During my years as a literature student at university, I devoured a whole raft of novels written by the children of South Asian immigrants, the educated second generation who straddled both the culture of their heritage and the culture of their birthplace. These authors claimed to have a dual identity and their unique position allowed them to fictionalise their own lives and that of their parents – the first generation who had left their homeland behind to build a better future for themselves.
Whether it was Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album, Ayub Khan Din’s East is East or Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani, the one thing that dawned on me was that these second generation writers were preoccupied primarily by the complexities of their own identities, the need to explore who they were, to really consider the lives of the first generation. In fact, quite often the immigrant generation was presented as a site of resistance, the people with whom the protagonists were engaged in constant battle to assert what they wanted to do with their futures. These were parents blinkered by their own aspirations for their children, and who were not prepared to understand that their children were individuals with their own ambitions. For instance, in Nikita Lalwani’s Gifted, we read about the stereotypical South Asian father who pushes his daughter to excel academically at the cost of her emotional well-being. In Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, Greetings From Bury Park, the young Manzoor defines himself in opposition to his father. And in Sagheer Afzal’s The Reluctant Mullah, Musa’s grandfather represents an extreme, and somewhat stereotypical, version of that first generation mindset – fearsome, domineering, the character who issues Musa with the ultimatum to get married inside 30 days and which gives the plot its momentum.
I’ve tried to achieve something different with my novel. I’ve tried to reframe this binary opposition by adopting a more neutral stance. The novel is as much about Amina as it is about the troubled and conflicted son trying to find his way in the world; there are many scenes focused wholly on Amina, with some set in Bangladesh, allowing the reader to see the life she has left behind, the values inculcated in her, the importance she attaches to her faith. From beginning to end the reader’s sympathy is tugged equally by mother and son.
Having said that, it would be wrong to suggest that Broken Paths was simply born out of this need to redress the issue of representation. There is much in the novel that is rooted in autobiography. Growing up, I faced many of the challenges of trying to find myself in spite of my parents, which were coupled with personal battles. Indeed, it would have been easy to write a diatribe, creating a mother character in the form of a cardboard cut-out, to show how lacking in understanding she is. However, when I started writing the story I entered a new consciousness. It suddenly became important to me to understand the psychology of the first generation. Writing the novel became a means of reconciliation, a form of therapy. It helped me shed a lot of my anger. It helped me become better connected to my roots. Ultimately, it made me understand the hardships faced by first generation immigrants, the sacrifices they make for their family, and fears they have to contend with. I think the process of writing the novel might have made me a better person.