IF FORTUNE REALLY FAVOURS the brave, I figured aged 12, then I was never
going to be one of her darlings. I was a cautious child, afraid to attempt
handstands or cartwheels, fearful of rides at the funfair. When I rode my
bicycle downhill I kept the brakes on. My first visit to India, all 36 hours of
it, passed in a frenzy of trying not to see. In taxis, I put my head on my
mother’s lap because I couldn’t cope with the traffic. The rest of the time,
intimidated by the noise, bustle and smells, I observed Delhi through the slats
of my fingers. During game drives while we were on safari in Kenya I would
panic if we drove too close to a herd of animals. Our family history is dotted
with eye-rolling stories of my crying and begging my father to back away from
the elephants or rhinoceroses grazing a few yards away. What was I scared of?
Pain – seeing or feeling it – and death.
This physical prudence went hand in hand with an avid
intellectual curiosity. When it came to finding out more, expressing opinions
or arguing a point, especially among my peers, I was intrepid. The mental
feistiness compensated somewhat for my being a wimp in so many other ways. At
least it gave me confidence, perhaps even a feeling of superiority – until the
day I became a Christian. The conversion lasted 11 and a half days. It was time
enough for me to understand that there was yet another type of daring: if one’s
thoughts are to have any value or power the intellect must be backed up by
moral courage. It seemed I also fell short of this most precious kind of
strength, which requires something similar to the boldness that drives reckless
physical acts. That’s why making hard choices, having arguments, sets our
hearts racing, sends adrenalin rushing through our veins, leaving us as
breathless and exhilarated as if we’ve done a bungee jump.
Religious conviction did not arrive in a blinding
flash. Rather it crept up on me the way a benign habit, like slouching, might.
Funnily enough, my sense of the Almighty, shaky since I was a child, remained
uncertain even during the period when I was most persuaded by Christianity. I
never quite bought into the notion of this all-seeing, all-knowing figure
looking down on the world. But I went along with the idea because it was
convenient, especially on nights when my parents were out late. It was oddly
reassuring to beg God to ensure they came home safely. I don’t think I kept any
of the promises I made to God in return. They were always vague sorts of vows
anyway – to be good, to do anything He wanted. Because He usually obliged, and
seemed to require no great concessions in return, I was content with the
So there wasn’t much in my background on which the
ardent Christianity I was exposed to at school could build. My family is Sikh
but my parents are not especially observant, though they claim to believe in
God. My father does not wear a turban. My mother has cut her hair. They eat
beef, they drink alcohol, they do not know the names of the 10 gurus. Only the
gold kara on my father’s right wrist hints at his background. An observer of my
parents’ lives would be hard pressed to identify anything religious. Once, my
sister and I were dropped off for an afternoon of instruction on how to read
Punjabi and recite a prayer from the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. Our
complaints of boredom ensured we never returned for another lesson. My parents
did not teach me anything about Sikhism. The only time I had a sense of my
religious heritage was on occasional trips to the gurdwara for a wedding.
It may seem like my upbringing was quite secular and
liberal. I certainly had the impression that my parents were pretty easy-going
– apart from the warnings that a Muslim boyfriend or husband would be
unacceptable. If this did not shock me in my youth it was because the sentiment
was so widespread as to seem normal. Some of my closest friends were Muslim and
they also knew that romantic liaisons outside the faith were forbidden. I
should have guessed that if my parents could make such a vehement theoretical
distinction they were in no way as open-minded as they purported to be. Then
again, they chose to educate their daughters at avowedly Christian
institutions, so maybe they were tolerant – in the contradictory and prejudiced
way that many of us are.
I was sent first to a Catholic school, Loreto Convent Msongari, in Nairobi.
Everything there was strictly regimented, right down to the type of underwear
(navy blue) you had to wear with your uniform. Religion did not tempt me in
that context. It was too much about what you couldn’t do. The only times I felt
envious were during chapel, when girls who had been baptised lined up to
receive the Eucharist. Then I longed to be one of the chosen, with the wine goblet
pressed to my lips and the delicate wafer laid upon my tongue. Really, I just
wanted to know how the wafer tasted. I managed it one day when a friend brought
back and shared the white disc, which had been placed in her palm for a change.
Its dry, crumbly tastelessness banished any residual fantasies about the body
(and the blood) of Christ.
When I moved to a new school religion came alive.
