We Move by Gurnaik Johal review – virtuosic stories of British-Punjabi life | Short stories


The award-winning story Arrival, which opens Gurnaik Johal’s virtuosic debut collection, exemplifies his deceptively simple style. A young couple live near the airport, and a car has been left on their driveway by the sister of a friend. The car’s presence – its practicality and luxury – changes the couple’s relationship. Both humans and objects often appear or disappear in Johal’s stories, altering the destinies and dynamics of the protagonists’ lives.

These loosely linked stories are mostly set in Southall, west London, among a close-knit British-Punjabi community, with multiple perspectives introduced that shed light on recurring scenes. Characters reappear across stories to create new beginnings and to change endings and readers’ expectations. Johal writes about relationships with the assuredness of Akhil Sharma, as untranslated Hindi, Punjabi and Marathi words and idioms sit confidently on the page. Leave to Remain is less about crossing political borders and more about traversing personal thresholds. The Red River is less about assimilation and more about finding a room of one’s own. Strange Attractor and Haven Green explore such elusive concepts as serendipity and destiny.

In the fourth story, Chatpata: Kaam, Jagmeet remembers reading an interview with his chef daughter, Aman, about her restaurant in Brooklyn, which is called Ambrosia. In the interview, she talks about what it means to make comforting “chatpata” food – that balanced mixture of spiciness, sourness and sweetness central to many Indian cuisines. Aman is still coming to terms with people saying that her food – indeed, all her “Indian identity” – is “too much”. She desperately wants to overcome westerners’ “mango-fetish” (“You only had to wait so long when reading a western story about India to come across a mango, a railway or a spiritual awakening”). As a collection, We Move similarly challenges cultural stereotypes and expectations through its understated and surprising stories.

This, the first of a trio of connected “chatpata” stories, features a family grieving the loss of a mother in various ways: through spirituality, and through sharing secrets and recipes. Other stories feature death (Flight Path, The Piano) and disappearance (Arrival, Be More Roy), but Johal is more interested in greyer areas of mortality and legacy, in the meaning of a life lived and shared. The writing has an air of soft melancholy, but it never veers into sentimentality or melodrama.

Throughout, the stories are seldom as they first appear: the light is always shifting. Johal works in the shadows and the crevices; his strength is that these stylistic techniques and narrative choices are applied with a delicate touch. He could have written a bloated intergenerational saga, but he knows the value of withdrawing, holding out, providing just enough to keep the scene or story going.

His stories – one only two pages long – are not dissimilar to the deconstructed pakoras Aman serves at Ambrosia, complete with Coke-flavoured, charcoal-coloured foam: bite-size offerings, but rich with complexity, history, and the memory of a childhood meal full of flavour and fizz.

In the same interview, Aman says that her aim is to “hold both the future and the past on the plate”. With We Move, Johal has arguably overcome fetishes of the past – that sense of “too muchness” – but he also brings fresh ingredients to the future of Indian writing from the diaspora. With a gentle stir, situations change before our eyes, or perhaps it’s our perspective that changes. Everything tastes spicy and sour and sweet all at once.

We Move by Gurnaik Johal is published by Profile (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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