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Rainbow Hands by Rabina Khan 

 

Rabina Khan has written that 'Rainbow Hands' should not be compared with Monica Ali's Brick Lane, one of the most celebrated debuts of the year, despite the fact that both novels are set in the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets.  There are inevitably similarities between the two novels due to this, as they both share the same universe, some of which are detailed below.  I think what Rabina Khan meant was that Brick Lane is the more obviously 'literary' of the two novels.  However, Chanu's literary education in Brick Lane has not actually accrued any measurable material benefit for him, for like Mr Ali in Rainbow Hands, he ends up as a mini cab driver.

    There are literary aspects to Rabina Khan's novel too, such as the intriguing quote from a Bengali marriage poem on page 83, and the reference to some fascinating stories from history (although some of these 'facts', as employed by the Nation for White British People, are very dubious).  In some ways, Rabina Khan has been much more daring than Monica Ali, especially in her liberal use of ancient Anglo Saxon at times of stress for her characters.  And although we do get to read the Lion Hearts' racist views in Brick Lane, this organisation always remains shadowy and ultimately fades away.  In Rainbow Hands, it is the militant wing of the Nation for White British People, SWAT ('Superior White Active Threat'), who trash Brick Lane, rather than a Bangladeshi group such as the Bengal Tigers do in Brick Lane. Rabina Khan does not simply set out to attack the racist organisations in our midst - they are far too easy a target - but to tackle the complex issues raised by living in a multiracial society.  She does this by focusing on two families: one of Bangladeshi origins, and the other from the old East End.  The novel starts off with the Ali family moving in next door to the aged Mrs Peters.  They have purchased the flat that belonged to Mrs Peters' recently departed friend Vera.  Mrs Peters is therefore feeling a tad more lonely than of late, yet she cannot bring herself to say hello to her new neighbours, as she has never been on friendly terms with anyone who isn't white.  The Alis, for their part, have had many negative experiences in the past with their white neighbours.  Mr Ali secretly fears that Mrs Peters will make the usual complaints about noise and cooking smells.

    The Alis' young daughter, Ayesha, does not care about any of these concerns.  She is very loquacious, and will talk to anyone.  However, she does recognise that her siblings do not want her to pester them all the time, so Ayesha decides that she needs a new outlet for her curious nature, and settles on Mrs Peters, having recognised a faint hint of a smile from her older neighbour when she first moved in.  Despite Mrs Peters initial reluctance to engage in conversation, the angelic Ayesha soon wins her over, and it's not long before Mrs Peters is also on speaking terms with the rest of the Ali family.  There is Yusuf, the oldest son, well on his way to being a doctor, Hamzra, who plans to make a lot of money from the stock exchange when he starts work, and Shazia, Ayesha's somewhat combative older sister.  Mrs Peters also has had four children, now into their middle ages: Vivien, Susan, David, and Graham.  Mrs Peters is most keen to show off her new friends to Vivien, as she has the most liberal outlook on life of any of the Peters, and has also has a passion for world travel.  Susan and David are not quite so sure what to make of their mother's new neighbours, but Graham has little doubts about his views, which are very reactionary and which have also never been discouraged by his mother - until now.  The Peters family are divided in their approach to their mother's new friends, and it is with a sigh of inevitability that Shazia thinks "Oh, here we go, the Paki inquisition has begun" p. 67.  Rabina Khan very skilfully points out that issues that affect the current Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets are not totally dissimilar from ones that have previously affected Mrs Peters' generation, such as overcrowding, poor access to sanitation, arranged marriages, and the closure of the East End  docks etc.  Rabina Khan is careful to point out the problems that the Bangladeshi community has with gangs and drugs (Mrs Peters has previously been the victim of a robbery attempt by a Bangladeshi youth, and the Ali family do fear that another such youth has attacked her in her home).  There are also more positive aspects to the plot, such as a couple of possible romances.  The intriguing plot is also very strong, and this does make you want to read the concluding second volume, to find out what happens in the election and to the various characters.

    However, what does let this novel down is that it still feels very much like a first draft.  For instance, on page 146, the author writes "nothing on that scale had happened since Oswald Mosley took his black shirts to Cable Street in the summer of 1978".  This date is a fairly obvious typo, especially since the correct date for the Battle of Cable Street is mentioned earlier on in the book.  Then again, even novels produced by the big publishing houses have such typos too.  Yet there are other passages that could have benefited from being tidied up, such as the following:

 

English was a foreign language and the whole way of life, with its modern technology, was a stark contrast to the way of life in rural areas in developing countries.  Yusuf had been astonished to find how easy it was to access a phone, TV, fridge and iron and his mother had to learn to use a cooker.  It was a new way of life for him...  Chapter One page 4.

 

The repetition of 'way of life' here jars and does not read well, and some variety would have made the page more vibrant.  In Chapter Two, page 20, Rabina Khan writes: "Arthur worked in the docks and Beryl got a job in a bakery".  On the opposite page, she writes, "He got a job in the Royal Docks and Beryl got a job in a bakery...".  Again, this unnecessary repetition could have been avoided, and some of the detail in the novel could have been excised for not contributing to the plot.  This is, after all, a two volume novel with plenty of room.  It seems as though Rabina Khan has got so carried away with the 'getting to the end' that she has not devoted enough time to rewrite the book.  Rewriting does sometimes appear to be a pointless exercise and an awesome task to behold, yet I know from my own experience that taking some time away from a book, and then returning to do a rewrite with a fresh eye, can work wonders and produce a more polished text. Yet still the strong plot and characters drive you, and you are eager to seek out the sequel.  I must say here that I thought the cover design by Abdul Azim was a brilliant piece of work, and would not look out of place fronting a book from one of the major publishing houses.  So, if you're looking for an upfront and forthright companion to Brick Lane, then you cannot go far wrong by reading Rainbow Hands.

