The Book Challenge is Pen to Print’s premier competition for authors. Selected entrants are rewarded with a mentorship to help them write and develop a novel over a year-long programme. In 2018, the Book Challenge winner was Juneha Chowdhury with her novel, Passport To Live.
Fifteen-year-old East End girl Deepa has only one wish: for her 16-year-old, beautiful and intelligent sister, Mina, to disappear. Motivated by greed, jealousy and a deep sense of injustice, she employs the help of dim-witted Abdul, her best friend’s brother, to get Mina kidnapped for a few days and teach her a lesson. She hopes that, on her return, Mina will have changed. But when this shady plan goes seriously wrong, and she discovers there may be more to Abdul than meets the eye, Deepa learns a lesson she will never forget.
In this extract, we experience Deepa coming to terms with the gravitas of what has happened. As a young Muslim Londoner, Deepa gives us a unique insight into the pressures and stereotypes put upon her community by non-Muslims, while acknowledging the danger of radicalisation. The themes are deep and thought-provoking, but Juneha tackles them with care, humour and understanding.
Keep on writing!
Dan (Associate Editor)
Passport To Live (novel extract) by Juneha Chowdhury
Over the years, the answer to all of my burning dilemmas has been Google. Whether I was searching for a hundred ways to make myself more attractive or fifty ways to lighten my skin, Google had the answer. One click of a button and it would be there on the screen: my solution. Not just one, but many, hundreds, thousands in fact: lemon juice; bleaching, Vitamin C supplements, even make-up. None of them worked, obviously. But that wasn’t the point. The point was, Google was there. And it made me feel better knowing I had options: knowledge and power, and all that. It was nice to rule out one option after another until I got to the option that fit. The option that made sense.
But not any more.
Google was gone.
Robocop had already asked to see my laptop to make a list of what was hiding in the search history: How to Do Algebra for Dummies; The Great Battle of Hastings and How to Make a Victoria Sponge Sandwich. I could imagine his disappointed face. It wasn’t exactly incriminating evidence. The worst he could find were downloads of chart-busting hits with some hardcore lyrics. Not quite enough to condemn me, though Mum and Dad would seriously disagree.
But I feared his expertise.
Robocop could do anything.
He even knew how to get the deleted stuff back. The Robot was that clever.
How I never once Googled how to get rid of my sister, I don’t know; even though I had thought of doing just that many times. It was probably beyond his understanding as well, seeing how hell-bent he was on digging up stinking dirt on me to prove I was the culprit behind Mina’s disappearance.
Imagine if I had Googled that? I would have found myself stuck in another shit hole even bigger than the one I was in now.
I bet Robocop had no idea what he was actually putting me through by implying to my already paranoid parents that I might somehow be the brains behind Mina going missing. As if they needed another reason to suspect me.
It was funny really, Mum and Dad thinking Dippy might actually have a brain. But the actual truth was far from funny. And it was getting more serious as the hours turned into days, and there was still no sign of Mina.
But what was the truth? How could I possibly know that? I could only be sure if I knew Abdul was definitely a terrorist.
But how would I know that, if I didn’t know what to look for in a terrorist?
And like I said, Googling was no longer an option.
I imagined Robocop retrieving my Google history and finding the question ‘what to look for in a terrorist’ or ‘how you become a terrorist’. He would no doubt be banging our front door down to blab to Mum and Dad, this time with absolute certainty that Deepa Chowdhury is a major suspect in the Missing Mina Chowdhury case. What else could her Google search possibly mean?
How about it meant, I honestly did not have any idea that Abdul Jamal could be a terrorist? How about, I’m still trying to figure out if he actually is?
How about, I wanted to know if my most precious sister could have been brainwashed to a point that she’s barely recognisable?
How about I just needed to know?
I needed to know because I needed to separate the good from the bad; the bad from the downright dangerous?
Which one was Abdul?
And while we’re about it, which one was Mina?
I’ve called Mina a terrorist before, because of how she made me feel: terrorised in my own home. But what about a real terrorist, could she be one? Is she one? Surely not. My sister was a fake. No doubt about that. But that’s what all terrorists are aren’t they? Pretending to be one thing and proving themselves another.
What was Mina really about? Was she potential jihadi bride or suicide bomber material? How could I know? How could I possibly know without anything concrete to go on?
How could I know?
Without Google, I had only the words of Robocop, and I couldn’t rely on him because, half the time, what he said made crap all sense to me.
On the surface, Mina was young, beautiful, intelligent and, most importantly, a covered Muslim. She wore the magic cloak. Robocop said she fit the profile of a female terrorist to a tee. He said she would have most definitely fallen into the most typical and vulnerable category of young female Muslim recruits: women aged between the ages fifteen and thirty-five. But if Mina fit the profile, according to Robocop, so would half the girls and women in East London. And ninety percent of my school.
What was he trying to say, that they’re all potential suspects in any terror-related investigation?
All of them?
Like crap they are.
But there was something else that was bothering me, something he said about the root cause. Not the surface reality but the one that lay deep down. Robocop said terrorists had issues. It sounds stupid really. Of course they had issues. But it was the types of issues Robocop was talking about that connected with my understanding of Mina that worried me.
