Skip to content

Portraits Of South Asian Writers

September 25, 2015
by the gentle author

Contributing Photographer Lucinda Douglas Menzies (who has more than seventy portraits in the National Portrait Gallery) has been working on a series of South Asian Writers which will be exhibited in Spitalfields from 7th-13th October at 6 Puma Court, E1 6QG and we publish a selection here today.

Rehana was surprised to hear the words, but realized they must be true, and here it was, the thing she had been looking for, a small window into her daughter’s locked heart. It was not that she was diffident but burdened. Burdened by the beloved, the disappeared. By her own widowed mother. Rehana embraced Maya, who was still so thin and brittle, but instead of telling her to be careful she found herself saying, ‘Write some good stories.’

– A Golden Age

Tahmima Anam is a British Bangladeshi writer, novelist and columnist. She was born in Dhaka and grew up in Paris, New York and Bangkok. Her first novel, A Golden Age, was published by John Murray in 2007 and was the Best First Book winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. The Bengal Trilogy, of which this is the first, chronicles three generations of the Haque family from the Bangladesh war of independence to the present day.

We could barely make out the tracks with our torchlight. From all sides, beyond our little pool of light, darkness lay in ambush to claim us. Dulu, sensing my unease, reassured me that he had imprinted the layout of this land on his mind from our last visit. He could find his way even with the torches off. We crossed the valley, over a fence, and entered the beech forest down a sloping path. We walked on fallen leaves, but enough of them remained on the branches to murmur in the wind.

As I waited, leaning against a beech tree, Dulu went crawling in the darkness. He must have been at the point of leaping on one of the clusters when we heard a gun go off and the barking of dogs. The pheasants whipped up a storm as they scattered blindly. Dulu ran back and dragged me deeper into the forest. In the distance we could see light jerking between tall beech trunks. Amidst the barking of the dogs, another shot went off. No doubt they were looking for us. I held onto Dulu and he broke into a trot.

– Catching Pheasants

Manzu Islam was born in Bangladesh where he lived through the 1971 war, walking the swamps for weeks to reach the refugee camps in India, then returning to fight as a freedom fighter. He came to England as a political refugee and, after studying for a degree and working as a racial harassment officer in East London, he became interested in writing. He has written four books including The Mapmakers of Spitalfields (1997), an anthology of short stories set both in Bangladesh and the East End, Burrow (2004) about an illegal immigrant in East London and The Song of our Swampland (2011).

There was a rustling of silk behind me, and it took me a moment to realise that my mother was standing there. She put her hand on my shoulder. A spidery claw, with nails filed and polished to drips of bright blood; her palm was so cold, it felt that it might sink through my flesh, like a knife through warm butter. I sensed people were watching her, as she stood with her oldest child, and watched her others dancing, and that was her intention; that they saw her as the loving mother of happy children. That everyone in the room would be aware of how good a mother she was, by the measure of our apparent happiness, by the measurable inch-width of our smiles. She seemed pleased that she had won them over, and asked me, with the flirtatious charm that she had poured over the guests like syrup from a pot, if I was going to dance.

“Nah, Amma,” I said, replying in Punjabi. “No, Mummy, I don’t dance”

“Go on,” she said girlishly, adding with a steel tone, “Dance with your little friends.”

– The Good Children

Roopa Farooki was born in Pakistan and brought up in London. She worked in advertising before publishing six critically acclaimed novels, and has been listed three times for the Orange Prize. Her last novel, The Good Children (2014) follows a game-changing generation of post-Partition Pakistani immigrants from 1940s Lahore to modern-day London.

He could remember the long, noisy, rattling trip in the Beeston Humberette to the huge showroom of the Great Eastern Motor Company in Park Street, where he was taken to feast his eyes on the steam and motor-cars on display. The open-mouthed stares of people who stopped in their tracks to see that rarity, a car, phut-phutting down Circular Road. (The child Prafulla was not immune to this sense of wonder; he and his brother sat for long hours in the front balcony to watch motor cycles going down the street; when a horse-drawn brougham or a Victoria or, better still, an Oldsmobile, made an appearance, the boys’ day was made.) Much earlier, when he was a little boy carried in the tight embrace of his father’s arms, the spectacular experience of watching the ascent of a gas-balloon carrying a man up up up from the Oriental Gas Company fields to the sky.

The kadam tree in the garden that looked adorned with perfect spheres of creamy-golden light in the monsoon. The man who came around every evening, a ladder on his shoulder, lighting the street lamps.

