So convincing was Suhayl Saadi’s 2004 novel Psychoraag, about a Glaswegian raga-rock radio DJ, that I half expected to meet a swaggering hipster with enormous headphones slung around his neck. But the man who makes his way past the laptop-tapping students to our table looks more like what he is: a neat but casual 48-year-old doctor on his evening off.

It’s also strange to think that he wrote the first Scottish-Asian novel. Given the ethnic mix of the Central Belt, surely there must have been at least one before 2004? But only, apparently, if you include Saadi’s own debut, the erotic novel The Snake, which was published under the pseudonym Melanie Desmoulins and is long out of print.

“I don’t think it’s that surprising,” Saadi reflects, once he has made himself comfortable and ordered an Americano. “It’s the demographic of migration to provincial Britain. The kinds of socio-economic groups that migrated to provincial Britain, as opposed to London, were essentially peasant class. My family were not from that background, as it happens, but it’s obviously going to take time. The old immigrant story is that the first thing they need is a roof over their heads.” Art could wait till later.

Saadi’s background is slightly more complex than that. His father’s father was a shoemaker, but he’s descended on his mother’s side from the royal family of Afghanistan, and has retained a keen awareness of class long after the word has vanished from the vocabulary of politicians – or “since politics has become non-political”, as he puts it. His parents moved from Pakistan to Hull in 1955 and Suhayl was born in Beverley, East Yorkshire, six years later. The family yo-yoed between Scotland and England for some years after that, but the connection with England petered out in the 1980s.

Saadi himself had little interest in the arts until he’d finished his gruelling course in medicine at Glasgow. It was only after he qualified that he started absorbing it like a culturally omnivorous sponge. “In some senses, because I had eschewed all that for a time, I had a hunger for it. I must have known deep down that it would destabilise my whole existence if I allowed it through the door. And that’s what happened, gradually, over a period of years. And then I went to some further education courses at Glasgow University and joined a writers group in Paisley.”

The group was run by Agnes Owens, and helped to unlock and channel Saadi’s talents. Since then he’s been making up for lost time, producing books, stage plays, radio works and essays with such apparent ease that he’s flinging short stories online for people to read for free. Saadi may still be relatively obscure, but he’s caught enough of the right kind of attention. Last year, he was the British Council’s writer in residence at George Washington University in Washington DC, and followed that up with a residency at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi, Pakistan. At home, he set up the Pollokshields Writers Group and has written lyrics for modern classical compositions by the Dunedin Consort and Scottish Opera. Despite his visibility and achievements, he says, “I’m better known among the literati in Pakistan than among the Asian community in Glasgow. It’s a class thing.”

After the pseudonymous false start of The Snake, Saadi issued his first book under his own name in 2001. The Burning Mirror was a collection of short stories which showed that, although he may have been a late starter, he was a natural talent. Psychoraag, however, was the shot across the bows that got people’s attention. Taking place over one night, the novel follows a DJ doing his last all-night radio show, for which he abandons his usual request format and plays music that’s important to him, from Asian Dub Foundation to the old Indian songs loved by his parents’ generation. A linguistically tempestuous interior monologue, Psychoraag is a thrilling read.

Joseph’s Box, though, is the heavyweight contender. Weighing in at 670 pages, it’s a complex, multi-layered work which has been gestating in Saadi’s mind since 2000. It begins with grieving mother Dr Zuleikha MacBeth out walking one morning by the Erskine Bridge and seeing a wooden box being carried off by the tide. With the help of Alex Wolfe, a widower who happens to be walking by, she retrieves it. Inside the box is another box, and another one inside that, and so on. To open them all, and reach the secret at its heart, Zuleikha and Alex have to undergo a spiritual journey which takes them from the shores of the Clyde to Lincolnshire, Sicily, Pakistan and finally the mountains at the roof of the world. Mixed up in all this is one of Zuleikha’s terminally ill patients, Archie MacPherson, a second world war veteran and former shipyard worker, who appears to have strange psychic powers. Before long, the last vestiges of naturalism have given way to deeply symbolic inner landscape, a particularly Caledonian, industrial form of magical realism.

