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Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla, Ode to Lata (Final Word Books, Nov. 2012, 2nd Ed.) £8.29
It is a question that haunts me, and no doubt many others, every few months. What do you get the gay who has everything? Each birthday I um and ah trying to find something meaningful and relevant, before ultimately settling for a bottle of gin. Well lads, I think I might just have found the perfect gift…
Whether you’re used to the depths of the New Penny toilets or the literary heights of academic corridors, there is something for everyone to be found in Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla’s Ode to Lata. It is a novel at once intimate and universal, which will touch the heart of anyone who has ever felt peripheral, ugly, lost or ignored.
I first encountered the novel on a course exploring queer identities but, lost in the void of out-of-print existence, it was a challenge to find a copy that was not second-hand with a hyper-inflated price tag. It was with a certain excitement therefore that I stumbled across Final Word Books’ recent reprint of the iconic work, celebrating the novel’s enduring place in the LGBT canon through its 10th anniversary edition.
Ode to Lata follows the trials and errors of its protagonist Ali through the spectacle and terror of the LA gay scene. It is at once stark and intimate, granting the reader access to a character so torn between the dictates of the past, the temptation of the future and an obsession with love that we find ourselves just as dislocated, passionately sharing in Ali’s anxiety and innermost motivations.
As we are exposed to one night stands, saunas, flings, abusive lovers and torn hearts, Dhalla skilfully couples such undeniable yet somewhat clichéd facets of gay life with a resounding emotional depth that few others of the genre can claim to reach. The narrative interweaves the passion, sex and pain of the LA lifestyle with memories of Ali’s childhood growing up to East Indian parents in Mombasa, Kenya, fed on a diet of Bollywood cinema and music. This soundtrack of hopelessly romantic love championed in the chords and lyrics of such Bollywood divas as Lata Mangeshkar, contrasts sharply with the tangled and confused lived reality of Ali’s misguided pursuit of happiness in the arms of Richard and the legacy of his father’s death at the hands of his mistress.
Described as a ‘multicultural Queer as Folk’, Ode to Lata provides an insight into an often maligned realm of LGBT life through its focus on racial diversity on the scene. Through his elegant and at times brutal capturing of joy, passion and excess, Dhalla imbues each character with a multi-layered depth and humour that takes this novel beyond the simple and limiting category of ‘LGBT Fiction’, to a nuanced and resounding exploration of the place of the displaced in a postcolonial and liberally empowered world continuously wrestling with the legacy of the old.
Dhalla documents a scene as equally bound by theories of identity as by the smell of poppers and the intensity of lust. This is not a novel for any reader desiring clear lines, easy conclusions and set trajectories, but rather an exploration of the contortions and conflicts many of us feel as accepted, yet ultimately different, LGBT members of society.
It is a book I found hard to put down, carried along by the laughs, anger, tears and confusion of Ali’s ventures on the LA gay scene. I finished it within a couple of days and it has stayed with me ever since. Dhalla’s beautifully crafted prose has created an unforgettable and resounding landmark on the literary scene which both illuminates the life of ‘the other’ whilst ultimately enabling self-exploration as we relate to Ali’s somewhat doomed struggle to align love, life and normality.
Vada will feature an interview with the best-selling author Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla this Saturday.