One lazy Saturday afternoon while surfing TV channels I was hooked onto a English movie channel where Om Puri starred in a Hollywood movie. Bollywood fans’ chests swell when they spot their actors in Hollywood movies. I too was and more so as I liked Om Puri as an actor. The movie was My Son the Fanatic. I liked the movie and went over to research about the movie. That was my first encounter with Hanif Kureishi. His short story by the same name was made into a movie with substantial changes to the story. This incident dates a year back.
This monsoon, in a nearby community library, I spotted Hanif Kureishi’s Gabriel’s Gift. It was concise at 178 pages and without hesitation I picked it up. The grammatically imperfect enquiry that opens the novel – ‘School – how was, today?’ and the reply by the teenager protagonist – “Learning makes me feel ignorant” made me fall for the novel at first sight.
Our teenager protagonist, Gabriel, is being ‘looked after’ an inexperienced, non-English speaking Eastern European au pair, Hannah at Gabriel’s mother’s insistence. Gabriel’s father, Rex, has been thrown out by his mother, Catherine, as he was not earning money, was living off the earnings of Gabriel’s mother and was idling away his time in melancholy. Father’s exit has had metamorphosing effect on Gabriel’s behaviour. Mother had taken up job as a waitress and had started to see a younger guy whom Gabriel seemed to dislike. Gabriel has Archie, his twin brother who died of meningitis at two and a half, as his daemon to whom Gabriel talks. Gabriel nurtured dream of making a movie
To him the word ‘Action’, preceded by the particularly intriguing ‘Turn over!’, had a mesmeric effect. He couldn’t wait to use these words himself
All this while he possessed the gift of being able to paint, copy panters’ works and bring the object of painting alive as real. The strange gift terrified Gabriel whose nerves only his daemon could soothe who was ‘sensible and always knew what to do.’
Gabriel’s mother is able to see through the superficial changes in her son’s behaviour (from a fun loving child to a one who is serious and looks mature) but is unable to understand the transformation that was taking place beneath the skin she saw. She is searching for love and peace.
Gabriel’s father likes to spend time with his son and takes his son along to pubs and places he frequented. Gloom and failure filled up the spaces that Rex inhabited. His one room rented ‘roof-over-the-head’ is the hiding corner for Rex where he escapes his failure as musician. Rex had played guitar and performed with successful contemporaries like Lester Jones. Gabriel likes Jones’s music and the turn in his search for the creative side of himself takes place when Rex takes him to met Lester Jones. Lester hands him a painting with his signature on it and narrates to Gabriel stuff about imagination, madness and how interesting things could be turned out of the madness.
Lester went on, ‘I write songs but I don’t know how. When something occurs to me, I write it down and put it in the song. What does an imagination do but see what isn’t there?’
‘I get that a lot’, said Gabriel. ‘Sometimes I think I’m going mad with all the stuff that’s going on.’
‘Oh everyone’s mad. But some people can do interesting things with their madness.’ Lester was looking at Gabriel. ‘You’re talented’… ‘I’m telling you – and now you know for ever. Hear my voice and carry these words wherever you go.
…’Talent might be a gift but it still has to be cultivated. The imagination is like a fire or furnace; it has to be stoked, fed and attended to. One thing sets another ablaze. Keep it going.’
This sharing and encouragement from Lester propelled Gabriel deeper into his creative pursuits.
Apart from attending to the fire of his imagination Gabriel has his parents to attend to. Lester’s painting and its prospective pecuniary benefits put Gabriel’s father after it. To Gabriel the painting is form of expression and art to which no monetary value could be attached. He prepares two copies of the painting and saves the original. One of the copies in hands of Rex, lands at Speedy’s Splitz pub. Gabriel has copied work of a known artist and fears landing in jail.
Whether Gabriel is able to realize his dreams amidst the tumultuous event of his parents separating is what Gabriel’s Gift is all about.
I am not going to put in spoilers here for those who have not yet read the novel.
However, a few words on Kureishi’s story should not play spoilsport. The delight of the novel lies in its pithy phrases on learning, imagination, creativity and education. Sample these.
Lester introducing himself to Gabriel – ‘I was brought up to be neat, but I was able to teach myself to be messy and disorganized, noisy and loud. It took some learning! Good boys achieve nothing!’
Dad liked to say that school was the last place where anyone could get an education. But outside, if your eyes were open, there were teachers everywhere.
The characters are precisely placed in their skins. Hannah, the au pair is portrayed as one ‘whose only qualification with the children was the possibility that she might once have been a child herself…’ Hannah would ‘watch TV and keep an eye on him at the same time, while pressing boiled sweets into the light little hole under her nose.’ Hannah thought ‘being a kid … was to be automatically in the wrong and those wrongs – which were going on all the time – had to be righted by adults who were never in the wrong.’ Gabriel tried all tricks to drive her out but ‘Hannah would make him clear’ the mess he created; she would turn the TV louder when Gabriel whinged and was indifferent to his sulking.
Some dialogues do make you laugh but they do not leave any memorable mark like the ones between Lester and Gabriel, excerpted above. When Lester exhibits his spontaneous work with crayons on a sheet of paper after profuse dwellings on works of imagination, he pours out
‘You can’t will a dream or an erection. But you can get into bed,’ he said. ‘Any mad stuff that comes into my mind I put down.’
Is this coming from Kureishi’s experience in his first writing job as pornography writer? May be. More clues for this could be found in the name of one of the characters in the novel named Karim (a half-Indian actor and school friend of Charlie Hero, once co-performer with Rex). Kureishi wrote pornographic material under the pseudonym of Karim. So much for my wild imagination, with which I could go mad, but fortunately penned it down here as a trivia for those who have encountered Hanif Kureishi for the first time and have not bothered much about his writing career till now. Kureishi has vast body of work in form of novels, collection of short stories, screenplays and non-fictional works including one on pop music as editor. His latest came out in 2014 named The Last Word.