Authortrek Rating: 6/10

Kevin Patrick Mahoney

 

There now follows a series of links about this book:

 

"Ayesha knew about her twin brother and sometimes she felt guilty that she was alive and he was dead.  But her mother told her it was Allah's will for him to die and for her to live and it was not her fault" - Chapter One p. 13 - infant mortality also features in Brick Lane, with the events concerning Raquib's illness.  Nazneen's chances of survival as a child are famously left to Fate rather than Allah

 

a stevedore - Chapter Two p. 22 - is a  dockworker who loads and unloads ships

 

"Enoch Powell's politically well-timed 'Rivers of Blood' speech" - Chapter Two p. 23 - Enoch Powell was expelled from the Conservative Shadow cabinet after making this speech.  He was also deeply opposed to the European Economic Community, so much so that he urged the electorate to vote Labour in 1974

 

"the older women were always chewing some sort of leaf with nuts and making their mouths red" - Chapter Two p. 24 - this is a reference to the betel nut, a popular stimulant in Bangladesh.  The betel nut can produce a saliva that is brick-red in colour

 

"'I work as a mini cab driver'" - Chapter Three p. 37 - Chanu, despite all his literary education in Brick Lane, also ends up as a mini cab driver like Mr Ali.  Getting a literary degree is not an aid to fame and fortune, as I can testify myself

 

"Bangladesh had been born in 1971 but so many had died for their freedom as many atrocities had been committed against women, children and innocent people by the Pakistani army" - Chapter Three p. 43 - here are a few websites documenting such aatrocities: Genocide in Bangladesh 1971, Time Line of Bangladesh 1971, The Bengali Genocide

 

"Now, our daughter you go,

From the castle of your father's love,

From the garden of your mother's tenderness,

To start a new beginning in,

The haven of your husband's home,

Forever to become apart from us" - Chapter Six p. 83 - looks to be a Bangladeshi wedding song

 

"When two races of men meet, they act precisely like two species of animals.  They fight each other, eat each other..." - Chapter Seven p. 105 - this quote comes from Darwin's 1839 Notebooks

 

"Oswald Mosley... a man from our own East End, was a hero for what he did in 1936" - Chapter Nine p.131 - a reference to 'The Battle of Cable Street'.  Mosley had organised a rally of the British Union of Fascists to intimidate the large Jewish population of the East End.  A whole crowd of anti-fascists turned up, determined to block the route of the march.  Some violence did break out, so the police diverted the route of the march to prevent any more disorder.  The British Union of Fascists were later banned from marching, so this could not be considered a success for Mosley.  He had previously been both a Conservative and a Labour MP, and had tried to create a socialist party prior to forming the British Union of Fascists.  The BUF did have support from Lord Rothermere and The Daily Mail in its early days, but this disintegrated after violence at a meeting at Olympia in 1934.  Mosley's embracement of anti-Semitism, and his refusal to denounce fascist atrocities on the continent, sped up the BUF's loss of support

 

"the Protocols of the Elders of Zion" - Chapter Nine p.131 - this conspiracy also supposedly involved liberals and Freemasons in a bid to undermine Christian states.  It was later exposed as a forgery, written by Russian secret police prior to the revolution.  That did not stop Hitler and many others from making capital out of this obvious piece of anti-Semitism

 

"We, Graham, are the Aryan race and we must guard our racial purity" - Chapter Nine p.131 - the Aryans settled in India and Iran in Prehistoric times, and were Indo-Europeans from the Caspian Sea area.  They developed a caste system after encountering the much darker-skinned Dravidians, which forbade them to intermarry with the Dravidians, and which was later recorded into Sanskrit.  Unfortunately, this little local difficulty was blown up out of proportion by European philologists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, leading to wild claims that all the main advances of human civilization had been achieved by Nordic Aryans, whilst other peoples, such Semites, had a more negative impact.  Hitler did not allow the fact that this theory had been wildly dismissed to prevent him from using it as the justification for the extermination of the Jewish population of Europe, along with others, such as the gypsies 

 

"Arthur Balfour, a conservative British Prime Minister from 1902 to 1906, once told the House of Commons that to think the races of Africa were equal to the races of people of European descent was an absurdity" - Chapter Nine p.131 - although in 1917, he also made the famous Balfour Declaration, pledging British support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, which Malcolm King probably would not like, if he knew about it.  This was designed to gain Jewish support for the war, including those in still neutral America.  A Jewish state created under British protection would also have increased British influence in the oil rich Middle East.

 

"In 1939, the all white Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the black opera singer Marian Richardson to perform at their concert hall in Washington DC" - Chapter Nine p.132 - Malcolm King is wrong here - the name of the opera singer in question was Marian Anderson

 

"One never really knew a person until one had walked with them in their footsteps" - Chapter Nine p.141 - this reminds me of something that Atticus Finch says towards the end of To Kill a Mockingbird.  We at Authortrek try to understand writers by walking in their footsteps, albeit virtually

 

Inshalla - Chapter Ten p. 159 - means  "God Willing"

 

Visit our Rabina Khan page

Buy Rainbow Hands from Amazon.co.uk

 

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