True to its title, Losing Touch is a story of alienation in all its forms: from society, family, and even one’s own body. It tracks the lives of Arjun and Sunila, two Indian immigrants living in Hayes, England, and their two children, Murad and Tarani. The novel takes place over the course of more than two decades and the chronological expanse—as well as the scant dialogue—underscores this pervading sense of distance and isolation.
Sunila and Arjun struggle with a sense of alienation from their English surroundings even after twelve years of immigrant life in Hayes. In a poignant vignette illustrating Sunila’s alienation from her English coworkers, Hunter writes, “How earnestly [Sunila] has embraced the culture that rejects her. They have lived in Hayes, North London for twelve years and she longs for the acceptance held out of reach.” When her colleagues ask if she “still speaks Indian,” she explains that she grew up speaking English. To her dismay, her coworkers respond with a mixture of surprise and bemusement. “How funny,” they remark, “just like us,” a comment that only further entrenches Sunila’s role as “other.” Her hopes of a better life are dashed by her failure to assimilate and Sunila feels that “she had arrived in heaven but had been dumped in the wrong part.” Estranged from both her Indian homeland and her new home in London, Sunila is stuck in a disconcerting limbo. Arjun feels similarly uneasy in his role as a first generation immigrant. He is jealous of the ease with which Murad navigates England as a second generation immigrant. He longs that he too could be able to “go here, go there, without thinking that others are watching and judging whether you were being too Indian.”
Sadly, Sunila and Arjun find no relief from alienation at home. Instead, their sense of isolation is compounded by their crumbling marriage. Communication between the couple disintegrates as Sunila considers expressing concern over Arjun’s loss of motor control but stops herself when she remembers that “he doesn’t want to hear about this, or anything else she has to say.” On the rare occasions that they do communicate, it is through shouts and physical blows.
Losing Touch takes place over the course of nearly thirty years and it is in light of Arjun’s degenerative neural disease that the inexorable passage of time is particularly devastating. As Arjun loses the ability to move his own body, he grows increasingly estranged not only from his family—including his new grandson whom he longs to hug but cannot—but also from himself. When he first loses control of his leg, he wonders, “How does a living part of the body become a stranger, behave so differently without the rest of the body’s consent?” This unsettling feeling of estrangement from his own body worsens with his degenerative disease. Chapter titles such as “Weakness and Wasting of the Voluntary Muscles” and “The Ability to Walk Independently” serve as chilling reminders of the bodily autonomy Arjun is being gradually and cruelly robbed of. By the end of the novel, Arjun has lost touch with it all—from his country and family, down to his own hands and feet.
While Hunter’s novel focuses on alienation as its central theme, the reader is by no means alienated from the story. We are given glimpses into Sunila and Arjun’s perspectives and are able to connect to both even while the two remain estranged from one another. The pains of failed assimilation, a crumbling marriage, and a degenerating body are all shared by the reader. The communication between writer and reader offsets the crippling silence between the characters, suggesting storytelling as a means of combating modern alienation and staying in touch.
Sandra Hunter is a prolific short-story writer. She has won the Arthur Edelstein Prize for Short Fiction, and been a finalist for numerous short-story prizes, including the Pushcart. Born and brought up in England, she now teaches at Moorpark College, California. Losing Touch is her first novel.