– The Lives of Others

Neel Mukherjee is the author of two novels: A Life Apart (2010), and The Lives of Others (2014), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Costa Novel Award, and won the Encore Award. He was born in Calcutta and now lives in London.

Somewhere, Something

We travel not to explore another country
but to return home fresh, bearing gifts.

Our lives the airports we fly from,
our bodies and souls, maps and compasses –
days the journeys we make,
past the continents we leave behind.

Surely there is somewhere, something
that justifies our coming and going?

Isn’t that why we seek a sign from each other
of experiences worth dying for
as we commune with love under starlight
brittle with frost and the sharp taste of blood?

Let’s fly free, not nailed to a mast;
see the universe with new eyes
not blinded by shadows that light casts.

Dreams That Spell the Light

Shanta Achayra is the author of ten books, including five volumes of poetry and her latest, a novel, A World Elsewhere. An internationally published poet, critic, reviewer and scholar, her poems figure in major anthologies such as Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond (W.W. Norton), The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, and The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry. Her New & Selected Poems is due for publication in 2016.


The children all search for their mothers
The women want each other
The men stand around
Making plans
On phones and in huddles in corridors.

The children have wet eyes
The women quietly wail, some even gently sway
The men instruct everyone
On how to mourn, pray, grieve and feel.

Sylhet or London?
What were the man’s last wishes?
Did he give instructions to you, you or you?
He didn’t expect to die so soon,
And said nothing to me.

What is going to be our judgment
On where to lay the man?
It’s the last thing we ever do
For someone we all loved.

Later, as the women made tea
and then put the children to sleep,
The men were still found discussing
What to do with him.

And then, the pronouncement was made.
He shall be buried here,
she said,
It is my decision to take.

Delwar Hussain is an British-born writer and anthropologist who grew up in Spitalfields. He spent two years conducting interviews on the boundary between India and Bangladesh before writing his first book Boundaries Undermined: The Ruins of Progress on the Bangladesh-India Border (2013). He is currently writing his second book about the city of Dhaka.

The security men are watching Ray. They regard her with a perfect indifference. There are three of them, of varying heights, their belted khaki safari suits finished cleanly with the bright gloss of winter sunlight. They loiter at the entry gate, two of them standing arm in arm, dwarfed by the high peepal trees behind them, the branches against the sky. The earth around them is pale and heavy, the colour of gram flour, interrupted rarely by weeds. They do not seem self-conscious. The third guard sits on the knee-high wall that forms the boundary of the hamlet, right against the road that connects the local farms to the main town. He is older than the other two. His hair seems paint-stained, the white unnaturally thick over the grey brush beneath. The badge on his cap glints in the sun. Ray can see the light flash as he turns, even at this distance. His posture is correct; a long neck lends him significance as he twitches abruptly to take in his surroundings, alert and urgent.

– The Village

Nikita Lalwani is a novelist born in Rajasthan and raised in Cardiff. She is the author of two novels: Gifted (2007), winning the Desmond Elliot Award Creative Writing prize in 2008, and The Village (2012). She is currently working on a novel set in contemporary London entitled The Altruist.

The Calling

the night is abrim with the in-between children
they are summoning Mother India

take us back xxx take us back xxxtake us back

but the Motherland is piping the old grief
I was down on my knees xxxon my knees

why did you fly for the moon
for the cities with their pistons of desire

the night is abrim with the in-between children
their heads are down, they are crying

take us back xxxtake us back xxxtake us back

our songs are afresh with the plough and the oxen,
the smell of open fires where the roti is crackling

and our roses are the roses of home

– He do the Feringhee Voices

Daljit Nagra is a poet who has published three collections with Faber & Faber. He has won the Forward Prize for Best Poem and for Best First Collection and his books have also been nominated for the TS Eliot Prize and the Costa Prize. He was born in Britain and has an Indian heritage.

Uff! Such fun I’m having in Dubai. I’m here only, staying in a fab hotel on Jumeirah Beach. But life here, you know, it’s totally fab. So different to Lahore. There’s no dust, no beggars, no poors, no smells, no flies, no filth, no in-laws, no crime, no bombs, no open gutters and no potholes either. Everything is clean, shiny and happy and there are no trees so there are no leaves to sweep and no birds to sit in them and do potty on your car. There are no parks but who needs parks when you have nice cemented compounds and the servants, they are all smiley and polite and English speaking with no families and no bother. All my friends live in big, big houses with Flipinas and swimming pools and twenty-four hour electricity, and they have no armed guards and no razor wire and no high, high walls even. And the malls! And the restaurants! And the clubs! Uff, complete heaven, I tell you.

