Lascar is the compelling story of how a man’s love for his brother and desire to emulate his father as a ‘Lascar’ (the name given by the Europeans to describe the non-European sailors) takes him on a journey from Bengal to Victorian England where he endures extreme hardship, hunger, loss of love and friendships, and terrible prejudice. Yet, he displays a tremendous strength of character in the face of adversity. As the title of the book suggests, the reader follows the story of a Lascar providing fascinating glimpses with historical references of what life would have been like in Victorian England for a man from the East.
The book begins with Ayan’s dream of being trapped on a ship where he has confusing visions of meeting a man who appears to be his father. These recurring dreams highlight his yearning to be like his father who had drowned at sea leaving behind two sons, Ayan and Kazi, to reside in an orphanage. Kazi, pronounced ‘the special one’ in the orphanage by a doctor, becomes the centre of attention due to his captivating stories about his family. The boys eventually escape the orphanage pursuing dreams of a better life. Both men become merchants of betel nuts and rice. However, Kazi’s consumption of the betel nuts and Ayan’s growing good looks and resemblance to his late father lead to the increasingly overweight Kazi being ignored and mocked by the female buyers. Kazi, having never been side-lined before, drives himself to ill health and self-neglect due to his addiction to betel nuts. Eventually, Ayan’s desire to help his brother and the arrival of their female cousins Mirvat and Faiza motivate Ayan to pursue his dream of becoming a Lascar.
Unfortunately, life as a Lascar proves to be incredibly difficult due to the inhumane treatment of the “darkies” by the owners of the ship. Despite Ayan’s inner struggle with his faith, he remains steadfast in his belief and eventually decides to abandon ship and escape into the streets of London where he faces many new challenges stemming from prejudice and poverty.
Shahida Rahman did an excellent job researching and writing about the life of a Lascar from Eastern India and the difficulties he faces in the slums of London. I would definitely recommend reading the book as it captivates from start to finish. In addition, Rahman’s richly woven tale is hard to put down and is a piece of historical fiction on a theme that has never been written about before. The book provided me with fascinating insight into what life would have been like for someone of my Asian background in Victorian England. I found this an eye-opening account which is well worth a read!
Enjoy an excerpt of ‘Lascar’ in our Voices section here.
Aliza Qureshi is a secondary school English teacher and mother of three: two cheeky boys and a scrumptious new born little girl. She enjoys reading a good book at every opportunity.