Lately I’ve been reading quite a few books with complex structures and experimental elements. In the middle of all that, it was good to read Indian Magic, a simple enough story told in a traditional, chronological narrative.
We start with Ravi arriving in England from India in the early 1960s, and follow him through various adventures and misadventures as he adapts to his new home.
The author, Balraj Khanna, arrived in England in the same year as his character, Ravi, and it’s tempting to wonder how many of the events and anecdotes are based on his own experiences. What it certainly means is that Ravi’s experiences are narrated in an utterly convincing way, from someone who knows.
There’s a good balance of humour and serious themes in this book. Much of the humour comes early on, as the painfully naïve Ravi struggles to find his way in the country he’s heard so much about back home, but finds so strange and foreign when he arrives.
He is bemused when his train arrives at a station called “Victoria” and everyone piles off; he stays waiting in an empty train, because he wants to go to London. Soon he is offered a job in the film industry by a smooth-talking chap he meets in the station bathroom. When he asks what kind of job, the man says “blow job”, and an excited Ravi assumes it must be some kind of acting role, and writes aerogrammes to his friends back home, telling them of all about the blow job he’s been promised in the British film industry.
But being an Indian immigrant in 1960s London wasn’t all fun and games, of course, and Khanna doesn’t shy away from the more serious side of the story. Ravi’s wealth, privilege and qualifications mean nothing in England—most of the white English people see him only as an Indian, and refuse even to consider him when he applies for jobs or a place to live. The signs all say “No Blacks, No Indians, No Irish”. The only job he can get is as a dishwasher in an Indian restaurant, and the only room he can find is an a house owned by an Indian doctor, a place known as the Subcontinental.
Later, he falls in love with an English woman, Jane. She initially rejects him, but he gradually wins her over, only to discover that he is in serious trouble with Jane’s racist father, who threatens him and sends thugs to try to scare him away. Ravi has to fight hard to secure his future with Jane, and also to disentangle himself from restaurant owner Gokul Swami, who has his own plans for him.
Indian Magic is an entertaining and well written novel that gives a fascinating insight into another side of London in the Swinging Sixties.