Janoo says they have no freedom and that I should try doing a protest demo here and see what happens to me. And I said, ‘But what is there to protest about, haan?’

– The Return of the Butterfly

Monhi Monsin is a Pakistani writer based in London. She has written two novels, The End of Innocence and Duty Free. Her books, The Diary of a Social Butterfly and The Return of the Butterfly are based on her long running satirical column in the Pakistani weekly paper, The Friday Times.

Discovering Wolverhampton had a Starbucks had been a bigger shock than discovering it had a tourist information centre. Indeed, for years, I had defined the town by its lack of a Starbucks. The fact seemed to sum up the city’s arrested development: the aggressive coffee chain, which seems to have more outlets than employees, which would open stores in the lavatories of the opposition if it could do so, couldn’t, evidently, be bothered with Wolverhampton. But as with so many things to do with my past, I’d got it wrong.

My date was late, giving me plenty of time to see how Wulfrunians were taking to café culture. Judging from the conversations floating around the till, they were struggling.

Customer one: ‘So y’am saying “tall” ay yower biggest size?’
Customer two: ‘Can’t I just have a simple coffee?’
Customer three: ‘Do yow serve fish and chips?’

– The Boy with the Topknot

Sathnam Sanghera was born to Punjabi parents in Wolverhampton and raised as a Sikh. At the age of ten he worked part-time in a sewing factory. He attended Wolverhampton Grammar School and graduated from Christ’s College, Cambridge with a first class degree in English Language and Literature. Between 1998 and 2006 he was a reporter and feature writer for the Financial Times before publishing The Boy With The Topknot: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton in 2008.

Arrival 1946

The boat docked in at Liverpool.
From the train Tariq stared
at an unbroken line of washing
from the North West to Euston.

These are strange people, he thought –
an Empire, and all this washing,
the underwear, the Englishman’s garden.
It was Monday, and very sharp.

– Split World: Poems 1990-2005

Monica Aleevi is a British-Pakistani poet and writer, born in Lahore, Pakistan, who came to England when she was a few months old. She has written eight poetry collectioins, including How the Stone Found its Voice (2005), inspired by Kipling’s Just So Stories, and Homesick for the Earth (2011), English versions of selected poems by Jules Supervielle. Her latest collection is At the Time of Partition.

The furniture in Mandira’s room – the bed, the study-table, its chair, the cupboard, the bookshelves – was old, enduring. The armchair was stolid and stoic, and seemed to cradle the space that existed between its thick arms; one felt protected when one sat in it. As I got to know Mandira better, as we became intimate and then grew increasingly unhappy, the room became her refuge, her dwelling, and when she said, ‘I want to go back to my room’, the words ‘my room’ suggested the small but familiar vacuums that kept close around her, that attended to her and guided her in this faraway country. Because, for a foreigner and a student, the room one wakes and sleeps in becomes one’s first friend, the only thing with which one establishes a relationship that is natural and unthinking, its air and light what one shares with one’s thoughts, its deep, unambiguous space, whether in daytime, or in darkness when the light has been switched off, what gives one back to oneself. The bed and chairs in it had an inscape, a life, which made them particular, and not a general array of objects. That is why, when she spoke of her room, I think what she meant was the sense of not being deserted, of something, if not someone, waiting, of a silent but reliable expectancy.

– Afternoon Raag

Amit Chaudhuri is the author of six novels, the latest of which is Odysseus Abroad. He is also a critic and a musician and composer. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Awards for his fiction include the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Betty Trask Prize, the Encore Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, and the Government of India’s Sahitya Akademi Award. In 2013, he was awarded the first Infosys Prize in the Humanities for outstanding contribution to literary studies.

Photographs copyright © Lucinda Douglas Menzies

You might also look at these other portraits by Lucinda Douglas Menzies

Spitalfields Portraits

Huguenot Portraits

3 Responses leave one →
  1. September 25, 2015

    The portraits are beautiful – what a lot of talent Spitalfields has brought forth! Valerie

  2. anne gray permalink
    September 25, 2015

    Off to get hold of some these poets. Wonderful new voices to me.!

  3. Sprite London permalink
    September 26, 2015

    Wonderful gallery of portraits. Sad not to see more comments as it appears to highlight how we still seem to live next to each other rather than with one another culturally. The East End has been so rich of different waves of immigration since the Roman that we need to heed the richness of present day contributions. Thanks for this post.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS