His Big Typewriter

Eleanor Birne

  • My Ear at His Heart: Reading My Father by Hanif Kureishi
    Faber, 198 pp, £12.99, September 2004, ISBN 0 571 22403 2

Hanif Kureishi’s father, like many fathers, hated his job (he was a clerk at the Pakistani Embassy in London). But unlike many fathers, he tried in his spare time to forge for himself an alternative, fulfilling career as a writer. He was proud, humiliated, persistent. He wrote at least four novels, all of which were turned down by publishers and agents. Kureishi recalls mornings in the family terraced home in Bromley: ‘I’d always had a paper round; I liked getting up early, when you could feel the quality of the air. Dad would be up and dressed already, writing at his desk in his suit before he left for work.’ The occasion that gives rise to My Ear at His Heart is the discovery of a manuscript written by his father in one of his agent’s filing cabinets. Entitled ‘An Indian Adolescence’, it is, Kureishi believes, the last novel his father wrote. Having been unearthed, the manuscript sits in the corner of Kureishi’s study for a while; he spends time ‘glancing at it, looking away, getting on with something else, thinking about it, doing nothing’ before finally settling down, with a cup of tea, to read it.

My Ear at His Heart is a memoir of Kureishi’s father and of himself as son; it is a meditation on the relationship between parents and children. The ties and the rows between fathers and sons are a theme Kureishi has been exploring throughout his writing life: in his novels, most noticeably in The Buddha of Suburbia, and in his screenplays, including My Beautiful Laundrette and My Son the Fanatic. His essay ‘Something Given: Reflections on Writing’, in his collection Dreaming and Scheming (2002), introduces his father the writer, ‘hammering at his big typewriter’, the sound ‘rocking the house’. With the discovery of ‘An Indian Adolescence’, Kureishi is ambushed into writing a much longer piece on his father and the writing life. The memoir becomes an act of self-analysis as much as a reassessment of his father:

For me, this has become a quest, for my place in father’s history and fantasy, and for the reasons my father lived the semi-broken life he did. I’m looking for the way in which a particular adult life is a response to childhood, an answer to the questions that a particular childhood asked. From this point of view an adult is someone who had an overwhelming childhood, and renewal means remembering, filling in the gaps, in order to forget for good.

Kureishi’s book fills in these gaps, as he uncovers facts he never knew about his father – facts that seem to fit. On the other hand, it always seems unlikely that he’s going to ‘forget for good’: is this a reflexive assumption about the value of confession, that once something has been spoken it can be put away? Does he really want to forget?

‘An Indian Adolescence’ opens with 16-year-old Shani, a thinly disguised self-portrait (‘my father’s nickname was “Shannoo”’), alone in the family home in Poona with his mother while removal men pack up their belongings: his father has recently resigned as an army doctor and bought a soap factory, and the family are off to Bombay. Shani wanders through the house and into the garden, wondering what will happen to them all, and Kureishi quotes this attractive passage: ‘As he walked, he touched the trees – tamarind, mango, neem, peepul and the spreading Banyan. Under them he had studied, chatted, joked and ate raw mangoes with his friends, and was sad that he was leaving them.’ The strange grammar aside, the direct quotations from ‘An Indian Adolescence’ are occasionally strong. Would other quotations have given a different impression?

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