WRITER AS POP STAR

Hanif Kureishi's new book is en­ter­tain­ing, acer­bic and, as usual, in­dis­creet

India Today - - LEISURE - By Kaveree Bamzai

Hanif Kureishi is a Tesco’s man, not a posh Waitrose man. “I’ve got to eat, haven’t I,” he says, as he heads out to the lo­cal su­per­mar­ket in Shepherd’s Bush, Lon­don, while talk­ing on the phone long dis­tance. He has just au­thored his sev­enth novel and a new movie he wrote, Le Weekend, has done well at the box of­fice in Eng­land. In an as­ton­ish­ingly di­verse ca­reer, he has writ­ten 11 screen­plays, seven books, two short story col­lec­tions and three works of non-fic­tion. And he teaches too, at Kingston Univer­sity. Now 59, the man who put cul­ture squarely in the heart of mul­ti­cul­tural Bri­tain in the ’80s is calmer than he ever was but as acer­bic. The poster child for in­te­gra­tion, he de­fined iden­tity for a gen­er­a­tion of sub­con­ti­nen­tals liv­ing in the ’80s with the shock­ing My Beau­ti­ful Laun­drette and the out­ra­geous The Buddha of Sub­ur­bia.

Which may ex­plain The Last Word, where he por­trays the distin­guished, In­dian-born writer, Mamoon Azam, as the last of a dy­ing breed, an English gen­tle­man liv­ing in the coun­try, des­per­ately hang­ing on to the last ves­tiges of colo­nial­ism. Loosely based on Sir Vidia Naipaul, Mamoon is a writer who is forced by his sec­ond, much younger wife’s ex­pen­sive tastes to or­gan­ise a “con­tro­ver­sial” bi­og­ra­phy, which will re­mind people that he is alive. Harry John­son, who may or may not be based on Patrick French, is the cho­sen “tall strong” blond boy with “thick legs and fine arms” who has to de­cide how much to fil­ter. Lady Nadira has been re­placed by Liana Luc­cione, a spir­ited and rather loud Ital­ian woman in her early fifties.

You can al­most see Kureishi laugh­ing as he puts these des­per­ate, yet some­what de­light­ful char­ac­ters to­gether—Mamoon and Liana’s union is like one be­tween Gandhi and Shirley Bassey, he writes. Liana, he says, is a man-eater who never passed on a meal. Mamoon, he writes, asks Harry in a puz­zled fash­ion: “What ex­actly is Happy Hour? What is lap dancing and the X Fac­tor? What is wiffy?” By which he means wi-fi.

The Last Word is a med­i­ta­tion on ev­ery­thing that mat­ters to Kureishi—writ­ers as col­lab­o­ra­tors, Eng­land as it is now in the grip of celebri­ty­dom, the im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence and guilt about

I was hor­ri­fied by my Mum­bai visit re­cently. Chil­dren with stumps, tran­vestites, open sew­ers, lit­tle ba­bies in dirt. I’d for­got­ten how me­dieval it is. It’s a much more plas­tic pe­riod in Bri­tain now. You can have mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties. The Bri­tain I grew up in was much darker. And yet liv­ing with the re­al­ity of race was so much more in­ter­est­ing. It’s im­por­tant to have a gang of friends who sup­port you, feed you, with whom you ar­gue, fall out and make up again. It’s like the pop world of the 1960s.

his fa­ther’s fail­ure as a writer. Kureishi has al­ways be­lieved that artists should be ter­ror­ists, not masseurs, that the “mad­ness of writ­ing is the an­ti­dote to true mad­ness”. The Eng­land of the ’60s he grew up in has changed, yield­ing to a coun­try where there is a pos­si­bil­ity of mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties. “It is a false choice for a young Mus­lim—that it is ei­ther fun­da­men­tal­ism or the world of Big Brother. In Bri­tain now you can be a Mus­lim, a fem­i­nist, a banker. It’s a more plas­tic pe­riod. And yet it’s more dif­fi­cult to de­cide who to be. I teach a young Mus­lim girl with fascis­tic par­ents. She has cho­sen to break away but she feels guilty in re­la­tion to her par­ents and is self-pun­ish­ing.”

The strug­gle to be hu­man is a recurring theme in his work, no less so in The Last Word. Is Mamoon a monster who drove his first wife to sui­cide? Is Harry just a man with his eye on the main prize? Does Liana adore Mamoon for his lofty rep­u­ta­tion or for him­self? Kureishi be­lieves he was lucky to come from a “lib­eral In­dian fam­ily” which al­lowed him to be­come a writer. “My chil­dren will have far less money than I did. And be­cause of im­mi­gra­tion, they will have far more com­pe­ti­tion. In our day you could just get a job. In the dig­i­tal world, you have to cre­ate one for yourself.” His boys, twins from his first mar­riage whose de­cay he chron­i­cled so dev­as­tat­ingly in In­ti­macy, are now study­ing phi­los­o­phy at Bris­tol Univer­sity. His younger boy, from his cur­rent mar­riage, sur­prises him with his in­ter­est in magic.

Fam­ily has been at the core of his work, of­ten to his sis­ter Yas­min’s pub­lic dis­gust. But Kureishi be­lieves con­flict within a fam­ily is good. Per­haps be­cause the al­ter­na­tive is bore­dom. And Kureishi is any­thing but that. As he writes in The Last Word: “The writer should be the very devil, a dis­turber of dreams and wrecker of fatu­ous utopias, the bringer-in of re­al­ity, and ri­val of God in his wish to make worlds.” A quin­tes­sen­tial Lon­don man, Kureishi can­not imag­ine liv­ing any­where else. “You need a gang of friends to sup­port you, feed you. It’s like the pop world of the ’60s. You ar­gue, you fall out, make up again,” he says.

The con­ver­sa­tion is end­ing, and he is now in the wash­ing-up sec­tion of the store. It’s time to re­call his most re­cent visit to Mum­bai a few weeks ago where he went with son Sachin (named af­ter the crick­et­ing great). He was vis­it­ing af­ter a long time and what he saw hor­ri­fied him. “It’s me­dieval. Chil­dren with stumps, transvestites, open sew­ers, lit­tle ba­bies in dirt. I was re-shocked.” But in a good way. It al­lows him not to take his beloved muse, Lon­don, and its life, for granted.

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