Debut writer, Ranjit Kaur, brings forth a charming collection of short fiction, with a unique focus on the migrant experience. As reflected in the joyous and stately title, her stories form a commemorative bridge between modern British-Indian identity, and an earlier post-colonial past. “History is often told by victors,” Kaur told me of the inspiration behind her work, “and so topics such as mass immigration,” which followed the oppressive era of the British Empire, “and the interpersonal conflicts that came of it, are rarely explored.
However, British colonisation resulted in the world’s biggest migration.” Filled with overlapping cultures, humorous mothers, and evocative accounts of travel, both to and from the UK, Kaur then recovers the underrepresented perspectives of the older South-Asian generation with moving, lucid depth.
One story, A Monumental Love, primarily based in India, touches on women who were abducted from their families during the political upheaval of Indian partition, while another, Whisky and Sauna, shows the mischievous side of a second generation immigrant’s mother, who naively assumes her boring. “Many of the stories in The Dancing Maharani are drawn from real life events,” Ranjit stated. Also a passionate advocate for women’s rights, the writer explained: “A lot of the mature Indian women I know, who came over in the Fifties and Sixties are such funny, open people. It’s a common misconception that they’re passive. These women have much to share with us.” Ranjit elaborated on the influence for A Monumental Love, which was an intimate revelation from her mother: “she informed that my grandfather had the job of returning kidnapped girls to their families, during the 1947 divide of British-India. The situation was heartbreaking already, and many abductees did not even want to return home as they considered themselves “dishonoured”. Generally, this was a chaotic, affecting time – one that deserves to be recognised.”
It is no surprise then that the catalyst for writing this collection of illustrative stories was an earth-shattering shock to Ranjit’s own life. In 2009, she was diagnosed with secondary cancers, and was referred to a hospice for support: “I was given 2 years to live, and thoughts naturally turned to ideas of legacy. My mother, for example, turns 85 this year: I thought if I don’t document her stories, and indeed my own, who would?” It took her over seven years to craft the nostalgic tales, through sickness, and pain but she persisted. “We so easily forget what people have gone through. When my mother came to the UK in the Fifties, it was rare to see another Asian woman on the streets: she, along with many of that generation, was plagued by loneliness. There was a lot of hardship adapting to life, after arriving in the UK too.” Having moved back to India with her family for a period of five years herself, Ranjit also knows the feeling of cultural displacement firsthand. Here, she voiced her consequent frustration at “the xenophobia in the U.K.,” where “the amount of people from the Indian subcontinent who recently voted for anti immigration parties was shocking. How could people be talking about migrants as some sort of scum? Have they become so removed from their background? Past generations struggled; they worked hard. There are accusations of immigrants burdening the NHS when so many of those from a minority background are the backbone of the institution’s medical staff. Such people are the carers who look after me.”
And so, Ranjit ultimately honours another famous saying: ‘those who don’t heed history are doomed to repeat it.’ Her collection, The Dancing Maharani is as much an education as a personal catharsis, promoting intergenerational dialogue alongside the cross-cultural. Indeed, reading as if real-life fairytales, the vignettes contain excitement from page to page as well as inquisition. There are tigers jumping out of suitcases, and ‘electric blue saris studded with sequins.’ It’s aptly reminiscent of the more Eastern tradition of oral storytelling, radiating a signature wonder and warmth that makes the writing easy to absorb. The book is sympathetic to the older South-Asian community, while appealing to a multicultural audience and the young. Interestingly, Ranjit has a background in legal and social work. She has served in the Civil Service, and has been Director of a women’s charity, which gives legal advice on a range of issues, including domestic and sexual violence. The collection emerges as a fusion of the author’s creativity and social consciousness. Kaur creates an altogether completer narrative of British-Asian heritage at a crucial time. As sharp geo-political divides seem to return, the gentle reconstitution of a shared consciousness is surely a healing salve. Kaur doesn’t just provide a nuanced look at forgotten history, but also a social empathy that helps strengthen cultural fabric in the “current context.” Proceeds from the stories will go to King’s College Hospital, and the Women’s Resource Centre.
Who are some of your favourite writerly influences?
My favourite novel is Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I was always imagined myself to be the girl protagonist, Scout. I also enjoy many Asian writers, including Arundhati Roy, and Khaled Hosseini. I love the works of Anita Anand too.
In terms of my passion for writing the collection, I wanted to support a charity for women called the Women’s Resource Centre. This is a second tier organisation responsible for campaigning on the Tampon Tax. The government currently charges VAT on tampons as they are seen as luxury goods though, of course, they are basic requirement. George Osborne had promised that the money would go to helping women’s charities, but this year, of the ten charities that received the money only one is a women’s charity, Southall Black Sisters. We shouldn’t be paying the tax, or alternatively, women’s charities should be supported as pledged.
Do you think a good short story should be as open as it is interrogative?
Yes! A lot of people do ask me what happens next in my pieces, and obviously that’s great. It gets them thinking. However, importantly, I wanted there to be humour and lightness. I think the brief format allows for that too.
Finally, there’s one story in your collection that highlights the hypocrisy of Bollywood culture e.g. how lyrics romanticise sexuality, but this is frowned upon in real life. Do you both celebrate and scrutinise tradition?
Yes. I’ve been sexually harassed on the way to school as a child growing up in India. In the movies, sexual harassers are shown as heroes, and this is worth examining if we want a strong and truly vibrant culture.
The Dancing Maharani & Other Stories can be found on Amazon, and in all good bookstores.
"We so easily forget what people have gone through. When my mother came to the UK in the Fifties, it was rare to see another Asian woman on the streets"