Sumitra's Story is written by Rukshana Smith. The story is set in Britain in the recent years. The book is about Sumitra and her family, who were forced to leave Idi Amins Uganda in the early 70’s. We follow Sumitra and her problems uniting traditional Indian culture with English culture from her arrival as an 11 year old and till she is 18. Rukshana Smith was born in 1948, and has lived most of her life in London. Sumitra's Story is based on the experiences of a young Asian friend she met while living in a Unit for Homeless Families. Sumitras Story won the 1982 Garavi Gujarat Book Award for Racial Harmony. Smith has also written two other novels, “Rainbows of the Gutter” and salt on the Snow”
The main character of Sumitra's Story is Sumitra herself. She is a bright and reflecting girl in spite of her young age. She contemplates racial differences, and wonders why there have to be so much cultural boundaries. She faces racism, hideboundness and prejudice, and struggles to combine following up her strict family’s demands and anticipation and her wish to live a free British life.
The conflict in this book is tied to both racism and cultural differences between Indian and British people. Sumitra's family expects her to attend school, and as soon as school is finished run straight home and prepare full Indian dinner for Bap, Sumitra's father, which gives her an insufficient amount of time to finish her homework in a proper way. They do not allow her to maintain contact with any English boys, and they refuse her to go to school discos and other social gatherings outside the temple. Bap wants her to be an obeying and lowly wife in an arranged marriage. At the very same time, Sumitra also faces racism from all holds. Among other she has difficulties providing a job since the job office is reluctant to employ people with minority backgrounds.
The action in the book rises, as Sumitra's uncovers more and more inequality and disparity between the different races. Her family’s social situation changes dramatically as they go from being rich and independent in Uganda to being needy, poor and despised in Britain. First, Sumitra starts at a British school, getting familiar with British customs and makes friends with British people. At that moment she lives temporary at a decayed guest house, on close hold to a variety of people with highly different backgrounds. She and her conservative family become friends with two gentle locals, Martin and Maria. They show Sumitra that there is more to life than servile obeying her parents, following their every demand. The action rises even more as Sumitra's eventually gain a Saturday job, and meet white boys on close hold for the first time in her life. They begin to hang out together, and they among other go to English pubs several times. As both pubs and English boys are looked upon as filthy by Indians, this is off course strictly forbidden.
The climax in this book is when Sumitra's very conservative and strict uncle in law, Jayant catches her in the act, entering a pub. Sumitra's more liberal aunt tries to convince Jayant to let the scene pass, but he refuses and follows his niece into the pub. He creates a lot of fuss, and although defended by her faithful friends, Sumitra leaves the pub. Jayant explains the incident to Sumitra's parents, and consequently the mood in the family becomes significantly changed.
The problem is resolved by Martin and Maria, the family’s common friends. They persuade Mai and Bap to give Sumitra a little more freedom, which they eventually do. However, Sumitra is still stuck between the two cultures, eager to find herself in the big context. She still wonders what she is, an English or an Indian girl. The book ends with Sumitra realizing she needs to get away from the strict Indian culture, leaving her relatives and her old life behind.
I liked this novel. It was a tiny bit torpid in the beginning, but became better and better throughout the book, as the conflicts grew bigger and the tempo rose. I however think it had its strengths and weaknesses. What annoyed me throughout the story was Sumitra’s own thoughts and questions about why people of various colours are different, and treated in different and unfair ways. I think those sentences were very cliché, and pushed the racial questions up in our faces to obvious and importunate. We find an example on this on page 7 in the book: “She wondered why black people spoke Swahili and Indians spoke Gujarati or Hindi. She wondered why some people were black, some brown, some white”. We find another example on page 37: “First they had been told to hate black people in Uganda, now they had to hate white people in England” But back in Uganda, white people had been honoured and respected” I think the author could have informed us and let us understand the questions Sumitra struggled with, without using such aboveboard formulations.
On the other hand, Rukshana Smith writes very well in most parts of this novel. Especially, the very short last chapter caught me. Among other, I think the paragraph “She closed the door behind her and took the small bag in her hand. It contained her nightclothes, radio, toothbrush and make-up. Anyone glancing at her would have seen a young, smartly dressed Indian girl off to work. But behind the smooth face, beneath the careful make-up woman making a small step into the unknown” was very well written. I will recommend this novel for other to read, but I think the reader must have a certain interest for Indian or other minority cultures, and for instance how it is for people with minority backgrounds to grow up in a foreign country.