This autobiography is as interesting for its behind-the-scenes account of the political developments in the history of modern Pakistan as for the persThis autobiography is as interesting for its behind-the-scenes account of the political developments in the history of modern Pakistan as for the personal story of a battered woman in an abusive marriage. Of course the two narrative threads are inextricably linked, as Tehmina Durrani discovers by the book's end: Her husband is a master manipulator of susceptible women's emotions, as well as a power-seeking schemer who's willing to make deals with the enemy, as long as that will further his political ambitions. The book is well-written and well-edited, on the whole. The story progresses naturally and without over-explication or too much introspection. Sometimes though I wish I knew more about Tehmina's background. She came from a privileged elite family of Pakistan, and her upbringing differs greatly from the average Pakistani girl - summer holidays in her family villa in Marbella included. At one point it is stated she attended a Catholic school for girls, but we don't get any information about the kind of education she received there, and how that may have shaped her, positively or negatively. Towards the end of the book she says "I returned to painting" but it's actually the first time we read of her hobby. And when she meets the intellectual circles of Pakistan through the friendship with a female journalist, she mentions her interest in Freud and psychology, but again this is the first we hear of her intellectual pursuits. It's only when her husband is in prison and she must take an active role in politics that she begins to have opinions of her own that she is able to realize she has brains and therefore power of her own - at least that's how her narrative reads. Regarding her dysfunctional relationship with her husband and her inability to temper his rage, or to break free from it, it seems to me that her family is more at fault, than her own personal shortcomings. She struggles to do her best to uphold the ideals her family and her culture value, at a heavy cost to her own well-being, but time and time again she is betrayed by her closest kin, especially her younger sister and her mother. Her faith in her family is repeatedly shattered and yet she still can't see that they're her captor's willing accomplices. Paradoxically - and yet it makes perfect Freudian sense - it's only when her own father betrays the traditional morals, and the family's facade of propriety, in taking a second wife and finally doing his own thing, that she is able to make that final and definite emancipation. If her weak-willed father could do it, then so could she. It's a pity then, that her father disowns her for this, when the two of them are so much alike in temperament.
The epilogue, which includes developments in Tehmina's story following the first publication of her book and the response by Pakistani society and her family, is not too encouraging. Also, it doesn't mention that she eventually re-married, again to a politician from a family with feudal power and standing. I wonder if she did this out of social expediency (a guarantee of protection from her ex-husband and the violence the Khar clan continue to indulge in with impunity) or because she still cannot resist men with prestige and influence. One bright note is the case of her step-daughter's modeling and acting career that is keeping the spotlight on the issue of patriarchal excesses. ...more
The Reluctant Mullah is a well-written first novel, with fully-fleshed characters and dialogue that flows naturally, especially during the comedic parThe Reluctant Mullah is a well-written first novel, with fully-fleshed characters and dialogue that flows naturally, especially during the comedic parts (incidentally I was reminded sometimes of the excellent film East is East with Jimmy Mistri & Om Puri). The tone of the story is evenly balanced between comedy, romance, and a not-boring-or-complex discourse on Islam. I'm not a religious person, and I don't care to read books, especially fiction, where scripture is quoted throughout the work. Passages from the Koran do appear frequently in this novel; after all, the protagonist is a mullah in training. Don't allow that to turn you away from this book. I've spent a good chunk of my life in the Middle East where political strife goes hand in hand with religious differences; the end result is that I am more familiar with what's involved in being a Druze, Copt, Alawite, Sunni, Shiite etc. than I care for. My impression is that this book covers the traditions and teachings of the faith in a clear and straightforward manner for the layperson; these passages are skillfully integrated into the narrative, without weighing down the flow of the story. I may be biased in this. In any case, I was not confused, or bored, by the discussions on Muslim dogma versus contemporary mores in Britain. There is a sprinkling of bleepable language, and plenty of light satire and spontaneous humor, to balance it out. The author involves a Confucius-like character, a Gandhi figure, and also a Christian priest into the story, to even out the religious rhetoric, as well as to set up several funny scenes and to offer some witty dialogue. An ever-growing number of British novels deal with the issues of being Muslim/Hindu in contemporary Britain, some of which I've read (and reviewed on GR). The Reluctant Mullah offers a fresh, entertaining as well as intelligent take on these conflicts and considerations....more
I actually enjoyed reading it, and I would recommend it to others. But it failed to 'wow' me.... For some reason the plot seemed a tad too obvious. II actually enjoyed reading it, and I would recommend it to others. But it failed to 'wow' me.... For some reason the plot seemed a tad too obvious. I could tell more or less what was going to happen, in which direction the scenes were developing. So I was reading at two levels, one to read the plot, and another to sense/study the words on the page. That second aspect however wasn't taking me anywhere. I expected to be engaged by the narrative exposition – looking forward to discover irony, double meanings, etc. - the kind of elements I had previously admired in Shamsie's novel Broken Verses. Somehow the story and the telling of it felt as if the novel lacked much of that. I had the distinct impression the novel was written with a film adaptation in mind. “The English Patient” I thought on a number of times. Eventually I came to the final section’s title; it validated my impression. Without saying it's necessarily a bad thing, there were also moments when works by other writers came to mind (Nicole Krauss The History of Love, Stephanie Kallos Broken for You, Marina Lewicka We Are All Made of Glue, Andre Dubus III The House of Sand and Fog). I'm not saying that Shamsie is emulating any of these works, it's just that her novel didn't seem distinctively unique from these other works with similar themes. If Burnt Shadows is derivative of any particular story, Vikram Seth's Two Lives (a biography of his Indian uncle who married a German woman in England after WWII) may have been a major source: Hiroko's stoic quietude is an apt homage to V. Seth's German "Aunty." And for Raza Hazara's character, I would venture to guess the tragic& complex story of Carlos Mavroleon may have been an inspiration.
The story should have gotten under my skin, but it didn’t. Why not? It's not that I sensed the plot elements lacked credibility, or that these characters' coming together, drawing apart, only to be united again, seemed too farfetched to bear a resemblance to reality. Far from it, it mirrored my own family’s photo album (WWII, post-Partition Karachi, the Suez, a cemetary in Korea, etc.) and I had no problem with all these seemingly disparate elements coming together in a six-degrees of separation kind of way. Nearing the final page of the book, I tried to find the root of my lack of excitement over this novel. One thing that bothered me is the “young” generation's (Kim's and Raza's) lack of a coherent political conscience. At this point I felt the characters lacked a substantial dimension; they became pawns in the storyboard the author was setting up for the final climactic scene. Despite the complexity of their heritage and their "inside" knowledge of history's details, they come off as somewhat naive (in an insular sort of way, which they clearly weren't) and that did not convince me, given their background. More than anything, the last 40-50 pages of the book (the New York section) are the most "screenplayish" of all. It's all about plot; there is nothing of the carefully crafted dialogue and scenic descriptions of the first part of the book (the Nagasaki and Dilli sections). Another thing I felt cheated by is that we are told time and time again that Hiroko and Raza are fascinated by language, yet that is not reflected into the work itself. Having read Shamsie's Broken Verses, where the literary element is an integral feature of the story, I expected to find that kind of meta-fictional play at work here, too, but it is missing. ...more
A well-written and balanced novel, masterfully incorporating historical facts with fictional suspense and strong doses of social and political satire.A well-written and balanced novel, masterfully incorporating historical facts with fictional suspense and strong doses of social and political satire. The story is topical, revealing the unique psyche of modern Pakistan caught as it is in the web of war between the world’s two superpowers, while at the same time relying on the universal (I am tempted to say "Biblical"!) themes of a revenge (by the son for his father's wrongful death) & parricide (the plotting generals are Zia's figurative sons). There is always a risk when combining first person with third person narration, but here in this novel the alternating voices from chapter to chapter work well, without conflict. Ironically, it's the third-person voice that provides insight into the intimate (fictional?) aspects General Zia's private life, his obsessions and weaknesses, while the first person voice of Ali Shigri is a guarded one, if not unreliable altogether. We soon figure out that Ali Shigri is not divulging the whole truth as he could. Details (about his father's legacy, his relationship with his military mate Obaid, and of his intentions regarding that fateful day) are provided only gradually, as elements of the picture - the one Shigri is describing at the opening and the ending of the novel - are gradually pieced together to form a whole. Definitely there is a narrative build-up leading to the climax, even though readers are aware of the plot’s outcome (what happens to General Zia is known from the onset). The author could have enriched the book with a plethora of factual minutiae regarding the historical background - how Zia's wielded absolute rule over his people, the shady funding of the mujahedin by US interests, etc. Opting for the indirect approach over exacting documentation is what makes the political satire more potent, and enjoyable to read. The absurdities - factual though they may be - are depicted for their humorous rather than their sinister side....more
I am filing this novel with a host of other readable, but ultimately forgettable, "light fiction by women writers covering the EastmeetsWest theme" -I am filing this novel with a host of other readable, but ultimately forgettable, "light fiction by women writers covering the EastmeetsWest theme" - Chitra Divakaruni, Preethi Nair, Roopa Farooki, Nikita Lalwani* (all reviewed here on my bookshelf).
