Heather Slevin reviews debut novel, Why are you here?, by Radhika Iyer, and gives a recommendation on where you should read it.
Radhika Iyer’s debut collection, Why are you here?, contains 12 short stories which are as beautiful as they are horrifying. Published on 1 August 2021 by the newly established Castles in the Air Press, who specialise in the publication of E-books, Iyer’s book captivates and moves to great effect.
Each short story reflects on not only the issue of racism within Ireland, but the issue of societal expectation amongst Indian women. The first story, set in Dublin City, begins with a young Indian woman, who remains unnamed in the story, travelling to meet her girlfriend for dinner. She gets on a bus and begins her journey with ease, but soon she runs into trouble as an older Irish woman gets on. She is clearly drunk and starts asking everyone on the bus for a lend of their phone. When she fails to avail of one, she begins to racially abuse the people she sees. A Japanese man sits beside the main character, and when the Irish woman sees him, she begins to shout horrible things - implying that Japanese immigrants in Ireland bring bombs with them, and that they are terrorists.
Not only is the main character uncomfortable, fearful of the woman seeing her Bindi, a coloured-dot on the forehead worn by many Hindus, but the reader is uncomfortable. The woman’s racial attacks do not ease, leaving the reader with the question: what happens if no one stops her? This leaves the main character (MC) to reflect on another bus ride, one in which a group of young boys saw her Bindi and began to throw chips at her, aiming for the centre of her forehead. This casual form of abuse is representative of the racism that Indian people face daily in Dublin city centre, and even when the main character attempts to put a stop to the stream of racial abuse falling from the Irish woman’s mouth, she is ignored by the bus driver. Yet, when a white woman approaches him, the driver acknowledges her complaint. This leaves the MC wondering: why would he ignore me? Does my voice not matter?
“...it is the incessant question that seems to parallel the question of many anti-immigrant Irish people: ‘Why are you here? Why can’t you go home?’.
The short story collection began on incredibly good footing with this story. I was immediately drawn in by Iyer’s writing style: invasive yet descriptive, with obvious themes of racism and expectation. The stories continue on in this same way, with characters experiencing horrors such as domestic abuse and sexual harassment. The story after which the novel is named, Why are you here?, provides an uncomfortable insight into the expectation put onto Indian women - to marry young, to become servants for their husbands and children, and to uphold the traditional values of many Indian families. In this story, the MC’s mother berates her for having the audacity to be present in the kitchen at the same time as her. The mother asks her again and again, “Why are you here?”, pressing for her own space, but the house is small and the mother is clearly unhappy that she is forced to live with her daughter. However, it is the incessant question that seems to parallel the question of many anti-immigrant Irish people: ‘Why are you here? Why can’t you go home?’.
And where to read it…
I read this book, quite topically, while on the bus. The setting of the bus provided an interesting insight to the novel. I was going into Dublin City Centre and as the first short story is also set in Dublin, I found myself looking around and reflecting on my own bus journey experiences. I’ve never been harassed because of my race, nor have I had chips thrown at me or been ignored by the bus driver on the rare occasion I had a complaint. This reflection was harsh, and I found myself picturing the characters sitting right beside me, the aggressive woman raging ahead of us, and thinking: what would I have done?
“I finished the book on the train, having devoured the entire 12-story collection in a period of less than three hours, according to my kindle.”
I finished the book on the train, having devoured the entire 12-story collection in a period of less than three hours, according to my kindle. It was the first book I have read in almost four months that forced me to simply sit and read, tearing through each page, each story, desperate for answers, for justice for these female characters; justice they only receive in a mental sense, with each story ending on an unsettling but resolvent note.