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My review of Brown Baby, by Nikesh Shukla

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

Brown Baby NIKESH SHUKLA (BLUEBIRD, 256 PP, £16.99) Tablet bookshop price £15.29 • tel 020 7799 4064

Not so long ago, the writer Nikesh Shukla found himself appealing to the emptiness of the night, “Mum, how do I raise a brown baby?” This book is a tribute to his late mother, written for his daughter, whom he tenderly calls his Ganga – the name of the Hindu goddess represented by the Ganges River where worshippers wash away their sins and free themselves from the cycle of life and death. They scattered his mother’s ashes there, Shukla remembers, holding his newborn child. “And here she was, reborn in you, my Ganga.” Unsatisfied with romanticised memories of his mother, Shukla goes on a quest to recapture the real person he knew and loved. At times his grief is palpable, like the moment he goes through her handbag and finds some dirty old tissues, “Fossils of snot and DNA encased in their folds and creases. My mum. Could we clone her, I wondered?” But it does not stop him. Indeed, perhaps one of the most beautiful scenes comes later when he finds the last of his mother’s cooking, stashed away in some plastic containers in the freezer. He defrosts and warms it and, “Like a swirl, a whisper, a groan, a warmth, the kitchen swells with that smell. Of mustard seeds and garlic and cumin and turmeric and frying and my mum. It smells like my mum.” Strengthened by his mother’s memory, Shukla articulates and confronts the tough questions he faces with respect to raising his daughters (he now has two) in Britain which he describes as an “institutionally racist” country, where being white is seen as the default. These issues – “How to bring you into the world”; “How to talk to you about your skin colour”; “How to talk to you about being a girl”, and so on – comprise the chapter headings and serve to chart his soul-searching journey of discovery. Some of these questions are shaped, it appears, from his own personal experience of racist abuse, from the playground up, and peaking perhaps in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, when he was told “go back to brown land” and someone threatened to set his “greasy ass” on fire.

Another dimension to the discussion of race springs from the fact that his own children are of mixed race (his wife is white). Almost as soon as they are born, therefore, he is forced to consider how they will be perceived by our troubled society, and how best to prepare them for what lies ahead. However they choose to self-identify, he explains, the world will see them as people of colour; he cites the comedian W. Kamau Bell on the paradox of the mixed-race child: “The one thing they’ll never be called is white”. In this context, Shukla highlights the importance of his children discovering their identities for themselves before, as he puts it, others cement their projections on to them. He emphasises the importance of representation too, with a touching description of his daughter’s face lighting up when they read Fun at the Shops together, a book in which the main character is brown: she is now in the story, she sees herself. As the father of two mixed-race daughters myself, I found these insights both fascinating and instructive.

Witty and relatable, this intimate, deeply personal memoir also explores themes of feminism, immigration, parenting, home and the inherent tension between civic responsibility and our obligation to seek joy: “Otherwise, what are we fighting for?”

The title Brown Baby is borrowed from Oscar Brown Jr’s lullaby of the same name, from which Shukla quotes: “When out of men’s heart all hate is hurled, Sweetie you gonna live in a better world, Brown baby brown baby brown baby.” This protective, hopeful sentiment courses through the narrative like the liberating waters of the Ganges.

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