caught in the act of desiring a better life after arriving in a foreign land and the act of desiring to find a way back to the idea of home left behind. While Johal uses desire to reveal the insecure existence that is characteristic of the migrant condition, he never makes it a political commentary.

The violence of racial discrimination is often taken to be a fact of the migrant’s lived experience growing up with the binary of goreh and apneh ingrained in them. Throughout these stories, Johal refuses to translate cultural contexts for a Western audience. His appropriation of the English language pushes its linguistic borders. In a way, the deterritorialization of the English language reflects the deterritorialization of the migrant.

The Red River brings together the personal and the political through an intimate glimpse into the lives of a young Punjabi newly-wed couple in the 1970s who have recently made London their home. From discovering a new life to discovering each other, Johal manages to create snapshots of domesticity while interspersing these with the larger political events that have shaped the lives of his characters, in this case the fraught situation in 1984 following Operation Blue Star.

240pp, ₹536; Serpent’s Tail

Leave to Remain, on the other hand, juxtaposes the clinical official language of governmental documentation with the real people who have spent their whole lives in these foreign countries. There are three evidently interlinked stories in the collection that begin with the word Chatpata in their titles. These are centred on one immigrant family that is mourning the loss of the matriarch as the members simultaneously find new ways to be true to their cultural heritage and to themselves.

Johal’s We Move is a literary play on the form of the short story as the reader keeps finding connections among the various characters who populate these non linear fictional narratives. In her book Manchester Happened Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi also uses the form of the short story in her fictional narrativization of the experience of the Ugandan diaspora in Manchester. In her Author’s Note she writes of how the book offers “a few unfiltered snapshots of our world”. That is also what Johal offers too in We Move – unfiltered snapshots that refuse to be homogenized for Western consumption.

Simar Bhasin is an independent writer. She lives in New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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