By Amit Roy
THE novelist Trisha Sakhlecha, who has been hailed as an exceptional new talent on the literary scene, has spoken to Eastern Eye on two subjects close to her heart.
One is the continuing abuse of women in India, which she has worked into her new novel, Can You See Me Now?, a psychological thriller with a shocking twist that few have been able to guess. This merited a favourable mention in The Sunday Times.
The other is the need for the colonial history of the empire to be taught in UK schools.
Sakhlecha, 35, moved to London when she was 22. She attended Delhi Public School, an elite co-educational institution in the Indian capital, and then studied fashion in Mumbai and Bangalore before making London her home. She had no inkling she had the makings of a novelist until she took a creative writing course at the Faber Academy. But she also runs a business as a freelance fashion consultant.
She attracted favourable notices with her debut novel, Your Truth or Mine?
“It deals with an expat Indian couple and the unravelling of their marriage,” she explained. “It’s also a psychological thriller, there is a crime, a missing woman and an investigation to deal with that. It’s 70 per cent set in London, 30 per cent in India.”
She goes on: “The proportions are the exact opposite with Can You See Me Now?”
The tale is about 16-year-olds Noor Qureshi and Sabah Khan at Westcott, an exclusive school in India, who are joined by Alia Sharma, an arrival from London. They become best friends, but then the story takes a dark turn, ending up with Noor’s funeral. Since the events move backwards and forwards 15 years in time, she used a spreadsheet to cope with the “many moving parts”.
Sakhlecha should be in London right now, but she has spent lockdown in India in Madhya Pradesh’s capital city of Bhopal, where her father, Om Prakash Sakhlecha, is a state government minister for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Her late grandfather, Virendra Kumar Sakhlecha, was once Madhya Pradesh’s chief minister. She, though, chose not to go into politics.
A sex scandal involving Noor, which is at the heart of the novel, is very similar to an incident which occurred at Delhi Public School in 2004, a year after she had left. Sakhlecha remembers it was the girl who was blamed and shamed, while the boy got off unscathed. Her anger at the hypocrisy and justice not being done is reflected in Can You See Me Now?
She recalls what happened in 2004 when she was a teenager: “All anyone was talking about was what the girl did wrong, how stupid she was, how she shouldn’t have trusted a boy or how this is what happens when there’s too much westernisation in the country. But no one was really addressing the fact that the girl had also been a victim.”
Sakhlecha happened to be visiting Delhi when a young woman was gang-raped on a bus in December 2012 with fatal consequences. “It felt like there was a constant stream of such reports. But there were also a lot of sexual harassment cases coming to the fore. And it made me think about where it all starts – it felt like it started in those conversations in school. That’s why I was so keen to connect the two strands together.”
Two of the girls in her novel are Muslim, while the third is Hindu. This was not intentional. “There was no reason why I shouldn’t have that mix. But as I started plotting it, it became all the more poignant to have that divide between them, and then to bring in a sense of religious intolerance and fanaticism. That actually ends up playing quite a crucial part in the plot.”
Sakhlecha says that living in London but not being “British Asian” has its advantages and disadvantages. “Sometimes, it feels like being the perpetual outsider. Yes, having lived in London for so long now, I’m an outsider when I am in India. But I’m an outsider in London as well. Which is very interesting from a creative point of view because that’s when you get the best observations. You can see things from a detached point of view. But I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to travel between the two countries very frequently. So I’ve managed to keep one foot in either continent. And I love having that freedom to assimilate or step away where I choose to.”
The India she grew up in is not the India she finds on her visits to the country. “The news is afire with stories of Muslims being lynched for everything from supposedly carrying beef to making a speech in a liberal university. Neither is illegal, but when it comes to Muslims – a minority group in most parts of India – it feels as though different rules apply. There’s no denying the extreme religious intolerance brewing in India. It’s a sad reality that Hindu-Muslim violence, sometimes organic, sometimes spurred on by political agendas, is frequent. In a country where politics and religion are inextricably knotted together, this really comes to the fore in election season.”
Again, such sentiments are woven into her novel. Sakhlecha is also able to take a nuanced view of British rule in India. It’s a subject she is able to address with passion and eloquence.
“As much as I love England and as much as I love being part of the London scene, you cannot dismiss the fact that there were lots of atrocities that were done,” she said. “It left India in a place where we still grapple with the effects of colonialism, maybe not in an obvious way, but we still do. There’s still the sense of white superiority that you find as you walk around in India and have conversations with people. And I think it’s possible to acknowledge that colonialism was not the altruistic, benevolent idea that a lot of people like to believe it was.
“At the same time, we enjoy living in London, and enjoy the relations that exist between the UK and India now. In terms of teaching colonial history, whether you’re British Asian or British, it’s important to know where you came from and what’s brought you to where you are. Who contributed to that and in what way? Once that understanding comes, a lot of the issues that we deal with now, in terms of the racism and stereotyping and around immigration, we will start to see resolved. Education has a huge role to play in that.”
Can You See Me Now? by Trisha Sakhlecha, £8.99, is published by Pan Books.