Cavina’s stated aim was and remains, “to develop many qualities in the children
who come through her gates – academic excellence, an inquiring mind, a sense of
moral and social responsibility, and most of all a recognition of their
relationship with their Creator who has revealed Himself through His son
Jesus”. Suddenly, religion was not just experienced in obvious ways: the hymns
sung and prayers recited each morning at assembly, the afternoon every week
devoted to hymn practice, the bi-weekly scripture lessons, the carol concerts
at Christmas. Faith was also evident in the tireless commitment of the teachers
and in the kindness of the gardeners and caretakers. It was epitomised by the
headmaster and his wife, who owned and ran the school. Mr and Mrs Massie were
honourable, generous human beings and devout Christians. Their lives were
dedicated to converting every child who passed through Cavina’s gates. During
the course of six years, I fell, slowly and unconsciously, for the idea of
their big family (of mostly Indian students) happy under the guidance of Jesus.
The fragility of the whole concept became clear only when I told my parents I
wanted to be a fully fledged member of Christ’s circle – and my conversion was
forbidden. Looking back, I realise that Cavina’s hold on me weakened because
some things grip us only as long as we conform to them entirely. Deviate even a
little, step beyond the haloed perimeter, and the magic no longer works.
convictions have the power to seduce and repel. It all depends on how
articulately they are expressed and how inflexibly they are defended. Not just
in life, but in fiction, people who exude certainty can seem more interesting
than others, more defined. By contrast, the softer stance of relativism appears
wishy-washy, even bland. While writing my second novel, The Obscure Logic of
the Heart, I was surprised to find that the staunchest characters – the
pious Muslim father, the militantly atheist young man – turned out to be the
most appealing and enduring figures. The other, more complex, characters seem
to be weakened by their very strengths: the ability to compromise and the
humanity to tolerate ways of being entirely other than their own.
Mr Massie’s religiosity endowed him with a powerful
definiteness, as if he’d been outlined precisely with a thick black pen. Tall,
well built and with a mop of blond hair bordering a high forehead, he cut an
impressive figure. Now I think of him as attractive, but my pre-adolescent self
was struck by his authority only, the assurance exuded in his every gesture. He
was a gifted speaker, his accent redolent of public school and tea at The Ritz.
He had trained as an actor and been part of several productions in London’s
West End. His voice could lend majesty to the conjugation of Latin verbs. Put
to the scriptures, it made poetry of the psalms and thrilling legends of Old
Testament stories. A sucker for things said well, I capitulated, perhaps
inevitably, to his beliefs. It would never have occurred to me to doubt a word
he uttered. Indeed, on the one occasion I did raise a question about what he
was teaching us in scripture I was so thoroughly silenced I was put off making
enquiries for a long time afterwards.
“Mr Massie?” I anxiously raised a hand, keen to
articulate the question I had tucked up inside.
He looked at me, blue eyes alert under shaggy eyebrows.
“If Adam and Eve were the first people created by God,
when they had children where did the people that their kids married come from?”
Blood surged to his face, scrambling across his skin
like a fast-moving rash. “Someone has clearly put you up to this!” His palm
slammed down on the table. He was right. My father had suggested I pose the
question after I’d brought up the subject at home. Neither of my parents had
been able to provide any explanation other than “it’s nonsense”.
“It is not for us to question the mysteries of the
Lord,” Mr Massie insisted. He said more, but I can’t remember any of it because
I was too busy shrinking with shame, hating my father and thinking, thank
goodness I’m already head girl because after this my chances of preferment
would be less than nil.
Shortly afterwards I started to attend Bible Study, the
Friday lunchtime club run by Mr Massie. The decision was driven partly by a
wish to ingratiate myself once more with the favourite teacher who’d
experienced such obvious disgust at my impudence. The head boy, with whom I was
in constant competition for attention, approval and good marks, was also a
member of the club. I might as well confess that another big draw was the fact
that the meetings were held in the den of the Massies’ house, which was
situated in the school grounds.
religious attachments have been short lived because they are driven by rather
lowly motives. The sybarite in me is seduced by aesthetics, pomp and the
promise of pleasure. Sikhism too won me over for brief, delicious moments. I looked
forward to going to the gurdwara for a helping of prashad, the golden mound of
sweet pudding given to all worshippers as a blessing. When I realised the same
taste could be created at home by cooking semolina with a ton of butter and
sugar the temple became redundant.
The Massie residence had sacred status in my mind and
those of many other students. Once in a while we’d have the honour of going
there to watch a film about Tudor history, or an adaptation of a classic book.
I would sidle through the rooms that led to the little den where the TV and
video player were, taking in the dark wooden bookshelves, family photographs
and silverware gleaming behind the glass of locked cabinets. The curiosity
about people’s private lives that partly drives my writing today was already
active. Even then I wanted to know what it was like to live differently, to be
someone else. I couldn’t have articulated it, but there was this hankering for
something that, if discovered, might transform my own world.
