Rear Entrance

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Rear Entrance by David Barun Kumar Thomas, book reviewRear Entrance by David Barun Kumar Thomas is the story of four Indians each visiting the British Embassy in Brussels to apply for visas to visit the UK or to work there. The book takes its name from the sign on the front door of the Embassy instructing visa applicants to use the ‘Rear Entrance’ – only British Nationals can go in the front door. The symbolism won’t be lost, I’m sure.

Seetha is the first applicant, a computer analyst who has spent 6 months in Brussels and wants to move on. She’s going to lie about why she wants to go to Britain and plans to tell the immigration officers that she’s a writer because a loophole in the immigration law means both artists and writers are allowed in without fixed employment. Quite why someone who wants to write a book about Indian philosophy wants to do so in England is not clear nor is the reason why she so wants to go to the UK.

Harish was my favourite character and probably the only honest player in this story. After fourteen years in Belgium running an all night grocery store with his business partner Zulfikar, he’s got a little bit of money saved up and a dream. He wants to watch a game of cricket at Lords.

Ratnesh is the chancer, the bad boy and the guy with an eye on every opportunity. He will tell the Embassy that he’s going to visit a friend and then claim asylum when he arrives. He’s got his story all worked out and nothing will stop him because he’s the human equivalent of the little brown dogs that walk India’s streets – scruffy, ill-mannered and kicked around but at heart a survivor.

The final player is Amit – a rich boy from a wealthy family and a father who’s eternally disappointed in him. He has a mission to find new business contacts, win some new contracts and whilst he’s at it, there’s the small matter of two million dollars his dad stashed away decades before which needs to be laundered before it can head back to India.

The four meet at the embassy and we follow the two days during which they submit their visa paperwork and are interviewed – twice in most cases – by the visa officer, Doug Evans on whose shoulders falls the task of deciding who gets in and who gets turned away. In between visits to the embassy we watch Ratnesh come up with a money-laundering scheme, go for lunch with three of the applicants and to a big diplomatic party with two and we learn more about the history and motivations of them all.

“I bristle with indignation at a book that portrays 75% of the tiny sample of visa applicants in this book as cheats and liars.”

I never got a feeling for why the book was set in Brussels as the location seemed largely immaterial to the story. The clue perhaps lies in the writer having spent some time there, although I think I could probably get a map and have a fair stab at throwing in a few street names and doing a half-decent job at faking it because I didn’t really pick up on a flavour of Brussels in the writing. Would it have been more authentic set in India itself? Possibly, but then there’d be no excuse to throw these four characters from very different backgrounds together since they wouldn’t share the outsidership that’s needed for the plot.

The characters – with the exception of Harish – are hard to like or to empathise with. For a while we think we should feel sympathy for poor Amit with the pressures of an overbearing father to deal with but somehow once we learn that he’s a pretty shabby fellow who loves to show off and lacks any interest or concern in others, it’s hard to maintain. Ratnesh is just plain nasty and Seetha is a pretentious self-obsessed woman determined to bore the pants off the other characters and the readers by banging on at length about philosophy.

I had an uncomfortable feeling about this book. If any non-Indian writer had created a book in which almost all of the characters are liars who are trying to cheat the British immigration laws and hoodwink officials, I would expect there to be an outcry and accusations of racism and stereotyping. Why then is it OK for an Indian writer to stereotype his characters to this degree? As someone who is exceptionally liberal on issues of immigration and rather proud of being from a country that so many people want to live in (I try to tell myself it’s not just for the benefits), I bristle with indignation at a book that portrays 75% of the tiny sample of visa applicants in this book as cheats and liars.

The book weighs in at just 220 pages of small font and bowls along at a good pace. I had to make two attempts to get into it as the start was a little slow but once I knew all four characters the pace was good. As someone who’s spent more time than she cares to remembers sitting in Indian High Consulates and on websites applying for Indian tourist visas, the bureaucracy rang true and little details like keeping the toilet locked so visitors had to ask for the key struck me as the kind of thing that simply MUST be authentic. I will read pretty much anything about India or Indian life whether in India or elsewhere but I have to admit I was a little disappointed by Rear Entrance – especially by the ending.

Rear Entrance by David Barun Kumar Thomas
Published by Hachette India, April 2011
Many thanks to Hachette India who sent me this book as part of a superb box of goodies earlier this year.

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Rear Entrance
by David Barun Kumar Thomas

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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