Culture Trips

Brown Baby by Nikesh Shukla review – a memoir of race and family | Books

Nikesh Shukla begins Brown Baby by confessing that, when he was younger, he never considered becoming a parent. Then, in 2010, just a week after his first novel was published, his mother died of lung cancer. She was “the linchpin of my family”, he says. “Its heartbeat, its core. I was thirty. And I was most definitely lost.” Ten years later, he is the father of two young daughters. He is working very hard and mostly very tired. He finds himself spending the time he’s not thinking about his children thinking about his mother. He is caught between grief and wonder, endless memories of her and endless hopes for the grandchildren she never lived to see.

Shukla’s Gujarati mother liked to wear miniskirts. He says she “broke patriarchal taboos in our culture in the Sixties”. She did charity work and rebuked relatives who voiced anti-gay sentiments. Her brother was feisty too, making legal history as the first person to bring a case under the Race Relations Act when a house owner in Huddersfield refused to sell to “coloured people”. Yet she also had a vicious tongue that, growing up in Harrow, Shukla was often subjected to, not least when he insisted to her that he wanted to be a writer. “Tell me ten writers who look like you who make enough money to do this for a job,” she demanded. His naming Hanif Kureishi didn’t change her mind.

Brown Baby, rather like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, is addressed to a child – Shukla’s five-year-old daughter, Ganga, whose name comes from the Indian river in which he scattered his mother’s ashes. It discusses – sometimes with humour, sometimes with rage – the world into which she, as a mixed-race girl, is growing. Shukla describes himself as a “Feminist Woke Dad” and his chapters are styled, a little misleadingly, as toolkits and mini-manuals; one of them – “How to Talk to You about Your Skin Colour” – tackles a huge question to which the answers given can best be summarised as: “It’s complicated.”

In his acknowledgements Shukla thanks his editor for seeing “a book where I saw a bunch of columns and essays”. This is self-deprecating, but not entirely wrong. He’s too antsy and crack-a-joke caffeinated a writer to maintain the epistolary conceit for very long, peppering his reflections with colloquialisms and swear words it’s hard to imagine he would really use in front of his children. He uses the word “meritocracy” incorrectly, name-drops a streaming service so often it reads like product placement, and over-extends a riff about an adaptation of the book starring Bradley Cooper.

Shukla is least engaging when he’s trading in generalisations about “the precarious public life of people of colour in the West”, how “white kids can’t identify with brown reflections”, and how “the idea of multiculturalism in this country hasn’t progressed beyond saris, steel bands and samosas”. For a book about mixed-race life, many of its presumptions are very black and white. “We own the words ‘people of colour’,” he claims, but it’s the “we” that he should be putting in quotes.

After his mother died, Shukla and his wife moved to Bristol. He calls himself a “gentrifier” but doesn’t enrich his racial critiques by exploring class, the ever growing number of immigrant children who live in the suburbs, or the also growing number of immigrant children who, as he did for a while, attend private schools. Disgruntled that Bristol is “Whitesville”, and hoping to find “an area where there are more ethnics”, he heads to a mosque where Muslim men smile at him. “I feel less coloured,” he reflects. “I feel like a person. This sense of community, this silent understanding, this mark of respect and solidarity, it makes me proud to live here now.” The passage is awfully close to the mawkish ethno-tourism of Eat, Pray, Love.

Shukla is at his best when he slows down and stops treating the page like a soapbox. In one delightfully absurdist chapter he describes a late evening walk through Bristol: he’s wearing Avengers pyjamas and an old T-shirt, his daughter is in a pram, clubbers are spilling into the streets. Soon a posse of teenagers – led by an Asian girl – surround them. “Regard the baby,” she orders them. “She is our future, and we must protect her.”

Even better is an extraordinary chapter, originally published as a novella, in which Shukla evokes his mother through the food she used to cook. The sizzle of mustard seeds and cumin in her kitchen, the way she cut potatoes, the misspelled shopping lists she compiled: it’s all exquisitely recalled. After her death, he finds some unused containers in the freezer and decides to cook their contents. In his telling, the microwave unlocks smells, creating not so much a portal to the past as a fleeting, pungent communion. It’s wonderful piece of writing, a wonderful gift to his daughters.

Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family and Home is published by Bluebird (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply.

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