Throughout my childhood I suffered from
I-want-to-be-in-that-family syndrome. That family could have
belonged to a friend, or it could have been a random, contented-looking group
spotted at a restaurant. It’s not that I was especially dissatisfied with my
parents and younger sister. Whenever I spent time away from them I missed them
and looked forward to going back home. But children can sense the undercurrents
of discontent in adults and my parents, for all their efforts at making ours a
happy family, couldn’t fully disguise their disappointments with each other.
The Massies, parents and three children, represented a sort of family ideal. It
wasn’t enough just to be part of their extended Cavina School family, I wanted
to be right at the core. Bible Study seemed like a good way to take a step
The sessions were intense and intimate. Half a dozen of
us, including Mr Massie, sat in a circle. We read a passage from the Bible,
discussed it and then prayed together. I had done each of these things before,
at school and at home, but the experience had a different charge in the
Massies’ den. I can honestly say that my delight did not come solely from the
Nice biscuits we were given to dunk into the tea, which was served in lovely
porcelain cups. It had more to do with the thrill of being talked to as an
adult and feeling like part of a select group.
So much of what I did, and loved, at school every day
was steeped in faith; by the second Friday of Bible Study I’d decided that my
willing and joyous participation must have meant that I too was a Christian.
There was excitement in the recognition. I hugged it to myself all weekend. My
prayers, normally infrequent and desperate little bursts of wishing, in the
dark of bedtime, for something to happen or not happen, became self-conscious
sweet little chats with Jesus.
On a Sunday evening, unable to contain myself any
longer, I told my mother I had decided to be a Christian. She was bending over
the washbasin brushing her teeth as I made the announcement. She rinsed her
mouth, straightened up and said, “There’s just one God, and it doesn’t matter
how you choose to serve Him.” I’m not sure how seriously she took my admission,
but I was content with her response. Still, something must have niggled in me
because I said, “Okay, but please don’t tell Pa.” I went to bed happy and
passed the next day at school fired up by a renewed sense of belonging and
self-importance, unaware of what would await me on my return home – because Mum
had decided to tell Pa.
F. Scott Fitzgerald suggested, with more than a touch
of irony, that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold
two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to
function”. Could this explain the masses of moderates in the world who make a claim
to faith while regularly breaking religious rules? We all have some sense of
what it is to indulge in this sort of “doublethink”, as George Orwell called
it. It is not so much a sign of any first-rate intelligence as of human
fallibility. At its mildest, it is a form of hypocrisy – like being a committed
recycler and owning a sports car. In its more serious forms this kind of
thinking is sinister: we have affairs and tell ourselves nothing is more
important than our family. We waste food, time and money, then dream of leaving
plenty for future generations. If you’re my father, you can be the most secular
of Sikhs and most protean of men, a master of reinvention in its most glorious
and dubious senses – and still be outraged by your 12-year-old daughter’s swing
My father stood by the polished wooden counter of the
bar built along one wall of our living room. Behind him, spirits, liqueurs and
wines were lined up in neat rows, the bottles sparkling in the bright glare of
the ceiling lights. I trembled on the other side of the bar while he shouted.
“You were born Sikh and you will remain a Sikh! Do you
hear me?” Pa poured himself a whisky. The ice cubes hissed and snapped as the
amber alcohol spilled over them into a crystal glass. “We sent you to that
school to get an education, not to lose your identity! Do you really believe
all that Jesus crap? Walking on water and whatnot?” He kept picking up the
glass and then setting it down again with a loud rap, too angry to pause long
enough for a sip. “That Massie has brainwashed you! I won’t have it! If you
want to stay under this roof you’ll forget this Christian rubbish. Is that
clear?” He went on in the same vein for a bit longer, then informed me that I
had 24 hours in which to make it clear to him that I was not a Christian,
otherwise I would have to leave the house. “I don’t care where you end up if
you insist on following such nonsense. Go ask that Massie to keep you. Let’s
see if his godliness extends that far.”
I didn’t doubt my father’s threat. Unquestioning
acceptance of authority was still second nature to me then. It had been
fostered first by my parents, then enforced at Cavina, which continues to
maintain to this day that “character is strengthened through discipline, not
reason”. The school is one of few to endorse corporal punishment, “because the
Lord disciplines those He loves”. I was never subjected to “the whip”, as the
riding cane used to smack girls was known (boys were given “the tackie”, an old
sports shoe that delivered a wallop) because I strove too hard to follow the
rules. But no doubt some subliminal fear of being hit also made me toe the
My father’s ultimatum scared me, especially because my
mother was unable to calm him down. That evening I wrote a letter to him saying
I had reconsidered my decision to be a Christian. I told him it had been a
stupid mistake, one that I would never make again. I had no idea then how
prescient my words would be. I told myself that in my heart I would still be a
Christian and my parents would not need to know, but the gulf between religion
and me only widened ever after.
