Postcolonial Identities in Patrick Neate's "City of Tiny Lights"

Bachelor Thesis, 2009

29 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Farzad - A Character Looking Back to the Past
2.1 Farzad and Painting
2.2 Farzad and Cricket

3. Gundappa - Forging Identity

4. Tommy - Abandoning and Regaining Identity
4.1 Tommy - Living ‘In-Between’
4.2 Tommy’s Self as Private Investigator
4.3 Tommy and Language

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

The quest for identity is one that everyone has to undergo in life. Who we are, where we come from and where are we going are central questions of mankind that everyone has to face. Certainly, to find an answer to these questions is never easy and they require constant renegotiation throughout life. Yet, whenever migration processes take place and people leave their original home the question of identity is taken to another level. All of a sudden, these people have to deal with a new culture and a new society that most likely will not bid them a warm welcome. At the same time they have to establish a home in this new country and try to come to terms with this society. Consequently, they find themselves caught up in between different cultures and especially the second generation that grows up in the new country often has to face major identity issues.

One of the biggest migrations of the 20th century is the one from the former British colonies towards Britain. Today almost 8% of the current population in the UK are of non-white origin with 4% of them being of Asian descent.[1] Thus, they represent a part of society that is not to be underestimated. With cities like Leicester which is said to be the first city in the UK where ethnic groups will form a majority by 2012 (cf. BBC Asian Life) the issues of those people of living in the UK with an ethnic background cannot be ignored. Through their overall presence, especially in bigger cities, they thoroughly change and shape the appearance of these places and thereby also change British culture. By now Indian restaurants and shops can be found almost everywhere and are part of the usual urban image.

Considering these developments it is not surprising that novels by writers with an ethnic background such as Kiran Desai and Hanif Kureishi, who both deal with issues of identity and belonging in their books, have attracted considerable attention in recent years. Their respectable success shows that there is an interest at hand of how immigrants feel in Britain. Moreover, their works do not only enjoy great popularity amongst conventional readers but are also examined in terms of postcolonial theory and the question of identity by scholars. Yet, they all have in common that they can exhibit a postcolonial identity themselves which might be assumed to award a proof of authenticity to them.

However, Patrick Neate’s City of Tiny Lights undertakes the mission to prove the opposite. It constitutes evidence of how detailed and profound postcolonial identities can be created by a non-ethnic writer. Embedded in the plot of a detective story Neate introduces the reader to the three male members of the Akhtar family that all have to deal with massive identity issues due to their Ugandan-Indian-Pakistani background. With respect to current postcolonial theories this paper will examine how each of these men attempts to deal with this identity crisis in their own special way.

Firstly, this paper focuses on Farzad and his self as a “contrary geezer” (City of Tiny Lights, 329)[2]. As a first step it is analysed in what respect Farzad can be described as a man living in diaspora. Subsequently, it is shown what special position Uganda acquires in his life. By applying Salman Rushdie’s theory of imaginary homelands the paper demonstrates how Farzad uses imagination in order to cross space and time to return to his deceased wife. The means for this return are alcohol and painting. The latter is examined in more detail showing its significance for Farzad’s life. Finally, Farzad’s obsession for cricket and its implications are interpreted.

Secondly, the character of Gundappa is introduced who has quite a peculiar way of dealing with his identity issue. It is shown what massive effect the death of his mother has on him and his self-perception and how this finally leads to the abandonment of his real identity. It is analysed how and why he he starts disguising as someone who he is not and creates several new identities.

Thirdly, the paper has a closer look on the main protagonist Tommy. This part starts out with Tommy’s time as a terrorist showing how the death of his mother led to a similar but slightly different reaction as the one of his brother Gundappa and how he ends up being a man without an identity. Furthermore, the recurring flashbacks are analysed with special attention to his distanced relationship to this time as a soldier of the Mujahideen. It is depicted in what respect this still influences his life. Next, it is described how he regains and accepts his identity. Applying postcolonial scholar Homi K. Bhaba’s theories of ‘living in-between’ and mimicry to Tommy it is shown how he realises that he will never be regarded as a pure Englishman by society. Instead, he accepts the multitude of cultures that influence his identity and finds himself living at the border of different cultures shuttling from one to the other and using the possibilities that this shuttling between cultures offers. As a further step this theory of living at a border is transferred to his occupation as private investigator. It is shown to what extend his job mirrors his border life. Furthermore, the influence that his ethnicity has on his occupation is examined and whether he can sustain his aspiration of acting in the tradition of Chandler’s crime novel figure Philip Marlowe. Finally, Tommy’s language is considered as a means of expressing identity. It is shown how Tommy individualises and embraces his language. Finally, the paper explains how language serves both as a marker of belonging and a marker of difference.

