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Volume 14

Home Is Not A Place - Spring 2015


Written by
Shahbano Bilgrami

Shahbano Bilgrami is a reportage editor at Papercuts. A published poet, writer and freelance editor, her debut novel, Without Dreams, was long listed for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize (2007). Shahbano's second novel, Those Children (HarperCollins) was published in January 2017 and shortlisted for the DSC South Asia Prize in Literature.


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Book Review: No Land’s Man By Aasif Mandvi


The tongue-in-cheek title of Aasif Mandvi’s biographical collection of essays No Land’s Man suggests, somewhat misleadingly, that the book is lighthearted in tone. For while it is, for the most part, a humorous look at growing up desi in Britain and the United States, the subject of the book is serious business not only for the author but also for many of us. In between passages of self-deprecating humour, Mandvi pauses to reflect on one of modern life’s most pressing issues: rootlessness and its consequences.

Of course, Mandvi is better known for his comedic work as the “Senior Muslim Correspondent” on (what used to be) Jon Stewart’s immensely popular The Daily Show, a mock-news program that provides many young adults in the United States and elsewhere with their only source of information on current affairs. Now a well-known figure in most US households, Mandvi has struggled over the years to find success in an industry where there are few roles for an “Indo-Muslim-British-American actor”. Despite his apparent ‘handicaps’, his resume is impressive and includes a range of creative work – both thespian and literary – from off-Broadway productions to mainstream films.

In No Land’s Man, Mandvi’s collection of essays is framed by a journey he makes to England sixteen years after his family migrates to the United States. The journey is prompted by his work on Sakina’s Restaurant, a one-man show that was ‘a personal and cathartic performance and became a way for [him] to examine how [his] own issues of identity and dislocation had affected [him]’. While in England, he returns to the Northern English textile factory town of Bradford where he spent his early childhood. He draws upon his memories of growing up a ‘Paki’ in England in ‘The Ledge’, an essay describing how he was made to stand out on an icy ledge in the middle of the night as punishment for talking after lights-out at boarding school. It leaves him petrified and hallucinating.

Patanking was not just a dialect. It happened when an Indian character in a movie or a TV show or a commercial was void of any human element, and became simply a disembodied accent, head wobble, or turban.

Twice an immigrant, Mandvi’s situation is somewhat unique, presenting its own set of challenges, particularly for someone interested in performing. Although this is touched upon throughout the book, the essay, ‘Patanking’, examines the ironies of the situation in greater detail. Here, Mandvi describes his first audition for a national commercial and how conflicted he is when he is required to play an Indian snake charmer. Though a down-and-out actor in New York and in need of the money, he is loathe to capitalize on a stereotype he abhors. In the end, someone else gets the role, but he comes to realize that in order to succeed he has to ‘patank’:

Patanking was not just a dialect. It happened when an Indian character in a movie or a TV show or a commercial was void of any human element, and became simply a disembodied accent, head wobble, or turban.

Though a word of his friend’s coining, ‘patank’ becomes a way of life for him until he gets his first big break in the Merchant Ivory production, The Mystique Masseur.

Mandvi’s discussion of identity and displacement is deftly interwoven with engaging incidents from his life. No Land’s Man is peppered with references to pop culture: Michael Jackson, Brooke Shields, and even the formidable Harvey Weinstein make appearances in one form or another. Even then, Mandvi still manages to make a serious point about ‘home’ when he revisits the site of the Brighouse Children’s Theatre in Bradford, where his love of acting was born:

My home was the one I started building on this empty field where once stood a stage. It was a place of multiplicity where I could be anything, from anywhere, at any time. It was not made of bricks and mortar, or even the sum of memories; it was an act of creation in itself. Like my parents before me, I had to build it imperfectly for myself, whether from circumstance, fate, or necessity.

I stood smiling, knowing I had come to Bradford looking for a home that I could touch, something that had existed in the past, but in its place I found the future, to be continually created and recreated and invented as I had done time and time again, from a bare stage, a blank page, an empty field.

It is reflections like this that set Mandvi’s book apart from the dozens of others like it that have inundated the book industry in recent times. A comparable example is the actress and comedienne Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me (And Other Concerns), which – though readable – lacks the deeper insight that Mandvi brings to his work. This insight transforms an otherwise entertaining collection of essays into something more meaningful.



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