The next morning I left my letter on the bar where the
altercation with my father had taken place. That evening he told me he accepted
my apology, but was disappointed that I had written instead of speaking to him
directly. The shame I felt at his remark was nothing compared to what I would
experience soon afterwards, when I was summoned unexpectedly to Mr Massie’s
office one day at break time.
The Massies had an uncanny way of finding out
everything about their students. A year after I left the school a transgression
of mine came to light (plagiarism, would you believe? I’d ripped off Thomas
Mann for a story contributed to the school magazine. All I can say in my
defence is that my aspirations were always high.) Mr Massie sent a letter to
the school I was attending in Britain asking me to go to see him next time I
was in Nairobi! I dutifully did and received a deserved earful. I wouldn’t be
surprised if this article comes to his attention and one of his letters appears
in my Berlin mailbox. At least if we spoke now we would do so on more equal
terms and I would be more courageous than I was during that break time 20 years
ago. As Michel de Montaigne said, “I [still] speak the truth not so much as I
would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little more as I grow older.”
Somehow, news of
the confrontation with my father had reached Mr Massie. For a long time I
thought it was a deeply religious friend of my mother, to whom she had related
the incident, who had told him. But recently I found out it was one of my
school friends. Mr Massie was pacing the room when I stepped through the door
of his office. The floorboards creaked under each step. His chin was dipped towards
his chest, his brow creased with concern. “I’ve heard something very
disturbing,” he started. He made me tell him what had happened and I obliged
with a version in which I appeared marginally less cowardly than I’d acted. I
think he was genuinely upset and may even have felt some sympathy for me.
Nevertheless, his stance was clear: “A true soldier of Christ will never deny
Him. Fortes Fortuna Juvat,” he reminded me of the school motto, Fortune
Favours the Brave. It didn’t matter that Jesus was in my heart, I was
clearly not a worthy member of His military academy. I was told there was no
point in my continuing to go to Bible Study until I had the courage to stand up
for my convictions.
The conversation with Mr Massie left me more dejected
than that with my father. It catalysed the moral struggle my father’s ultimatum
perhaps ought to have done, but didn’t. I felt weak and cowardly – something
the hymns we sang in school in the following weeks seemed to reinforce. Onward
Christian soldiers, marching as to war … I couldn’t help thinking Mr Massie
had selected the songs especially to make a point to me. Of course, it was
probably all in my head. That’s why what stood out to me were the calls to rise
forth in the name of God. The lyrics about his mercy – Rock of ages, cleft
for me, let me hide myself in Thee – offered no solace.
Then it began to occur to me that maybe I wasn’t able
to assert my allegiance to Christ because I didn’t actually believe in Him. And
that too was the reason I could find no comfort in words that promised His
endless love. So came one of those tricky and uncomfortable realisations that
mark the way to adulthood and beyond: just because you like being a part of
something doesn’t mean you really belong to it. And then, another realisation
that one butts up against throughout life: just because you like something
doesn’t mean it’s right, or true, or good for you.
Still, I wondered if not having faith was a failing in
itself. Perhaps, as my headmaster had implied, I really wasn’t strong enough to
assume the mantle of religious belief. It was a long time before I was able to
see that whatever my shortcomings may have been there were more serious flaws
in the school – as there are in any system that insists there is only one way
of being and thinking. It now shocks me that my parents could send me to be
educated in such a way. They, like many, were attracted by the school’s
impressive academic record and wide range of extra-curricular activities. But I
have come to feel that none of that is worth the straitjacketing of the mind
that can be the result of an education cloaked in religiosity.
Even though I have many fond memories of Cavina, and
much of the way I am is a result of my experience at the school, I continue to
struggle against the tendencies I adopted then: to believe those in authority
and not to ask questions. Writing fiction has liberated me from this somewhat.
Funnily enough, it is often the past that feeds one’s writing, and then writing
frees one from that past.
I have always wanted to know more than I’m told. Where
more information could be gleaned from books I searched for it without
hesitation. But usually, when clarification has required more than a gentle
face-to-face encounter I have shied away from it. I think most of us are
curious about what else lurks behind the things others choose to reveal, but
few dare to query further to find out more. Often we refrain out of a
protective instinct – for the other person or even for ourselves. But it is
difficult to squeeze more from an individual than they are prepared to give.
