Shahida Rahman’s intricate novel beginning in India is full of pathos, grief and struggle from the onset.
We are introduced to orphans Ayan and his elder brother Kazi who suffers from cancer.
These siblings are constantly reminded by their mission teachers of their low caste background and how their aim in life should be to become ‘respectable.’ With a ‘fortune favours the brave’ rhetoric, it is his brother’s illness that motivates Ayan to join the seaman as his father did, in a glorified bid to earn money and better his brother’s health.
Yet once aboard The Bengal, Rahman’s lyrical prose superbly captures the brutal realities of working aboard the ship. ‘The white men believed that the blacks were animals who merely looked more like people than monkeys and Lascars were only things to be valued for the strength in their backs and shoulders, void of a mind or spirit'.
Marvellously acute in its attention aboard the ship, author Rahman, a descendent of one of the early Lascars to work aboard the British steamships of the 19th century explores the turpitude of the naval supervisors who were more than willing to whip their ample and easily reached victims.
’It cut deep ribbons in a man's back that burned when sweat and dirt filled the bloody mess.’ And whilst punishments proved gruelling enough, Lascars were unscrupulously subjected to hazardous conditions and many died by falling against the burning hot steel in the engine room, 'hot enough to remove the flesh from ones bones.'
Or from infected wounds which led to 'a fever following the seeping, then the screams and delirium and finally, death'.
Circumstances challenge Ayan’s morals yet allow him to sensationally escape The Bengal.
It is a series of events and tribulations that lead him to London, and to his fundamental source of happiness. The charming yet doomed relationship with the rebellious Phoebe, the niece of his former employer, who saw no difference in his skin colour, who defied conventional morality and sought emancipation by refusing to marry.
'Ayan…had new respect as the servant of a young Lady…He attempted to reveal his affection for this woman, in a harmless way.
'Apparently this flirting business required a level of finesse that he did not possess...Ayan refused to think of the consequences, except to remind himself that the penalty for a darkie who even touched a white woman was death.’ A declaration of their relationship results in encompassing social diatribes and being ostracised in the most austere manner. The reader gets a sense of Thomas Hardy’s angst filled Jude and his ‘sinful’ and unacceptable relationship with his cousin Sue.
The book gives intensely credible life to its protagonist Ayan who lacked opportunity or social growth in London due to being a 'darkie'. And despite enduring an unfair prison sentence he does not indulge in self pity.
Incredibly, he never allowed his faith to waver, even when confronted with the logic of a Hindu from Calcutta also making ends meet on the streets of London.
"The English favour their Prophet Jesus above all. It is easier to live as a Christian. Not only does their charity increase for those who follow their religion, but their favour increases...I make baskets and the Christians buy them for charity sake. I receive alms from the Church each day, and scraps from the kitchens. And, on Christmas, I receive a meal. I do not see your Allah taking care of you as well."
Meticulously researched, Lascar delves into the trajectory of one man’s life which is reminiscent of a whole genre of men and their struggle for basic happiness, and the inability of individuals to surmount the social and psychological forces that determine their lives.
Rahman has produced an absorbing narrative that remains stamped on the readers mind.
LASCAR is available on Amazon, Waterstones, Blackwells, Book price £7.99.