Reviewed by Beatriz Terrazas, a Carve Literary Services consultant.
On the surface, Sandra Hunter’s debut novel is the quintessential immigrant story of an Indian family navigating life in London after Indian Independence. But woven into the broader theme of cultural identity is one that cuts closer to the bone: that of personal identity. In lean prose, Hunter introduces us to patriarch Arjun Kulkani and his family. A serious, even harsh, man, he’s desperately trying to keep his wife Sunila, son Arjun, and daughter Tarani, rooted in conservative Indian culture while they strive to be accepted in their adopted country.
The book opens in the 1960s, a time of rapidly changing music, fashion, and social mores — a time when Arjun can’t help but clash with his family. At the funeral of Arjun’s brother, Jonti, Arjun examines his family and thinks: “Look at them—just look. Sunila can’t bring herself to wear a sari, claims it doesn’t suit her, it’s too long, too uncomfortable. We don’t wear that kind of thing here.” Likewise, he observes his daughter: “…what convinced her to wear purple?” And his son: “The boy clings to his mother even though he’s twelve—an age, surely where he should be more interested in his friends.”
At the same time that Arjun is being disconnected from his family, his body is betraying him. The first sign of Spinal Muscular Atrophy comes when he’s making his way up to Jonti’s casket and for no reason, begins to fall; he catches himself on the coffin. Later, at Jonti’s house, Arjun’s coming down the stairs when he thinks he hears his brother’s voice: “It is only one of the children, but the sound of his brother’s voice is so persuasive that he turns quickly. The next moment he is sliding to the bottom of the stairs.” Before long, he won’t be the man who once ran and played squash with confidence, but one whose every physical step is as tenuous as the hold he has on his family.
Can you remain the person you are when everyone around you is changing, when your own body succumbs to disease? When things seem the most hopeless are there still lessons to be learned about yourself — about the way you parent and the way you love? These are the questions at the center of Arjun’s journey as he tries to hold fast to family and manhood in the face of illness and change.
Hunter’s prose is spare and straightforward; it doesn’t call attention to itself. She knows how to get out of the way of the story, which evolves over decades and is told largely through Arjun’s point of view and occasionally through Sunila’s. In a particularly poignant scene between Arjun and his 13-year-old daughter, Hunter nails the father-child relationship:
“Sunila tells Tarani to ignore Murad’s teasing, but she can’t. Her face crumples each time her brother jeers at her. Arjun feels the word-hooks, feels the bleeding below the skin, tries to think of something to say that will heal her. But she has no time for him either. He is also the enemy. She narrows her shoulders against him, squeezes herself inwards so that no one can reach her. She is gradually turning concave.”
Hunter is deft in her exploration of the Kulkanis’ lives, parting the curtains on them only at key moments over the years so that we get a sense of where they are on their journey and how they’ve arrived there. This isn’t a story with sudden emotional fireworks or breathless edge-of-your-seat moments. But don’t let the fact that Losing Touch is a quiet book dissuade you from reading it. It’s a wonderful story about what it means to be human, flaws and all.
Losing Touch, by Sandra Hunter. Purchase at Oneworld Publications, 2014.