BOOK REVIEW: The One Who Wrote Destiny – Nikesh Shukla

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Shukla’s The One Who Wrote Destiny provides us with a multi-faceted perspective on the experience of an immigrant in the UK, touching upon themes of assimilation, generational differences and the struggles in straddling a native culture alongside a Western upbringing. The One Who Wrote Destiny’s main protagonists are the Kenyan immigrant Mukesh, who finds himself settled in Keighley (hundreds of miles from his anticipated destination: London), his Star-Trek obsessed, computer-programmer daughter Neha and her brother (stand-up comedian) Raks.

Neha is diagnosed with the same fatal illness that killed her mother and though she can barely remember her, Mukesh paints a vivid picture of his deceased wife with his incessant storytelling. As Neha deals with her secret diagnosis, she begins to consider the role of destiny within her life and embarks on an adventure to trace her family lineage, in order to determine whether her diagnosis is a matter of chance or fate.

Vulnerability shines through in all of the characters’ lives as they face perpetual difficulties in mourning; Mukesh is stuck in the past, Raks attempts to maintain a reserved façade yet struggles deeply to deal with loss and Neha feels little to no emotion on the topic of death at all. However, all characters find their views shifting as the novel progresses. I really identified with Neha’s arc, particularly as she comes to terms with the fact that she is seriously ill and begins to reflect on a life taken for granted. She muses of the modern-day attitude that, ‘You forget you’re living. And it’s only in the brief moments after you remember to cherish what little time you have, that you do anything to take life by the hands and dance as though no one is watching.’ (p. 153). The sentiment is sweet yet immediately quashed by Neha’s blunt reality-check in that after this moment of gratitude has passed, we’re back to our dismal routines of swiping on Netflix to find a title to waste time some more. Shukla reminds readers that life is fragile and urges us to critique the way we use our time on this planet, urging us to strive for more than menial pastimes and evasion.

Another principal theme within the novel is adapting to living in the UK. This is highlighted through Mukesh’s experience in accidentally moving to Keighley, a plot arc inspired by Shukla’s own uncle who historically serves as the first person to raise a racial discrimination case under the Race Relations Act. Descriptions of expectations vs reality when arriving in the UK made me think of how my family would have struggled, especially with Keighley being a central location in the novel and my dad’s family being settled in Bradford during this same era.

The novel also delves into the feeling of otherness and the obstacles this presents for many first and second-generation immigrants. We are reminded, as readers, of the ugly truth in that immigrants merely striving to make an honest living in the UK are often alienated or subjugated by an unforgiving society. Neha describes the speech her father delivered to his children during an impassioned talk of future careers, ‘In order for you to get anywhere in life, you have to be, at worst, twice as good as all the mediocre straight white people of the world.’ (p. 92). Essentially, the children are conditioned to find their career discipline and work relentlessly, knowing that they will have to fight extra hard to be acknowledged and strenuously to ever achieve something close to accolade.

One of the strongest themes within the novel is the constant cultural discordance between Eastern and Western culture. I feel Shukla is nuanced in his depiction of this clash, drawing comparisons to my childhood favourites: East is East, Bend it Like Beckham and Anita & Me (these titles were the closest I had to accurate representation of my cultural identity on TV). There’s playful and comedic frisson between the two worlds yet a more ominous undertone that seeps through as Shukla’s protagonists endure explicitly racist encounters.  For instance, Raks likens himself as the ‘Asian Stewart Lee’ but discovers that prominent comedy agents see him only as a token performer, a means ‘of ‘ticking the boxes’. They don’t see the Stewart Lee in him at all- they just see the Asian. The chauvinistic and disgruntled racist Uncle Dave (an agent in London who offers Raks a career-boosting opportunity) implies from the outset that Raks’ set would be significantly improved with the delivery of a self-deprecating, racist gag. Whilst others are entitled to walk onstage and deliver their sets with full creative control, Raks is under the thumb because of his otherness. Basically, Raks is condemned to perform caricatures of Asian-ness in order to assimilate into a predominantly Caucasian comedy scene. His response to this is, ‘This is not my fight. You need a Citizen Khan or a Goodness Gracious Me up in here.’ (p. 251). Shukla draws attention to the damaging prevalence of archetypal Asian representation in the modern world. Despite an increasing pressure to respect diversity on TV, as minorities, we’re still fighting to be seen, heard and respected in credible roles that authentically represent our cultures.

As the novel progresses, Neha and Raks also begin to acknowledge their legacies, the relevance of their father’s anecdotes/fables and the power of their unique cultural inheritance. Neha notes of her father’s struggle: ‘This is the burden of immigrants, to be good immigrants. We only become the good type once we’ve transcended the stereotypes of benefit-scrounging and job-stealing.’ (p. 133). Neha acknowledges her social privileges, career opportunities and general lack of struggle as being the product of her father’s hard work. The presentation of the generational gulf is one of the main attributes I loved about this novel- Shukla makes us privy to the awkwardness of parent-children relationships, families divided yet intrinsically bound by their patchwork social identities. They live worlds apart, yet they also are forced to coexist. The striking aptness of statements like, ‘We are our parents, sieved through.’ (p. 162) resonate deeply with me because indeed, despite our many (and I mean many) differences, attributes of my parents have seeped into my daily behaviours in more ways than I can count. We rebel without a cause in our younger years but there comes a point when we must embrace our legacies. I relate to this personally as I spent most of my childhood convincing myself that despite my skin colour, I could shed my Bangladeshi heritage by performing whiteness. Now in my mid-twenties (what the hell?), I’ve found myself embracing so much of the rich culture I once rejected. Through various familial losses and the recognition that life is not to be taken for granted, I find myself greedily reclaiming so much of what has been lost. So now I make Bangladeshi curries because of nostalgic cravings, I ask questions about the adventures of my family (who were directly affected by the Bangladesh genocide) and I take note of the stories they have to tell because it’s my job to pass on the legacy of their lives.

I would highly recommend The One Who Wrote Destiny as an accessible, humorous and often thought-provoking critique of the immigrant experience within the UK. Shukla brings to life these dimensional characters who transcend the page and in doing so, achieves what so many have attempted, yet failed to do, before. Avoiding clichés, archetypes and caricatures, Shukla gives us PoC readers the kinds of characters we can genuinely relate to and root for.

Enjoyed this novel (in part) at Arcade Coffee in Byram Arcade (Huddersfield). 10/10 would recommend.

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