Mina had issues: issues to do with feeling free; issues to do with liberation, to do with authority and wanting to be in control; issues that could easily be exploited in the hands of a radical extremist. And that’s the bit that scared me: my sister’s grievances exploited by some off-the-wall nutter.
Was that what Abdul was? A nutter?
Would Abdul fit Robocop’s definition of a typical male terrorist: a young bearded Muslim man with a backpack he didn’t even own. That was Abdul. But was that a terrorist? If I stood outside any university in East London and used that reasoning, I would find enough terrorists to fill at least a hundred police vans. But although that wasn’t a fair description either, I had to admit, Abdul had bare issues.
Perhaps, a whole backpack full of them.
So, could I really be sure he wasn’t a terrorist?
Abdul’s image flashed in front of me. I imagined placing it on a dartboard and hitting it right at the centre. Every time. I do it—in my head—just that. But I miss. I try again. I miss again. A third time. Bullseye. I hit his heart, right at the core. Is that a good thing? It’s still not clear. He’s dead, that’s for sure.
That’s a good thing.
I was still no closer to discovering his secret? What was he hiding? What was in that head of Abdul Jamal’s? Was it really scenes of mass destruction?
Was he? Wasn’t he? That was still the question; the question making me mad.
Who said there were only two groups anyway, ones that fit the profiles and ones that don’t? What about the ones in between; the contradictions—a whole army of contradictions?
Where would I place Abdul, or Mina even?
I had no idea.
Was he? Wasn’t he?
Whatever the answer was, I knew one thing for sure: our lives, our fates were inseparable: me, Abdul and Mina: a solid triangle.
I didn’t need Google to tell me that.
Still struggling to accept my sister could have been radicalised, I scanned every recent memory of Mina, searching for a clue I might have missed.
Two moments in particular leapt into my mind. The first was when she was shooting her mouth off in the playground about Mrs Collins, the supply teacher.
“You won’t believe what Mrs Collins just said to me, Deeps,” she said, ‘”I know the hijab is supposed to cover your hair cos that’s so tempting to the male eye, but what are you really hiding, Mina?'”
She gave me no chance to respond, so I just allowed her to let off steam.
“That’s bare out of order, Deeps, everyone was laughing!” she said. “That’s prejudice you know, she’s probably seen programmes about Muslims with secret double lives and was picking on me in class. Or did she call me the T-word and I was so thick I didn’t even realise?”
I tried to put her straight. “The ‘T’ word, Mina? I don’t think—”
But she continued ranting. “You just watch, Deeps, I’m gonna get her into shit with Mr Slater! We need a better-looking face around here anyway,” she said.
It had nothing to do with prejudice, I thought, but more to do with the conflicting signals she let off, when she pranced around bareheaded one minute and all covered up the next.
I imagined saying that to her and her asking, whose side are you on, Deeps?
My response: you’re asking a dippy girl a very difficult question.
The second was when she watched some presenter on the TV talking about the rise in Islamophobia after a recent terrorist attack. He asked Muslims to unite, so we can weed out the root of the problem.
Mina was furious. “Why Deeps? What’s all this ‘Muslims’ should come out and come together with ‘people of other faiths’, as if we’re all living underground.”
I tried to explain he did not mean in that way, but she bit my head off. “Of course, he did,” she said, “It’s nothing to do with being oversensitive, Deeps, why do we have to account for the actions of a group of sickos? Cos I’m a Muslim? Pfft.”
Then Mina put a hand to my face and pretended to talk to the man on the TV that had just irritated the crap out of her. “Speak to the hand, you idiot, Cos that shit ain’t in my name.”
And I wondered if that same girl would now say, of course, it was in my name, every fight is in my name cos there are no divisions between Muslims. We’re all one. And guess what? I’m joining the fight.
Robocop said it was not that the radicalised actually believed the ideology. Those that didn’t, had other reasons for joining, like finding inner peace and gaining redemption, he said. Mina was not at war with herself, I knew that much, and sorry was not in my sister’s DNA. I thought I knew that too. But what if I was wrong?
I had to admit, Mina had a filter, especially when it came to Mum and Dad. There were things only Mina knew and she kept bolted inside.
Every day, Mum was searching for Mina in the few clothes she had in her possession, in her pictures, and in her candy-covered memories. But where was she? Who was she? Did anyone really know?
I could see Mum reacting to the headlines circulating inside her head because of what Robocop was telling her about Mina.
MY DAUGHTER THE ISIS POSTER GIRL? HELL, NO!
I GAVE BIRTH TO A MONSTER. NEVER!
MY MINA: THE DEVIL I DID NOT KNOW. IMPOSSIBLE!
Robocop had evidence for every one of those headlines to be true. That was the scary bit. In our world stinking of lies, how could we seek about the truth about Mina? Our Mina. And when we thought we found it, how could we actually be sure it was the truth; that there was no other side?
There was something Mina kept from everyone.
The more I thought about it, the more I echoed Mrs Collins question, what are you hiding Mina? I mean, what are you really hiding?
(C) Juneha Chowdhury, 2018-20
Juneha is the 2018 Pen to Print Book Challenge competition winner and she is a regular contributor to Write On! You can follow Juneha via her Twitter handle: @junehachowdhury.
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