Roar writer Dania Quadri reviews Nikesh Shukla’s new book, Brown Baby – A Memoir of Race, Family and Home.
In 2020, when I heard Nikesh Shukla’s new memoir, Brown Baby – A Memoir of Race, Family and Home, was being released in the new year, I knew I had at least one thing to look forward to. Shukla has always felt like my bridge into the world of writing, someone who motivated me to work harder, learn more and share what I have learnt. His writing workshop on how to write fiction had been remarkably helpful, packed with fun writing exercises and useful advice for any aspiring writers. If I feel like I can connect with Shukla, it is because he seems honest and kind, and his writing is a medium that conveys this.
Brown Baby is a memoir navigating Shukla’s journey of being a parent while grieving the loss of his own parent. Chapters are presented as the author’s own guide on how to parent, outlining how he has so far understood his role in the world in relation to his children. He includes heart-warming, hilarious, and sometimes painful events in his life to explain this. The book being addressed to his children, Shukla explores his struggles around being a father to two ‘brown babies.’
And yet, Brown Baby is not just another book about being brown in Britain. While race invariably colours his experience, his work is founded on themes of grief, belonging and justice. These topics intersect to produce a rich memoir of Shukla’s life pre- and post-baby, raising deliberations that are perhaps inescapable from modern parenting. These include climate change, navigating gender roles and sexuality, raising feminist children, civic responsibility, and ownership of one’s identity, especially when marginalised.
While evaluating these topics, Shukla does not shy away from admitting his own faux pas and how he overcame them. When discussing how having a daughter had catalysed his understanding of the pervasiveness of rape culture, I found myself rolling my eyes along with Shukla’s friend Chimene, who replies to this half-jokingly: ‘Congratulations. It is so nice you had to have a daughter before you could see us as human beings…’
But it is not as though Shukla is unaware of this. He may not be the ‘woke feminist dad’ he thought he was, but taking us through his shocking realisation of knowing but not fully understanding, he is doing just that – having a conversation. Having an honest conversation, learning, and unlearning along the way.
Food plays another important theme in the book. It’s a topic that Shukla writes about quite poetically, on which ideas of grief, happiness and home converge. The smell of spluttering mustard, fried onions, ginger and garlic take him back to memories of his dear mother cooking Gujrati food; they take him back home. But now, in whiter Bristol, away from the omnipresent ginger-garlic communities in London, and unsure how to recreate his mother’s recipes, Shukla’s notion of home seems to be a moment now stuck in time, an inaccessible memory.
Even so, Shukla does find elements of home in Bristol. I felt I was with him the nights he took strolls around the city to put his child to sleep, exploring new streets, looking for a sense of belonging in place. I found it heartening how standing outside a local mosque was a source of comfort to him. Drawn to the brownness of the worshippers and the familiarity of the Muslim faith was a melange of Shukla’s London-ness and humanness. (Perhaps it is the humanness that comes with growing up in diverse, colourful cities.) It reminds us that a sense of belonging can be found in communities that may not particularly be ‘ours,’ only because we perceive them to be so.
Shukla’s book release may have been delayed, but I cannot think of a better time for his work to come into the world. 2021 may not have started as the perfect antidote to 2020 – our sense of belonging may be distorted by the pandemic and all things in between, our homes remain chaotic, and both individual and collective grief seem impossible to process. However, it is amongst this backdrop that Brown Baby reminds us to flourish not just in the being but also the becoming, and to own the past, the present and the future in all their entireties.
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