Book review: New Skin for the Old Ceremony: A Kirtan, by Arun Sood

This tale of four old friends on a motorbike journey around Skye allows Arun Sood to probe ideas of identity and belonging, writes Roger Cox

As an academic, poet, musician, and now the author of a novel, Arun Sood's work straddles many forms, yet his output is bound together by certain common threads. As a lecturer in English at the University of Plymouth, his research interests include the legacies of colonialism and diasporic identities; meanwhile, his recently-released album, Searching Erskine (described as a collection of "poignantly atmospheric soundscapes" by Scotsman critic Jim Gilchrist) explores "how sound can trigger memories and re-imaginings of the past”.

All of the above – not to mention the author's own Scots-Indian heritage – informs his novel New Skin for the Old Ceremony: A Kirtan. Set in present-day Scotland, it tells the story of four friends who first meet at university in Glasgow in 2008 and then spend an eventful summer together touring India on classic Royal Enfield Bullet motorbikes, forming a lasting bond and sharing a "rare occurrence of collective hope and optimism towards past, future, present".

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A decade or so later, however, things aren't looking quite so optimistic for any of them. Vidushei (Viddy), a journalist turned crofter, has become a single mum after losing her husband; Bobby, an academic, is still feeling fragile following therapy; Whitehall PR Raj, his wife pregnant with their first child, is deeply apprehensive about parenthood; and Drumchapel lad o' pairts Liam is wondering how much longer he can maintain his freewheeling lifestyle. Having reached these various crisis points in their lives, the four friends agree to meet up for another motorbike odyssey, this time around the Isle of Skye. Liam has arranged the bikes, and also helmets rigged with an intercom system, so they can listen to the tunes of their youth together while they ride.

Arun Sood PIC: Robin Christian
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In addition to their camping gear, each of them also carries a certain amount of cultural baggage. Viddy, a descendant of Sri Lankan Tamils who was raised in Scotland, rejects both her parents' religion and their apparently unquestioning affection for their adopted homeland. Raj, the son of an Indian father and a Scottish, Gaelic-speaking mother "didn't speak the native tongue of either parent, let alone know their ancestral songs," and as a result has "always felt dislocated." Bobby is proud of his Doric heritage, but doesn't see it reflected in the prevailing be-kilted, West Coast ideas of Scottish masculinity, while Liam seems forever caught up in the tension between his working class roots and his university education.

Clearly, then, the proposed road trip has the potential to be an emotional tinder box, and so it proves. There's not much in the way of plot on their journey around Skye (although an episode at an ayahuasca retreat is unexpectedly hilarious) but what story there is provides a wonderful opportunity for Sood to probe ideas of identity and belonging – something that, on the whole, he manages with an admirable lightness of touch.

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New Skin for the Old Ceremony: A Kirtan, by Arun Sood, 404 Ink, £9.99

New Skin for the Old Ceremony: A Kirtan, by Arun Sood