My family and I are not yet ready to pack cases for Bangladesh, but we are coming very close. If our visas are permitted we will begin the process of packing up this little house we have rented in Cumbria for six months and heading back.
It has been difficult readjusting to life as a British person but even harder for the kids who are, what is now termed, “Third Culture”. TCKs are children who have lived a significant time in another culture from their own and, as a result, don’t belong to either but inhabit a culture of their own – a ‘third’ culture. Our two have been prepared for this but the reality is never as easy as the theory and there have been highs as well as lows in their journey over here. Now we’re facing doing this all over again but in the other direction back to Bangladesh where they have to pick up again and face these traumas again.
We try to stay close as a family and make time to play games together and watch films together. We also read together and the books I chose for us all for this period of time were the excellent books from the Surya trilogy by Jamila Gavin. I had already read them so I knew they would be good and I knew they would resonate deeply with us all in this family. I would like to share with you why.
The series scans the lives of two children – brother and sister – growing up in India in 1947 when the British left and the country divided into Pakistan and India. There was terrible bloodshed and terror and Marvinder and her brother Jaspal see both as first their father is wrenched from them to study in Britain and fight in the war and second their village is destroyed by wave after wave of murderous avengers from Hindu, Muslim and Sikh sides.
We have all been watching Gandhi recently (see my previous blog) so know the history well and we know that Bangladesh still hurts after having gone through it all again with the war in 1971 with Pakistan. We see the scars everywhere but also see the hope. Having visited India earlier in the year (see my blog on that here) we were amazed to find that not much was different to Bangladesh and not a lot has changed since Kipling was writing about his Kim many decades before. So the first book in the series – The Wheel of Surya – really came alive to us. We even have the ‘long white road’ outside the gates of LAMB, our NGO.
But the journey has not even begun for these two young souls who find themselves violently separated, perhaps forever, from their mother and manage to stow away on a ship to get to England and find their father – now likely to be their only living relative. What they find shocks them and sends both Marvinder and Jaspal on separate roads in their lives.
The book describes life in 50s Britain superbly. In fact, I was surprised just how like life for me in the 70s it was too and shows just how little changed in that time. We went to the British War Museum earlier this year and there we walked around inside a WWII style British house. All I could think was “wow! This is so like my grandparent’s old house!” Just like Jaspal, I used to play in semi-destroyed bombed out buildings and alternately make gangs and hide from them too.
The second book, The Eye of the Horse describes the children’s attempts to return to India to see if they can find their mother (if she is alive) and continues to give emotive descriptions of life in both cultures. We become more aware of how Jaspal and Marvinder feel alienated from both cultures and, in that sense, make connections with our two children. My son loved Jaspal and his fighting ways – beating the school bully and his gang and becoming a gang hero in his own right known to his gang as ‘Hanuman’ – the monkey god. My daughter loved Marvinder who is falling in love with a love that can never be accepted in either culture, and also deepening her love for music through the violin. It was pure coincidence that my daughter took up the violin this year at the same time – but it did mean a special bond has formed between the two girls and across pages – especially as she too, has begun to have her impossible romances.
The third book, The Track of the Wind, completes the trilogy but does not leave a nice tidy finish. It is brilliant but quite uncomfortable in the way it ‘grows up’ with Jaspal and Marvinder as they turn into young people facing culture crisis – Marvinder as a young woman whom no one will marry because of her western ways and bearing the shame whilst, at the same time, not actually wanting to be married as a teenager; and Jaspal finding his identity as a Sikh but filled with anger and loathing aimed at all in his life. His is a more difficult story to stomach but one that, sadly, I have seen many times over the years as a teacher. Boys turning into men find anger and frustration hard to handle in any culture.
Although these books are aimed at older children, I would recommend them for any reader who has experience of life in the Asian subcontinent and/or Britain – especially if they have children. Gavin has done a wonderful job of presenting both cultures. Although the series is nearly twenty years old, I haven’t read any other story concerning Asia and Britain that conveys the essence of both so beautifully or so accurately. If you are looking for something a little different and far removed from the world of Harry Potter and friends, then these books are for you.
For my children and I, these stories have been a magical journey that have made connections for us across both worlds. It doesn’t stop the heartache of being away from one culture when in another, but it does make all of us – son, daughter, mother and father – feel that we are not alone and that others have been where we are, different though the context has been.
For that, we are forever grateful to Jamila Gavin and, of course, Marvinder and Jaspal.