2. Farzad - A Character Looking Back to the Past

Tommy claims that Farzad is “a contrary geezer” (CTL, 329) and in fact, it is quite hard to disentangle what his true identity is. Already the concept of identity itself is rather complex as an uncountable amount of factors contribute to the making of it. In Farzad’s case, however, things are even worse, especially with focus on national identity. There are multiple categories that lay claim to his identity. As a result, the picture of Farzad’s true self is very fragmented and it is hard to put the pieces together. He is very aware of that as “he recognized everything that he was – a Ugandan, Indian, Paki and Englishman. A doctor, shopkeeper, widower and father. An immigrant, citizen, émigré and refugee – and the weight of it exhausted him” (CTL, 44; emphasis in the original). Remarkably, there is an emphasis on his geographical origin and his migration past. Both bracket his occupational and familial characteristics. Consequently, these factors are quite important and play a major role in his self-representation.

This highlighting of nations and migration is typical for people living in diaspora. Yet, there are even more characteristics of diaspora that apply to Farzad. Although the term diaspora originally only referred to the dispersion of the Jews, nowadays the idea of diaspora varies tremendously (cf. Cohen, ix). However, the acknowledgement “that ‘the old country’ […] always has some claim on their loyalty and emotions” (Cohen 1997: ix) and “the acceptance of an inescapable link with their past migration history” (ibid: ix) are features that apply to all processes grouped under the term diaspora. In the case of postcolonial diaspora two main bodies can be detected. Firstly, there are the “descendants of peoples uprooted from their homelands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and transported from one region of the globe to another to serve British economic needs” (Ramraj, 214). Already the migration history of their parents or grandparents may influence their sense of identity as living in a diaspora community (cf. McLeod 207). Thus, already in Uganda Farzad qualified for a diaspora identity through the migratory heritage of his ancestors. Nonetheless, the reader does not get any account of how Farzad feels towards India as a homeland and it is doubtful if there is any emotional tie to Pakistan since this country did not even exist yet when his forefathers had left India. Nevertheless, the fact that it is frequently referred to him and he refers to himself as well as Indian and Pakistani shows that it still has some relevance for how he considers and represents himself.

The second group of postcolonial diaspora is formed by “those from English-speaking regions of the Indian subcontinent, Asia, Africa, […] who for economic, political, cultural, and familial or personal reasons left their homelands for London, England” (Ramraj, 214). Farzad additionally is part of this second group of postcolonial diaspora since he had to leave Uganda towards England in 1972 due to Idi Amin’s expulsion order for all Indians in the country.

Hence, the topic of migration accompanies him throughout his life. Although there is this multitude of nations claiming relevance to his identity Uganda holds a special position. Even though he might not feel Ugandan the tie to Uganda is most pronounced. As mentioned before India and respectively Pakistan have at least some influence on him through his ancestor’s heritage - even if it may only be his Muslim belief in the case of Pakistan - but these are countries he never lived in. Uganda, in contrast, is the country where he was educated, where he married his wife and where his two sons were born. The reader also learns that one of his most moving memories of his wife is not one of an event that happened in Britain but one that happened in Uganda (cf. CTL, 45). Thus, this country is emotionally charged for Farzad. Not least does his Ugandan home contribute to this. Whereas his house(s) in London do not have any special meaning for him he remembers his Ugandan house as “‘Kampala mansion’ ” (CTL, 17). Since this name is presented in inverted commas one can suppose that the house was not at all a mansion. Yet, it obviously has a special meaning to Farzad and therefore he comes up with this euphemistic characterisation. It is also mentioned that he had a collection of paintings in the house and “that [they] couldn’t take the paintings when [they] fled is on Farzad’s list of regrets” (CTL, 126). Hence, there is a very special connection between Farzad and this place.

Consequently, Uganda and Kampala in particular are most likely the places that Farzad would call ‘home’. Yet, the concept of home is itself a rather complex one as it is not very concrete and deals mostly with feelings. Generally, one can say that

the concept of home performs an important function in our lives. It can act as a valuable means of orientation by giving us a sense of our place in the world. It tells us where we originated from and where we belong. As an idea it stands for shelter, stability, security and comfort (McLeod, 210; emphasis in the original).

However, the act of migration obviously has an impact on how home is considered. Often the former home is too far away to be revisited or a return is impossible due to political reasons. In his essay “Imaginary Homelands” Salman Rushdie examines how migration affects the memory of the home by reflecting his own experience. He claims that

our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind (Rushdie, 12).