Even so, most of us would rather be cautious than
venture onto territory that might cause embarrassment or pain. We turn to art
partly because it gives us the chance to know more about that which we might
not ordinarily confront. No art form manages this as powerfully as literature.
When we read great fiction we are as close as we can be to knowing another
individual from within. In books we can follow not only a character’s speech
and actions, but also his thoughts, silences and torpor. All those “gaps”, to
which we cannot, for whatever reason, gain access in real life, are plugged in
fiction. Through reading we can feel what it means to be another person and, in
the process, we may confront different aspects of ourselves.
The possibility of asking questions endlessly is one of
the most attractive things about writing fiction. I may be nosy in life but I
am even more inquisitive when writing. All the things I might hesitate to
enquire about in my daily reality I can freely follow up in fiction. That’s not
to say that writing provides me with unlimited, unbridled glee at imagining the
innermost workings of another. Delving deeper into anything always has
consequences, and not necessarily pleasant ones. It is sometimes uncomfortable
to put yourself in the mind and heart of someone completely “other”, someone
you probably wouldn’t choose to spend time with in reality. Writers don’t
create characters they only like and agree with. The greatest challenge of
writing is to express, credibly and sympathetically, views, motives and
feelings that one does not share. When the writer succeeds then the reader too
is able to make the leap into understanding, and even feeling close to, a
character that is completely other.
this most strongly while writing my second novel. The story is partly about the
conflict experienced by two lovers who come from different religious
backgrounds. As an atheist, and given my bittersweet early experiences with
faith, I was anxious about how I might write about religion without mocking or
demeaning the characters. Of course, sometimes there is absolutely a place for
satire or condemnation, but this tone did not fit the thrust of my story. I
wanted to explore two different types of religious belief: the kind that is
steadfast and inflexible and the kind that is able to compromise and contradict
Lina Merali, one of the main characters, falls into the
latter category. Despite being a committed Muslim she does not pray regularly
or follow Islamic dietary restrictions. She also wants to marry an agnostic man
who comes from a Sikh family. In her mind, all this is justified by one
aphorism from the Koran: Allah will not call you to account for
thoughtlessness in your oaths, but for the intention in your hearts.
For Lina’s father, Shareef, a figure similar in some
respects to Mr Massie, this conveniently flawed rationale does not work. A man
of integrity and conviction, he lives by the rules and won’t budge for anyone,
not even the daughter he loves most dearly. He is clear that “God has made laws
for us to follow. You can’t say: ‘I believe but I’m not going to do this or
that.’ God and the laws are one.” I started off feeling I could never
accommodate this kind of thinking. It exasperated me. How does a person arrive
at such a stark position? How do they stick by it even when doing so threatens
to destroy the very things they hold most dear? What are the compensations of
faith that make the hardest sacrifices worthwhile?
It took a lot of thought, research and care to build
Shareef’s character and life up to a point where his choices and actions began
to appear logical, necessary and, above all, moving to me. I managed it partly
by listening to and reading the words of different religious leaders. There
were a few, like philosophy professor Tariq Ramadan and Archbishop Rowan
Williams, whose views were expressed with such gentleness and humility that
they touched me, even though I disagreed with a lot of what they said. I used
their tone and vocabulary as a starting point for the creation of Shareef.
It was through finding the right language that I was able to appreciate
Shareef’s commitment to his faith, which is the commitment of a decent man to
When you read, you enter into a ready-made world, the
words arranged to propel you directly into certain thoughts and feelings. To
write, you have to search for the words that form a character and then weave
the web of a story. And the words cannot be found unless you let down your
guard, step beyond what you know and open your heart to the vast spectrum of
emotions that makes us human. The task of the writer is to negotiate the
unmapped territory between us and the other: to conquer, word by word, the
distances that seem too vast, too daunting, too unknowable.
The fact that they can sometimes achieve this doesn’t
necessarily make writers better people, or indeed better than other people. As
Proust says in his essay Against Sainte-Beuve, “a book is the product of
a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life,
in our vices”. He is suggesting that the writing self is the superior self –
because one has the possibility to question, re-think, revise and refine one’s
thoughts before setting them into sentences – a privilege that the pace of
reality denies people in everyday life. Despite the dedication to reflection
implicit in the writing life, it is also the case that understanding rarely
arrives for any writer in flashes. Mostly it accumulates in tiny increments,
which occasionally gather enough weight to give one’s thoughts the substance of
truth. The arduous nature of the work forces writers to confront continually
their limitations and helplessness, their failings as human beings and artists.
The glory of language and literature is that it
enriches and uplifts us even as it exposes weakness – because exposure comes
through asking hard questions. And as long as we keep asking questions we have
the hope of arriving at answers.