(For Time Out, Mumbai, February 2007)
When Hanif Kureishi visited Calcutta briefly in the late 1980s, we thought we knew all about him. My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, his two early films, were cult classics. His best work—The Black Album, The Buddha of Suburbia, Intimacy, My Son the Fanatic, The Body–was still ahead of him. But more than the work, we worshipped the man.
He was a smaller, slighter figure than we had expected: confronted with an audience of giggling, awed schoolgirls, he disappointed us by being more polite than profane. But he exuded rebelliousness, and a kind of glamour. He spoke of being called a “Paki”, of race riots, and for the first time, many of us sensed a darker, more divisive world lying outside the placid borders of our own quiet, apolitical lives.
He spoke of knowing from his teens onward that he wanted to be a writer, of making films, and possibilities we hadn’t admitted to ourselves began to open up for us. Asked by a greatly daring classmate what he thought about homosexuality, which was still seen in our Calcutta in Victorian terms, as the love that did not dare speak its name, he said insouciantly: “It’s just two people in love, innit?” We gasped. And I sometimes wondered, years later when that generation of women allowed themselves a previously unthinkable freedom of choice, whether Kureishi’s black-clad figure had much to do with this.
How many boundaries has Kureishi’s work crossed? He experimented with drugs, explored his sexuality and wrote freely about the results. He explored what it meant to be a “Paki” in London; in later years, curious about his lack of faith, he spent time in London’s mosques, exploring Islam, belief, fanaticism and belonging. He spared nothing, not even himself. When his marriage failed and he walked out on his wife and two sons, he wrote the controversial Intimacy, about a man whose marriage had failed and who walked out on his family. Unusually for a rebel, he found themes beyond rebelliousness, turning to the body, to relationships, to the ordinary conundrums of people’s lives.
“In the end there is only one subject for an artist,” he wrote in Something Given. “What is the nature of human experience? What is it to be alive, suffer and feel? What is it to love or need another person? To what extent can we know anyone else? Or ourselves? In other words, what it is to be a human being. These are questions that can never be answered satisfactorily but they have to be put again and again by each generation and by each person. The writer trades in dissatisfaction..”