Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family and Home is Nikesh Shukla’s latest book and unlike any of his previous offerings, this book takes a deep dive into his own life and experiences as a Brown Man and the most recent change in his identity, a father.
The book is addressed to his two daughters and consists of conversations and reflections of his life and relationships, particularly with his mother, who passed away just before the publication of Shukla’s first book and before he became a father. There are some deeply moving passages and some truly funny ones. Nikesh has always been a strong voice in publishing practically highlighting the lack of diversity and championing non-white writers with his previous works. Now as a parent to two young mixed heritage girls, race and identity issues are even more personal and his determination greater: to set the world to right, to increase his understanding and to champion the voices of feminism. In this revealing memoir we walk alongside him as he grapples with the changes in his life and contemplates all the things that have lead him to this moment.
I was particularly enamoured with his ruminations of his mother. They clearly had a very strong connection, but like so many parental relationships it was often strained with disappointments and expectations. Nikesh’s parents worked hard so that their children wouldn’t have to. They scrimped and saved to send him, the boy child, to a private school in the hope that he would become a Lawyer or Doctor, the acceptable professions for many South Asian parents, and couldn’t understand his decision to become a writer. This concern was borne out love but often resulted in heated arguments, one such argument broke out while Nikesh’s mother was in hospital, which unfortunately also turned out to be their last conversation. Reading the book, you sense Nikesh’s guilt and his process of working through his grief through anger, depression and eventually something close to acceptance.
There are some truly shocking moments in the book that highlight how little progress we have made as a society when it comes to race. Nikesh recalls the casual racism of his youth and more recently the not so casual incident involving a dog walker at a beach. Confronting a racist with a small child in tow is a truly a dreadful experience. At home, it is interesting to read about Nikesh’s relationship with his father. Again, like many South Asian homes, the parenting is often left to the mother, so in the absence of his mother Nikesh’s attempt to forge a relationship with his father are moving.
The book is littered with humour. I snort laughed at Nikesh’s attempts to cook and particularly his absence of knowledge about spices. In one instance he wonders into a greengrocer looking for ‘haldi’ assuming that to be Turmeric’s universal name. He is desperate to recreate one of his mothers recipes so the ingredient takes on a life of its own and his frantic search for it is both poignant and funny, reminding us that the good and the bad are often companions in life.
There were a few things in the book that really stuck me, most notably the absence of his wife. At one point he comes to the realisation what it means to be a “girl dad” and the importance of autonomy and wanting to raise his daughters as feminists. When he has this breakthrough moment, he calls two of his female friends, not his wife. There are also other bits in the book, especially around identity, that his wife’s voice is notably absent.
I think my absolutely favourite thing about this book is experiencing parenthood, especially fatherhood through Nikesh’s lens. His observations as he walks around the streets of Bristol in the small hours of the night attempting to rock his daughter to sleep are extremely candid. His encounters with people from all walks of life and the community he is beginning to see himself reflected in and the subsequent thoughts of belonging. I admire his efforts to ensure his daughters grow up appreciating and understanding both parts of their heritage. I felt my anxiety rise as the parents attempted sleep training and I laughed at Nikesh’s observations on baby wearing (of which I am a huge advocate!) This journey with Nikesh, in the absence of his mother, is a really moving experience and one can’t help but feel warmth and compassion for him.
In other parts of the book Nikesh reveals more of his grieving. Although this book is addressed to his daughters (and all brown babies) it is also about his mother. About a young man attempting to navigate his life in the absence of one of the most important people in his world. His endeavours at making sense of fatherhood without his mother guiding him. He desperately wants to raise his daughters as strong women of colour with information about both aspects of their heritage but is often pained at not being able to call upon his mother for her assistance and her reassurance. I found Shukla’s trips down memory lane touching, and his subsequent acknowledgments of certain behaviours revealing. His relationship with food, for example, stems from fond memories of a pantry full of crisps, sweets, chocolates and fizzy drinks. These were nightly companions to his mother’s evenings and now he finds himself indulging in similar habits. Food, across cultures, has connotations of home and belonging and in many ways replicating these habits possibly help with his grieving.
Brown Baby, is a powerful, persuasive, and humanising memoir. I felt at times I was shadowing Nikesh as he walked through difficult passages of his life and at other times, I was sitting down listening to him lament systems of power that will ensure even third generation children, with mixed heritage, will struggle with their identity as race and racism is so firmly embedded in this nations psyche. It is also a book full of hope and love. For every negative experience there is an enlightening one. Nikesh, ends his memoir with a forceful reminder that we all hold power and influence, even when we think we don’t, we do, but only we can determine where and what we want that influence to be, and isn’t that an empowering thought for all Brown Babies.