My Ear At His Heart: Reading My Father
Faber and Faber
POUNDS 3.99, 242 pages
In 1989, Hanif Kureishi gave a talk in Calcutta. We were good little schoolgirls, utterly unprepared by a diet of Sharatchandra, Wordsworth and Steinbeck for his funky iconoclasm. Some of us had seen My Beautiful Laundrette ; most of us had been banned by parental edict from seeing Sammy and Rosie , presumably because it had “Get Laid” in the title.
Kureishi was genial, like a temporarily vegetarian wolf consorting with a bunch of lambs. He got us to discuss class and race rage, when most of us had experienced neither, and he looked amused when the boldest of our number asked him whether being gay was “wrong”. “It’s two people in love, yeah?” he said, and moved on, unaware that he had just undone about 17 years worth of carefully instilled prurience and prejudice.
Months after Kureishi had departed, his rebel’s charisma still lingered. We argued about his films; in 1990, we argued about his Buddha of Suburbia ; in 1995, past the portals of college, we were arguing about his Black Album ; in 1998, settled into jobs or relationships, feeling suitably adult, we argued about My Son the Fanatic and Intimacy .
I didn’t want to see Kureishi turn 50. If he were to age gracefully into distinguished authorhood, what hope was there for us, with our ironed and laundered lives concealing the urge to grow old disgracefully?
But that’s the thing about iconoclasm: it lasts. My Ear At His Heart is a conventional family memoir in the same way that Howl was a pretty poem. It starts with an aborted book, the one Kureishi intended to write about “the way one uses or reads literature”, about writers who had been important to him, and of course, about the 1960s and 1970s. The focus would be on one of his father’s favourite writers, Chekhov, “and the numerous voices his work can sustain”.
Instead, a “shabby old green folder” surfaces after eleven years, containing a novel called An Indian Adolescence . The author is Shannoo Kureishi, Hanif’s father; this, along with another unpublished work, The Redundant Man , and other unpublished plays and writings, is a reminder that Hanif was not the only writer in the family, even if he did become the most successful one.
Both his father’s books are heavily autobiographical, and through them, Kureishi approaches an intimacy with his father that parallels and also sometimes outdoes the relationship they shared when Shannoo Kureishi was alive. Other books emerge; Shannoo’s brother, Omar, had written two books of autobiography, published and well-received in Pakistan. A family story is beginning to come together; like all family stories, this one offers both great knowledge and great danger.
Shannoo came to London after Partition, part of the flood of migrants in that generation. His official life was drab—he was a minor civil servant in the Pakistani embassy whose energies went into reading, and cricket, both obssessions shared to some degree with Hanif; his writing was not secret so much as unregarded. His books reveal a bitter and lasting competitiveness with Omar. His brother was more successful, though Shannoo was the better cricketer, but their early explorations into love were scarred by rivalry.
Some of this rivalry colours Hanif and Shannoo’s relationship. Hanif Kureishi recalls his father blaming him for the failure of The Redundant Man to get published, striving for a different kind of brotherhood: “He put us on the same level: writers—almost brothers—together, with neither of us more talented than the other.” When Kureishi put on an early play, his father showed up, but hated the production. “…Dad was in rage: for a start, he was giving me contemptuous V-signs from his seat.”
Shannoo Kureishi found a kind of life in the suburbs; his son rebelled against the blandness and conformity that his father sought. In his teenage years, discovering sex n’drugs n’rock n’roll—and revolution—Hanif Kureishi learned, too, that “love and sex, taking you out of your family, led you into the strange field of other families”.
There is humour here, too, and pride in his father’s ambition, even a posthumous gentleness on the part of the son. But as Shannoo’s story reveals a Pakistan that Hanif never knew, either through religion or language, and opens up the struggles of the early migrant, it fuels Hanif Kureishi’s own journey through his life as he nears fifty.
This is a brilliant, corrosive memoir, whose power lies as much in the questions it raises as in the ones it answers. It’s about writing and families, fathers and sons, the weight of our histories and how to carry that weight.
Kureishi starts by reading family history; by the end of the book, he’s trying to read all of history. “To what extent do the dead determine the lives of the living? How do you keep them vital within you? And how do you keep them out of your way in order to live within a different age, as a different person?” He closes the manuscript; he walks out, into the chaos outside the order of the room. That, says Kureishi, is the only place to head for: the unknown.
(For The Indian Express, carried November 2005)