"East End Asian Petrol Blues"
by Jim Kelly for remotegoat on 09/06/09

Over the last week, along with the interminable maelstrom over Gordon Brown's leadership and MPs expenses, many of the papers seem to have been shrilly panicking about the BNP's prospects ― now results ― in the European and local elections.

As usual the fuss seems disproportionate. The BNP has won all of three council seats nationwide, which although three more than they held last time round, pales significantly when compared to the Conservatives 1500 odd.

In fact the BNP didn't even win a seat in Essex, where various doomsayers forecast they might win half a dozen. In the European elections they did marginally better, scraping two seats out of sixty-one, but in political terms they remain as irrelevant as ever. Overall BNP voters make up around 7% of the electorate but taking the population as a whole that's less than 4%. Or to put it another one in thirty people is a racist moron: doesn't that tally with what we all think anyway?

Not that I've never met anyone who would admit to voting for the BNP. The lurking suspicion remains that most of those who do, spend their lives sitting at home on the couch playing the Nazis' in Medal of Honour and grunting to themselves in monosyllables while eating frozen oven chips straight from the bag. Unless they're real dyed-in-the-wool racists in which case they eat frozen turnips instead; potatoes being upstart, immigrant vegetables.

They may not like many of us but then again we don't care for them either and what's more we thankfully have no need to. They just don't matter.

This was brought home to me while watching Mina Maisura's very good first play, Commercial Road (winner of the Angle Theatre's New Writing Competition) which is interested ― not in the clash of 'native' English and immigrants ― but in the battle between 1st and 2nd generation immigrants, often within the same ethnic communities. Not that the play's anything like as heavy as that sounds. Commercial Road is essentially a light comedy albeit one that also tackles serious themes.

Girish (Ravi Aujla) is a petrol station manager desperate to maximise his profit margins by exploiting his employees, Ramanthan and Krishnan, a pair of illegal immigrants, and British-born Feroza, whose own immigrant husband is unemployed. He takes on a fourth worker, Sonny an aggressive teenager, who apparently doesn't really want the job.

Girish wants to be called Gary but his sense of assimilation is plausibly confused, on the one hand he prays and talks about going 'back home' to India though he has lived most, if not all his life in England.

On the other he objects to Feroza's hijab and has a management style that seems to be a weird hybrid of Del Boy and Gordon Brittas, showing no sympathy to his employees, even though his own parents presumably faced similar challenges in the recent past. For him, as for his desperately poor employees, the bottom line really is the bottom line and it raises two questions: How much are you prepared to suffer? How much are you prepared to make others suffer?

What Maisura's play does extremely well is to show how the roots of prejudice (including racist prejudice like the acronym FOB - 'Fresh off the boat') are so often economic. 'No job is worth this' Ram tells Krishnan (Kal Aise), towards the end of the play, but how does he know? Where does value meet price? Especially when you know, as Krishnan does, that things could be even worse.

This is about as current a question as can be imagined, although much time is wasted on a melodramatic subplot. My own suspicion is that Maisura is a natural storyteller, with an excellent ear for dialogue who has been slightly caught in the trap of overburdening the drama with issues and allegory. All the male characters can be reduced to types. When Girish tells Krishnan about bird-watching and migration the symbolism is too heavy ― or rather the response to it is too meek.

By contrast the character of Feroza is brilliantly written, as well as wonderfully performed by Rina Mahoney. Feroza is real and it's hugely refreshing to hear her describe what sounds like an arranged marriage (her husband is according 'right freshie' according to Girish) neither as a tyrannical imposition nor a glamorised romance. Instead she just gets on with things, eking fun from boredom by picnicking on the floor of the shop and then later, on the same patch of floor, removing her hijab to wipe up away blood. Any writer who can create an image this redolent and yet natural shows true promise.

This is a very good debut.

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