In a somewhat stinging review of my novel, Satya, one reader complains, ‘Everyone, everyone in this book is unlikable and spiteful.’ Personally, I wouldn’t that far—for I’m quite fond of some of the characters—but she has a point: many of them are not exactly genial. But that’s really the point. What else would cause a bright, confident student who thinks she knows everything to embark on an alien journey? We live in a world which is quick to blame particular types of behaviour on a person’s culture, religion or upbringing. I wanted to explore what other kinds of pressures can carry individuals along one path or another.
In the earliest draft of this novel—The Beauty of the Lion—the characters of Satya and Ben were models of perfection: pure victims of the ill intent of others. In Satya they have their flaws—just like we all do—and those nasty characters have a few redeeming qualities too. Perhaps I have just taken too long to discover them through my writing: this is where I beg for the editor’s sheers. Still, I like to think that far from owning its characters, Satya provides a relevant critique of their behaviour.
Where I disagree with the reviewer is in the notion that some of the things described don’t happen. The reader believes I took some major liberties: when tales of bullying are narrated, it is deemed unrealistic, while the idea that a teacher could be a bully in incomprehensible. For me such disbelief is incomprehensible.
Although I attended a well-respected, successful secondary school, I still witnessed a teacher pinning a fellow pupil to the ground on a number of occasions in the name of entertainment, while another was known to whack misbehaving students across the back of their heads with a large dictionary. In our Games lessons we were sometimes subjected to some quite humiliating and boorish behaviour. Meanwhile, non-white students quite often found themselves on the receiving end of abusive tirades from teachers.
I recall a story reported to me by my music teacher when I was at school, as she lamented the loss of a talented bassoonist to another school after a particularly vicious verbal assault from a rugby teacher; in the face of ineffective complaints to the headmaster, the boy’s only redress was to change schools. I am sure things are different today, but at that time—the early 1990s—a number of teachers described themselves as ‘proudly racist’ and would take much delight in advertising this. Alas, I may have internalised what I saw at school and regurgitated it on the page.
Satya deals with some unpalatable subjects—bullying, hypocrisy, domestic violence—but these are realities for many, many young people. I don’t know how to write about those subjects without entering that world. In real life sometimes a knight in shining armour—an inspiring teacher, a social worker, a college counsellor—rides into town to give rays of hope. But often young people just slip through the net—whether to join a gang, become a drug dealer or a young single mother. Do students who are bullied complain? Often they don’t. And if they do, are they always listened to? Often not.
My novel—I believe—asks questions. Like what choices does an intelligent white teenager raised on a dead-end estate with expectations of a particular kind of masculinity have if he doesn’t want to be hard? What thoughts go through the mind of siblings when they see one of them getting apparently favourable treatment? How do children feel when they never see their dad because he is always working? What impact do the trials of life have on a young person’s faith? What decisions will a young Asian woman make if she can find no respect amongst those nearest and dearest to her?
Perhaps Satya is a dark, miserable tale in places, but I hope there is redemption, even for some of those horrible characters. I hope it provides some sense of optimism even in a cruel world. Writing darkness is difficult when you reside in the light; reading darkness is just as awkward. Perhaps this is why I shunned this novel for a decade: because I thought it had no place in my life any more. But in truth, we live in a world where terrible things happen. Our job is to decide how we react to them.