Gurnaik Johal’s first collection of stories We Move doesn’t read like a first collection. A recent graduate of Manchester University’s MA programme at The Centre for New Writing, Manchester, Johal’s novel is connected less to the seminar than the actualities of life for those of Punjabi descent in the hinterlands of Southall and Ealing.
The writing has a microscopic exactitude. Here is a frappucino bought at Starbucks. Was ever the dregs of a coffee cup more accurately described?
“She should have been in a rush, should have at least taken it to the taxi, but she sat in the café area and took her time with it, sip after sip until the white noise at the bottom of the cup.”
If much of the terrain is familiarly modern, with X boxes, mobile phones, Ubers leading the way in communication and transport, the writing isn’t. Take this brilliant opening to the story ‘Chatpata:Kaam’:
“Two weeks after his wife’s heart attack, Jagreet made a mistake that would haunt him for several years. He decided to dye the patch of white hair under his chin.”
How can the death of his wife play second fiddle to the white hair under his chin? This is a hook as classical as it gets. Impossible to stop reading.
If most of the stories are linked to the realist tradition, Johal doesn’t rest there. In ‘Sym’ there is a great swirling sentence that brings alive Southall’s troubled past in the Blair Peach era and there is the linguistic osmosis, the code switching:
“The air running thin and his throat burning kabbadi kabbadi kabbadi”
Another story ‘The Twelfth Of Never’ is a jigsaw narrative that the reader has to piece together bit by bit.
What stands out in the collection is the sensory awareness of language, so we are there in the slaughterhouse and in the restaurant where Johal has the precision of a food journalist:
“On the plate, little shards of fried potatoes, cauliflower and onions floated on some charcoal black foam. Chutney was drizzled on top, red as ketchup.”
The stories in the collection run from a few pages to several pages in length and the micro-fictions read as well as the longer forms. If Johal can add details to create linguistic effects he can leave details out too. Take this ending which could be by Hemingway in classic ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ fashion:
“Will I be myself?”
She looked at him, a whole other person.
The ending is as good as the opening to ‘Chatpata:Kaam’. Here instead of wanting to read on we are thrown back to the start of the story.
It is a few years since I have read a collection of stories as interesting as this. I will be going back to it again. If you want to learn how to put short stories together Johal’s collection could be a textbook in the modern form but the word textbook doesn’t create the pleasure of the words:
“Cricket but making contact. The bone-crack of ball on brick as one of the kids hit a six.”
Finally, another quotation:
“He kept editing himself in his head and ended up saying nothing.”
Any Cop?: In this collection Johal says more than enough for the short story reader. Enjoy this book. I did.