Thus, imagination is the way to overcome the great distance between the country that is considered ‘home’ and the country they actually live in. Nevertheless, imagination is always bound to emotions and desires and people tend to omit negative memories. Therefore, the process of returning to the homeland through imagination is not shaped by a realistic memory of the homeland but by a fragmentary romantic picture of it. Rushdie speaks of “broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost” (Rushdie, 11). This is exactly what happens to Farzad. His memories of Kampala are fragmentary and exclusively of positive nature. Even the story of Mina killing an animal in order to make it suffer less, which is actually a rather cruel memory, carries a positive connotation for Farzad. It is Mina’s “intuitive courage” (CTL, 45) that is stressed and not the suffering of the animal. Her kind-heartedness moves him and makes it a positive memory for him.

The most striking indications that Farzad turns to imagination, however, are his drinking habit and his painting. After his wife’s death he has lost the only stable entity in his life. The reader learns that “he was confused when his wife left him behind. He found alcohol and art about the same time” (CTL, 44). Alcohol gives him the chance to forget the present and return to the past and thereby to his wife: “When he gets really drunk he recalls his wife. But it is as if his memory is a Pathe newsreel that is looped to infinity” (CTL, 45). Hence, Farzad is stuck in his memories of the past that he recalls again and again and alcohol is the means that enables him to do so. His massive consumption of alcohol shows how he desperately tries to escape the present and to return to the past where his wife is alive and the world is seemingly all right. Thus, his memory now provides the stability that formerly was provided by his wife. Yet, this stability can only be achieved through a turn backwards through alcohol in an attempt to look across time and space.

2.1 Farzad and Painting

Painting is another means of escape from the present that takes up much space in Farzad’s life. Already in Kampala he is an art lover though not an artist, yet. After a coincidental encounter with the Mozambican-Tanzanian painter Eduardo Tingatinga Farzad buys half a dozen pictures of him to decorate his house. Tingatinga has great influence on Farzad although Tommy is not sure if this affection may not simply derive from this very encounter (cf. CTL, 126). After Mina’s death he starts painting as a reaction to his insecurity of identity since “the weight of it [being a Ugandan, Indian, Paki and Englishman] exhausted him and squeezed out pictures” (CTL, 44). Painting helps him to deal with this issue and after a while he even “got a reputation as a post-colonial artist of note” (CTL, 44).

However, he has to realize that people are solely interested in his painting because they can put him in the postcolonial pigeonhole. It is not about what he is actually painting but his history that makes him special and interesting for the art world. The journalists are “eager to know about his childhood, his flight from Amin and the loss of his wife” (CTL, 45). Thus, they are more interested in the painter’s life than in his paintings. For a while he joins the game and tries to get as much out of it as possible. A hypocritical deal comes into existence. He gives the people what they want from him and “learned to paint by numbers, he learned to conjure Gauguin exotica from some alchemy in the logical synapses of his brain” (CTL, 44). In return the critics help him to sell his paintings.

In doing so he sees himself in the tradition of Eduardo Tingatinga who “only gave them what they wanted. He needed to earn a living for his family and that was the most authentic thing about him […] Eduardo Tingatinga knew there was no such thing as authentic culture” (CTL, 126). It is his scattered identity as Ugandan-Indian-Paki and Englishman that makes him come to this conclusion. The multitude of cultures calling for importance for his identity make him having a closer look on the actual meaning of authenticity and eventually makes him see the wobbliness of the term. According to the OED authenticity is the quality of being genuine or true. However, it is open to discussion what is regarded as genuine and true, especially with respect to culture. There is no authority that judges what is authentic or not. Although one might come to a common consensus when negotiating cultural authenticity regarding someone of one specific culture, it becomes almost impossible to come to a conclusion of what is cultural authenticity regarding a person that is influenced by manifold cultures. Finding himself in this position it is not surprising that Farzad comes to the conclusion that there is no authentic culture at all: “There is no authentic culture, Tommy boy. It is an international ice rink and that is how you and I manage to skate across it with such ease and grace” (CTL, 127). Thus, he easily slides from one culture to the other conjoining them without any regard to authenticity. Tommy puts it like this: “It’s not the arriving but the journey: life as tourism” (CTL, 46).


[1] Numbers taken from National Statistics, No Author, Published on 24 June 2004. Accessed on 26 March 2009. <>

[2] In the following City of Tiny Lights is abbreviated as CTL

Excerpt out of 29 pages


Postcolonial Identities in Patrick Neate's "City of Tiny Lights"
University of Tubingen  (Englisches Seminar)
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postcolonialism, identity, city of tiny lights, Patrick Neate, British Indian literature, identities, Indians in Britain, cricket
Quote paper
Rebekka Brox (Author), 2009, Postcolonial Identities in Patrick Neate's "City of Tiny Lights", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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