Today, 28th July 2016, is publication day for Hillstation by Robin Mukherjee and I’m thrilled to be bringing what I think is a stunning guest post from the author about the nature of identity in celebration of Hillstation. Hillstation is published by Oldcastle Books and is available for purchase from the publisher, from Amazon and Waterstones.
Dreaming of escape from his remote village in the Himalayan foothills, Rabindra entreats the gods to send him an English bride. When a saucy English dance troupe arrives on the run from a Bombay crime boss, Rabindra believes that his prayers have been answered. Except that they have no interest in marrying anyone. As the village begins to unravel in the presence of these scandalous foreigners, surprising secrets emerge from the depths of its past.
A Question of Belonging
A Guest Post by Robin Mukherjee
I was standing on a street corner in a little town high up in the foothills of the Himalayas. Far below, on the teeming plains, was the family I’d retreated from in an attempt to salvage what was left of my English self. I had been overwhelmed by India, its people, noise, smells, the cousins, aunts, and uncles who had smothered me with their generosity and affection. But it was too late. The London boy who had spent his youth kicking around the suburbs, drinking in pubs, soaking up the rock scene, had been fatally re-wired. That little Indian bit of me, at first a cute piece of Eastern exotica, then a vaguely tolerated – and sometimes not so tolerated – ‘immigrant’, had exploded through the corpuscles of my identity rendering me neither one thing nor the other: neither English nor Asian. I had become acutely aware of that subtle apology for existing which the transient adopt out of politeness, without replacing its inherent incongruity with a sense of any other home. Just for a moment I didn’t belong anywhere.
Then I noticed a group of excited young men furtively hanging around a cigarette seller’s go-down, one of those ramshackle stalls that characterise Indian retail. On sale was a calendar to accompany the national tour of a quasi-erotic dance troupe currently working its way round the Asian subcontinent. And I thought it a pity. The lead dancer was a page three icon, at least in the West, and something of a household name. I’m not sure if she’s got an OBE now for services to titillation, it wouldn’t surprise me. Look, I’m no prude, but in that moment I wished she’d left these people alone, the rupees she was hungry for in their pockets, and their innocence intact. Or was I just fantasising a romanticised culture of temple statuary and neo-hippy spiritual values? Was I wishing impermeable and contained what was, inevitably, transient and porous?
As my senses scraped over the ragged edges of multiple identities, trying to sort out who I was and where I belonged, this question of belonging, or not, became the more urgent as it became less answerable. Did the dancers belong here? Did those young men, excited by the glimpse of a scandalous world, suddenly feel the suffocating confines of the tiny lives to which they belonged? But what was tiny, and what was great? And who belongs anywhere, or to what?
A friend of mine once suggested that my central literary preoccupation was the Outsider, not the Camus-styled, too-cool-for-school, Steppenwolf archetype, but the bumbling fool bowing when he should kneel and kneeling when he should bow, not quite getting the rules of a game to which he does not, nor can ever, ultimately belong. Into that preoccupation went the street corner, the go-down, the calendar, the excited young men, and the stranger wondering who he was and where he belonged. But it wasn’t quite the book yet. It needed one other moment, which came the following year.
I was in the Purcell Room, helping out with a presentation of Indian classical dance. On stage was a slip of a girl whirling and stamping, the sweat flying from her shoulders, hair swinging around her face, holding a packed hall utterly mesmerised. She finished, came off, went back to take a bow, stepped back into the wings, out of sight of the audience, and collapsed. As people rushed around her, she looked up from the floor, small and vulnerable, as if she’d just woken from a dream and didn’t know where she was. It struck me that out there she had become the goddess she was portraying, upheld by its power, moving to the rhythms and grace of something beyond herself. Which made me think about dance, and those dancers whose faces smiled with fake seduction from a tacky photo in a little Indian Hillstation. And I had my story.
We all have an identity defined by where and to what we belong. It helps us to navigate the world, to feel as if we’re someone. We polish and preen, protect and admire it for most of our lives. Sometimes, of course, we despise and resent it. We want it to be more. We push against its confines. But there is that in us beyond identity, the powers that, once in a while, we become dimly aware of, or summon out of necessity, or are abruptly startled to see in all their stark magnificence. Hillstation is centred on this dichotomy, just as much of Indian philosophy is concerned with its resolution. The central characters are locked in predefined identities, based on their social position, their role within the family, the expectations of others. Rabindra and Pol are two young men yearning for a taste of their free selves. Pol attempts to find it through philosophy, Rabindra through romance. Both are simply tweaking their identities according to a slightly less confining set of confines. Both are doomed to disappointment. Even the spiritual tradition which underpins the village has become stultified through habit, its ethos of liberation, ironically, just another means of limitation and control. Enter another group of shambling, confused souls, lost in a land they can’t understand. These two completely incompatible parties collide to provide the spark that lights the fire that burns through the hearts of everyone in the village. Liberation, when it comes, is nothing anyone could have anticipated. Which is exactly how it has to be.
When I left the little go-down with its nervous young men, I checked into the Hotel Nirvana, surely the worst accommodation experience of my life, and met the extraordinary Tibetan owner and her Buddhist cook. Then I walked out to the upper pastures where I sat down to reflect on my family in the city below, my London upbringing, and the culturally dishevelled identity that shifted uneasily between the two. It was a misty day, the land around me veiled with a silver sheen that threw the light in darting spears. Quite suddenly, the vapours lifted to reveal a glimpse of distant mountains, impossibly beautiful, shaming my self-preoccupations into silence. If you don’t belong anywhere, I thought, then you have the chance to belong everywhere. That’s what Rabindra learns when his mind is silenced, not by mountains, but in the eyes of a lover; no less beautiful or magnificent. The humour comes from his hapless search in all the wrong places for something which can only find him when he stops looking; just as all the rules he struggles to understand only make sense when he realises that they don’t. It sounds obvious when you think about it, but sometimes it takes a mountain, or a dancer, or a lover to show us the way.
About Robin Mukherjee
Robin Mukherjee was born in London to German-Indian parents. During the 1960s his family home became a meeting place for Indian dancers and musicians performing in the UK, from which he developed a life-long love of the Indian classical arts. Later, he worked for the Sanskritik Festival of Arts of India presenting dance and music at the South Bank, and on tour throughout the country. After forming a theatre company to produce his plays, he received his first commission from the BBC, and has subsequently written extensively for television and radio. His first feature film, set in India, won the Audience Prize at the London Film Festival. His most recent film, Lore, has won numerous awards world-wide. He was nominated for a BAFTA for his original series, Combat Kids, for CBBC. He lives in Winchester with his wife and son.