It’s an incredibly dense book. Saadi has researched widely and deeply for this, weaving together philosophy, mythology, history, class, politics, folk memories, psychedelia, Sufism and all kinds of arcane and esoteric knowledge. The major characters are constantly falling into reveries, during which they can see through other people’s eyes and experience what they’re feeling or remembering, as though the characters themselves are merely temporary containers for a fluid sea of consciousness.

Saadi’s style, employing long sentences, an extensive vocabulary and endless digressions, is meant to evoke a symphonic feel, but also to link it to the seeds of the story, one of which is the classical Persian romance of Yusuf and Zuleikha, or Joseph and Potiphar’s wife as they’d be better known in this country.

“The writing is not over-writing,” he explains, “it’s using language in a Persianate manner. Because in languages like Arabic, Persian and Urdu, each word has multiple meanings so every word will be placed in a certain position for a certain reason. Hebrew’s like that as well. Some of what appears to be melodrama is actually a product of those languages infecting the English.”

A big book in so many ways, Joseph’s Box feels almost as though it’s been designed to make an impact on Scottish literature. In fact, that sense of ambition was reminiscent of first encountering, many years ago, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. I ask Saadi, who once called Gray “a Glasgow Green Zoroaster”, if he thinks that would be a fair assessment.

“I think it would,” he says. “I read Lanark in the mid-1990s. I’d read other things, like Calvino, that I think Alasdair Gray was probably influenced by. Lanark as well, which was very interesting. You’re right, in the sense that it looks on Glasgow in a different way, through different lenses or the wrong end of the telescope. It’s fair comment. I was trying to do something qualitatively different, for myself and also in terms of fiction”

For the foreseeable future, Suhayl Saadi will still be working full-time as a doctor, specialising in health in the workplace. He was a GP in Govan for 11 years, and much of his experience there has made it into Joseph’s Box, particularly the scenes involving the dying shipyard worker Archie MacPherson. Much as he loves writing, he doesn’t seem to mind the day job.

“It gives you access, very privileged access, to people of different ages and social classes, birth, death and everything in between. And of course that have been a lot of writers who have been doctors: Chekhov, AJ Cronin, William Carlos Williams. That’s another reality check – the visceral physicality of somebody coughing their lungs up brings you back to Earth in the midst of the metaphysical stuff.”

Joseph’s Box is published by Two Ravens Press, priced £13.99

How a writers’ group inspired Suhayl Saadi

SUHAYL Saadi’s first taste of the life of an author was in the early 1990s, a fertile time for Scottish literature, when he attended a writers’ group in Paisley run by Agnes Owens which had formerly been chaired by Tom Leonard and James Kelman.

“I was very lucky,” he says, “because I had exposure to really good writers. At the time, it was perfect because the stuff that was coming out was kind of fresh. It was a very good time to come out the closet as a writer, because I was exposed to all the voices and the different registers of social classes. Juxtaposed with my interests – which were broader, maybe, than working-class realism – and my life experience, I think it might have been quite a potent mix for creativity.

“In many ways, a sublimated music is what I do – the ability to sing and play music through words. It’s more than just the overt meaning. It’s almost, to quote somebody, rather than what the text means it’s what the text is seeking to do. So in some ways, my writing draws on all of those people, like Kelman and Gray, but in others it’s a reaction against that, and developing it further. It was an unusual trajectory, I think.”

Joseph’s Box comes with a caution: “Warning! This novel breaks all the rules of conventional novel-writing and should not be attempted by the faint-hearted.” What Saadi means is that he hasn’t tried to impose upon his work the kind of tried-and-tested structure that some writing tutors swear by – or “flat-pack novels”, as he calls them.

“There are techniques, but there’s also effective writing and less effective writing, and actually it doesn’t matter what you do so long as it’s effective in the context of the work. The health warning’s on there partly because it’s a long novel and partly because … well, you have to be awake to read it!”

Alasdair Mabbott