Twice Born may tickle your senses to the alluring idea of an ethereal beauty lived and not imagined. And why not when this reader on long closing the last page to the unexpected novel, would wistfully be reminded of shiny brassware and gold earrings, the close rustling of silks and lingering scents or otherwise too, of a frangipani whiff, exotic Indian sweetmeats and long graceful saris enough to rainbow up a musty wardrobe somewhere in the middle of a cold, grey and rainy Scotland. It is after all fitting that Soma herself a stalwart emigrant to Glasgow while still in her exuberant twenties in the Seventies; and now recent winner of the Scottish Margaret Thompson Davis prize for the submission of the first 10,000 words of a novel, continues to weave with deft clarity, in her gentle cordial style as one would subject a vintage handloom to the creation of a painstaking garment.
The riveting story of medical student, Sita who arrives in 70’s Glasgow, with her new husband, Ram a medical practitioner, tempts the reader on a challenging head-to-head emigrant journey of rows of slightly ramshackle old housing estates in Glasgow, before the city’s eventual and fashionable facelift would beckon the tourist.
Throughout the whimsical tale that traces Sita’s birth in a respectable Brahmin household in hot dusty Madras (now Chennai) to her happy if not questioning childhood and later, an arranged marriage, the determined voluble Sita will pursue the risky vulnerabilities of a rightful romantic endeavour that appears sadly elusive even if she is determined that it must stay liberal, when measured against the dour silence of her politically motivated husband, whom Soma moulds as a distinctly likeable character.
For this supplementary plot alone, the reader is encouraged to soldier on an emigrant’s emotional and sometimes painful if not vibrant journey seen for the first time through Soma’s own eyes of Glasgow’s sadder face, apparent three decades ago. Here is a story written by no fledgling who rolls up her sleeves for armfuls of research to an imagined past but rather the voracious gathering of a life lived, learnt and considered priceless by Soma herself. In a web interview, she will talk for instance, of her shock at seeing clumps of butter being rolled up in sheets of paper at the grocery store when first moving to the Glasgow suburbs and this in alignment with a fictitious episode in the book.
However, even a romantic affair and the security of a stable Indian marriage carefully arranged by the respective families back in India and accompanied by the usual colorful protocol that decorates tradition; must now take second place to, the picture of the ambitious professional couple in Scotland whose every cantankerous personality trait and domestic upheaval are traced like the imminent lines to a watchful painting, pressing humorous and adaptation skills in a foreign setting. And then that too, that must play second fiddle to Soma’s more important message which is that of Scotland’s unsettling emigrant history and tradition.
How cleverly as only an experienced veteran is capable of rightful observation, are the temperance of social cultural and interactions skills delicately balanced into a superb waltz and this too, while the tune is conjured up by Soma’s capable hands, how gracefully indeed do each of her characters tiptoe the risky tightrope all the way to the end of the plot without crashing on the trampoline or losing focus of their rightful roles while dipping into social interaction formalities that may bear happiness or contentment.
There is Sita’s daughter, a diaspora Indian of the UK, her dutiful parents, relatives and servants back home and shaded by a life of heavy rituals and easy living. Plus, there is the vital expatriate Indian community which consists of her best friends and also the disruptive gossips, tragic skeletons in the closet and rivalries which ardently match tooth for a tooth and eye for an eye. There’s no denying that Soma asks all the sharp pertaining questions that lends itself to the curious idea of an arranged marriage and comes up with intriguing viewpoints.
Soma masterminds every adventurous chapter with a honeyed smoothness for swift detail and explanation.
She is expert at shifting a reader’s mind between two continents at the blink of an eye and then with equal devotion, blending history with the present or commanding one character’s life to be intricately webbed with the other. Soma holds a clear talent for turning Twice Born into a kaleidoscope series of film reels that may akin the entire book to an enthralling screenplay bearing exoticism or one that may heighten the reader’s imagination to the surreal from what may have otherwise been nothing more than ordinary detail.
Throughout, Soma stays adept at a case of show-and-not-tell that depicts the struggle of many authors. Her easy maneuvering of a character’s vivid personality traits may later be recounted as memorable. For instance, Sita’s husband, Ram who is an excellent cook and possesses eccentric habits with the preparation of his mealtimes, allows Soma to turn the tables onto Indian cuisine with appearing patronizing to the reader. She is also brilliant at using present-day images like the sound of a crashing plate or a nostalgic turn of a photo album page to shift the reader’s mind into an exposition scene featuring an earlier time and a different place. Lest this appears predictable, she then reveals her competence at drumming up minor dramas that may surround the crashed plate or photos like Ram’s sulkiness in not wanting to share his memories as he hurriedly returns the photo albums to their rightful corners.
This reader, particular enjoyed another execution aspect of show-and-not-tell where on first arriving in Glasgow Sita turns on her radio channel to Radio 4 and is straightaway amused at the prospect of a talk show on ferrets which recounts how British a programme it is. She immediately compares this to a scene in India which clearly marks cultural differences and labels her foreign territory with ease. Like an accomplished travelogue, rich and rustic pictures are painted of tradition and ritual, of customs and celebrations of lands, town, cities and villages in India. And then too with the same slick acumen, the kind and darker sides of Glasgow are captured with no less a celebration.
The only weaknesses were minor and could be easily adjusted, in case a reprint is ever called for. Where characterization is concerned, perhaps if Sita’s husband Ram had demonstrated in the early chapters an intense emotional relationship with his aunt who would later die, the reader might have been allowed to mourn with the character…instead of having to recount scenes as sterile.
Another older Pakistani character, Dr. Faraz who abandons his young cousin whom he was forced to marry in Scotland for another young Scots nurse reflects a clear stereotype or rather facade of a predictable and by now after so much media entertainment in the UK, slightly stale portrayal of a Muslim story, when thousands of modern Muslims are easily far more liberal than Dr. Faraz. In the end, the reader felt the gossip’s lesbian daughter to be another thorn in the flesh as this character too, easily appeared as an additional separate stereotype.
In this way, the ambitious Soma appeared overly-eager in tackling one too many controversial issues at the same time.
Also, a final proof-read and edit check would have been apt as there were several conjunctions and prepositions missing and these topped with words often written in the colloquial rather than with the spit’n polish attributed to a professional slant that makes for any sophisticated prose.
Of course, these prove minor in comparison to the real knowledge that Soma had attempted a major feat with her storytelling and passed with flying colors. She is a delightful promising raconteur, a considerate entertainer and has with keen industrious fortitude shaped Twice Born to be a valuable contribution to Scotland’s immigration history and too, a slice of its recorded memory. Twice Born if pursued with the right awareness and publicity, will most likely be hallmarked someday as an elegant symbol of Scotland’s immigration story with a view to history, heritage and a diverse cultural belonging important and necessary to all the new generations that follow. Here then by Leela Soma and served so deliciously for you in the warm evening glow of a room, as a nightcap or an ornament for the bedside table is Twice Born, the real thing. Be warned that you may just as well catch the sudden smell of camphor at the turn of a page or hear the lashing rain and long low whistle of a mischievous Glasgow gale while caught up in a flamboyant dance outside the window pane.