Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi

Chroma, 2005, 446 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Psychoraag cover

From its opening sentence “’Salaam alaikum, sat sri sakaal, namaste ji, good evenin oan this hoat summer’s night!’” this novel proudly proclaims its uniqueness. The tale of the last broadcast of Radio Chaandni, “’Sax oors, that’s right, sax ooors ae great music, rock an filmi an weird, weye-oot there happenins an ma rolling voice,’” on “ninety-nine-point-nine meters” sic FM. The voice is that of Zaf – “’that’s zed ay eff’” – DJ of The Junnune (madness) Show, scion of a pair of romantic (but adulterous) runaways from Pakistan.

As the above quote shows, Zaf’s monologues to his microphone are rendered in a very broad Glaswegian indeed. They are presented on the page with an unjustified right margin, a feature distinguishing them from the more normal narrative interspersed with them which relates the events of the night in a slightly more refined Scots dialect. Meanwhile sections devoted to his parents’ life together are in Standard English (except when their back story has caught up to times Zaf can remember.) To render the Glaswegian Scots, Saadi spells most participles (indeed most words ending with “ng”) without the final g – even when they occur inside longer words as in increasinly.

The music he plays (ranging from Asian Dub Foundation through Kula Shaker and Corner Shop to The Beatles, The 13th Floor Elevators, the golden hour and even Jimmy Page and Robert Plant) is integral to Zaf’s conception of himself and for those interested in such things a Play List and Discography of his many and varied tastes are appended after the glossary of Urdu and other terms with which the novel is liberally sprinkled.

Zaf’s stream of consciousness sees him ruminate on life, the universe and everything, with an emphasis on Scotland and Pakistan, “the land of the pure”, often mixing things to great effect, “if Dante Alighieri, in his exile, had had Irn-Bru, he wouldn’t have needed Beatrice. He wouldn’t have needed poetry.”

His thoughts also whirl around both the important women in his adult life, present girlfriend Babs, prone to jaunts to the wilds on her blue Kawasaki motor bike, and previous occupier of that position Zilla. Babs is white and – once – called him her brown god. Like Zaf, Zilla is of Asian descent but has fallen into drugs and prostitution, a circumstance for which it turns out Zaf is partly responsible.

Considerations of race inevitably loom large in Zaf’s thoughts. “The aspiration of all good Asians, finally, wis to be as white as possible. To marry white, to generate white and to strive incessantly for depigmentation.” To be half white or part white gave you, “one foot in the door… You became an honorary person.” He ponders acronyms and abbreviation as aspects of western life, “the whole pompous culture of indecipherability and wilful obscurantism had arisen from the collective mind of the grey men.” He articulates the Asian experience of Glasgow, especially the part which has become known as Wee Faisalabad, mentions the activities of local gang The Kinnin Park Boys, desirous of taking over the station franchise, and his experience of living in the slightly more upmarket area of the Shiels. He has, too, recognised that Calvinist sensibility, knowing that Glasgow had “turned its hard Presbyterian face away from its own children, it averted its thin lips,” and hence reasoning, “So why on earth should it bother to acknowledge a changeling like Zaf?” Neither does society’s attitude to women escape him, especially that of those keen on patriarchy and the primacy of the word. If they fall from an ideal, women are never forgiven, “There wis no such entity as the prodigal daughter,” he notes. Even the possibility of such a fall proscribes them.

Where the narrative breaks away from Zaf and instead tells the story of his father Jamil Ayaan and his mother Rashida, their meeting and falling in love, their affair and her desire for them to be together (only possible if they left Pakistan,) their long journey in a Ford Popular from Lahore to London then Glasgow; a city Jamil had never heard of before, and which he therefore thought would be safe from “prying eyes, ears tongues,” only to find on arrival the sole job he could find was in the sewers, the prose becomes lyrical. Saadi is no mere Shock Jock, he handles straightforward English narrative with as much skill as his demotic flourishes.

There are dream-like sequences where Zaf seems simultaneously to be in the studio at Radio Chaandni and at the same time roaming the city’s streets. This may or may not be because he has drunk some absinthe lying about the studio or perhaps a result of Zaf’s general sense of dissociation. The scenes where Zilla has turned up in the studio have a particularly hallucinatory feel.

Psychoraag is a tremendous achievement, managing to distil both the essence of immigrant experience and of Scottishness and to embody them in one character. It is certainly an admirable piece of work, utterly memorable, worthy of a place in that list of 100 Scottish Books.

Pedant’s corner:- “ninety-nine-point-nine meters FM” (FM radio tuning is characterised by frequency, not by wavelength; Zaf must mean 99.9 MHz,) “but, to Zaf’s right, was a partition wall” (unnecessary parenthetical commas,) zndabad (zindabad,) off of (just off, please,) “poking out from of the back pockets of their jeans” (from or of; not both,) “on account he was” (on account of he was.) “Cognito ergo sum” (The context implies this re-rendering – I know therefore I am – of Descartes’s philosophical statement, I think therefore I am, is intended,) “more dif icult to maintain” (difficult,) “aren’t I?” (OK Zaf says this to his mum and “Indian” English perhaps uses this formulation; but the Scottish English is “amn’t I?) “‘It’s finishes tonight.’” (It,) “she will have she have OD’d” (no “she have”,) Glasgae (Saadi – as Zaf – often uses this but no West of Scotland person says this; Glesca or Glesga maybe, never Glasgae,) re-appeared (in the middle of a line? reappeared,) outside of (outside; ditto inside of,) “it’s three thirty in the morning” (Zaf thinks this during a disturbance in the show’s fifth hour, ie after four a.m.) posonous (poisonous,) “as if it there had been” (as if it had been.) Peter Sellars (Sellers,) “the music swelled tae a crescendo” (no, the crescendo is the swelling; “swelled to a climax” maybe,) “hud been lain” (laid,) ivirthin (previously, and subsequently, ivirythin, with one iviryhin,) “just a little, as. underneath the sunshine” (no full stop.) Fundmentalist (Fundamentalist.) “A certain section of the community were” (a section was.) Polyethelene (Polyethylene,) “ninety-nine point-nine wave-length” (it’s frequency not a wavelength; and wavelength isn’t hyphenated,) cadeceus (caduceus?)
In the glossary:- a shopkeepers, (a shopkeeper) “the commercial films or South Asia” (of,) “a person who own a lot of land” (owns,) “of which there are an enormous variety” (there is a variety.)

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