Neel Patel’s Tell Me How to Be is a narrative set against the backdrop of emotions rather than a geographical location. In the process it reveals itself as an examination of where and how one can put down one’s roots in an ever-changing world after clearing the weight of the past. The novel uses sleight-of-hand in the way it embeds themes of racism and homophobia within the larger ambit of thwarted love.

It follows two protagonists: Renu Amin, who is trying to reclaim a love she lost decades earlier thanks to marriage to another man arranged by her family, and her son Akash, a wannabe music composer who, along with carrying the fear of coming out to his family as gay, is struggling with his past as much as his present. The two protagonists tell us their stories of lost longings and the disquiet that has settled into their very beings, leaving them bereft and incomplete as they try to find closure with the help of missing elements from their past.

Renu and Akash takes turns to narrate the story of their pasts after Renu convenes a family prayer to mark the first death anniversary of her husband and Akash’s father.

Of identities...

Does this sound like a family drama with a love story embedded in it? But wait, what Patel does is to make the obvious merge into something more, so deftly that you don’t see it all coming. As the two protagonists-as-narrators take us into their past and present, the reader begins to become subtly aware of what binds families together despite the many tensions, while getting glimpses of the dreams of the young, often squashed by life.

In making the family central to the movement of the characters and the development of the plot across cities and countries, Patel makes us look at the nature of roots, and whether identities flow from geography and culture or personal choices. This comes forth in the trajectory followed by Renu, who has Indian roots but is raised in Tanzania and then moves to London for a brief spell before settling with a husband chosen by her family, eventually living in Illinois. She is firmly buttonholed into the category of “Indians” in a book club of women readers that is all-white except for her.

Renu is deeply aware of just why she continues to be part of the group: to have something to look forward to even if to mock at or disagree with vehemently, all in her mind of course.When she receives an e-mail about reading A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry for the book club, she reflects:

“What does A Fine Balance, a book about poverty and corruption to do with me? I have never lived in India. I have no interest in poverty. White people, on the other hand, love it – especially when it’s abroad. They love backpacking through jungles and hugging strange babies, documenting the evidence for everyone to see. I wouldn’t dare touch those babies. Imagine the smell.”

... and presents and pasts

Akash’s own experience is no less different within his own gay community. His lover is a white man whose friends observe that it is a shame that his country – India – is so homophobic given how spiritual it is. Akash doesn’t get to clarify that his mother is from Tanzania, and can only put it across tersely to his partner that “the only thing worse than a straight white man was a gay one because gay white men conceal their racism with sequins while straight ones wear it proudly on their sleeves”.

Akash’s musical journey and his leaning towards R&B adds just the right amount of nostalgia, while Renu’s investment in daily soaps reveals the fascination of TV audiences for “pulpy trash” posing as entertainment.

It is in these subtle yet powerful connections between the perceived and the fluid nature of what is real, and the prejudices that continue to thrive, blindsiding personally lived experiences and voices, that lend a sinuous power to Tell Me How to Be, starting with a seemingly innocent title and then revealing the layers underneath.

The author’s writing through the voices and characterisation of his two main protagonists, who come from different generations and positions, makes the narrative come alive and rise beyond a sequencing of themes around immigrant lives, racist prejudices, the connections and disconnections that ensue when people try to pick up the pieces of a former intimate bond over social media after years of not being in touch.

The conversational appeal in the narrative tone may sit well with readers. There are no flashy interludes, no over-dramatic dredging of trauma. Rather, it is a quiet grace that threads the play of the plots and the thematic areas of personal prejudices vis-a-vis another person’s sexuality. A gentle expression of the need for closure from the hurt of our pasts makes Tell me How to Be a book that slowly but surely holds your attention

Patel’s writing shows a confident touch. Not for him is the weaponising of the tropes of satirising or being overtly critical of the way gay identities and relationships are seen in Indian settings. His use of Renu’s inclusion in the all-white women reading club offers the chance for a cheeky reference to the exotica that comes from othering people on the basis of skin and race. The resolution of past hurts and loves is arrived at in a way that is not sentimental, but filled with an innate sense of wisdom.

Tell Me How To Be: A Novel

Tell Me How To Be: A Novel, Neel Patel, Hamish Hamilton.