Although momentous historical events (Partition, 9/11) & complex cultural/religious issues feature in The Writing on My Forehead, the treatment is too "light" to bear any substantial commentary on these complex socio-political issues. The book has the feel of a cut-and-paste formula, with the characters displaying, more so than not, by now familiar (at least to me) characters & storylines that I have already encountered in the works of the women writers listed above.
One exception is the theme of storytelling, especially of narrative elision, that figures prominently in The Writing on My Forehead. Saira's life story is inextricably dependent on the fact that she grows up unaware of the complete story of both her mother's and her father's families. Her resolve to do what she wants in life, contrary to tradition and expectation, is fueled by the revelation that both her parents conceal crucialed details of their respective family histories.
Ironically, I feel that narrative omission is what weakens the novel. Eventually we learn that Saira herself is guilty of the same deed - she conceals crucial facts about herself from her family, too. It's not that elision I'm referring to.
The period of Saira's life as a journalist is markedly absent from the plot. It's just a background detail merely referenced to, and yet it's supposed to figure prominently in her motivations and her decisions. The story focuses on the whys and wherefores of her return to her family & cultural/social/religious roots, following those educational & edifying experiences. The narrated timeline skips that part of her life altogether. She comes back to her roots when she realizes that's what matters to her most, after traveling round the world. But we are told only of her rebellion and then her return, we don't have the opportunity to know what/why/how transpired in the meantime, what life experiences (besides the romance) she ratcheted up. And this for me is what accounts for the lack of multidimensionality in Saira's character. In the end, Saira's concluding revelations are a bit too sensational & formulaic for my taste, even though they were unforeseeable.
* I recommend - Kamila Shamsie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharati Mukherjee....more
I wasn't too impressed by this book, compared to (un)arranged marriage.
I was distracted by the shift in voice between the segments - SiA quick read!
I wasn't too impressed by this book, compared to (un)arranged marriage.
I was distracted by the shift in voice between the segments - Simran and David in the first person, but the cousins's and the grandfather's passages in the third. I can't help feeling there's a lack of balance, or at least a lack of focus, because of this.
I feel that the oversimplification of the 'other' side, detracts from the complexity of the issue. It's easy to perceive the cousins & uncles as types rather than characters, representing only hatred and agressive behavior, without explaining the whys and wherefores of this phenomenon.
In the end it's not clearly explained how the uncles & cousins are intolerant while Simran's father & brother aren't.
How can this be, given the understanding nature of the grandfather? I can interpret the cousins, whose actions are guided by the Desi Posse code, (for more on this, see Gautam Malkani's Londonstani), but the matter of the uncles remains undeciphered, given the concluding revelation of the grandfather's personality.
**spoiler alert** On my first reading of this novel, I thought there was something offbalance (as with Salman Rushdie’s Fury), that this novel suffere**spoiler alert** On my first reading of this novel, I thought there was something offbalance (as with Salman Rushdie’s Fury), that this novel suffered from a shaky narrative structure, with regards to point of view. Since the story is so one-sided, I felt it could have been condensed into a short story; at times it just seemed drawn out for too long. After all, can all of this be recited within the duration of a meal at a restaurant and the ensuing walk back to the mysterious American’s hotel? I too was a young non-American brought to serve the great educational system of that nation, under the guise of a ‘generous’ scholarship package. I’m very grateful for the opportunity, but like the fictional Changez, I could not avoid feeling that "they" were getting a lot more out of me than they were willing to receive/learn from my own cultural wealth. Not only was I excelling at the academic field I was studying, I was simultaneously attuned to the minutiae of contemporary American popular culture. Meanwhile, though, my colleagues could barely pinpoint my country on the map; they also did not care to learn this information, even if for appearance’s sake. One couldn’t help feeling the exchange as being indeed one-sided. So it was easy for me to get into Changez’ skin. However, I still feel that the mysterious American should have been given an opportunity to speak up more than he does; "that" side of the ideological argument isn't that deeply portrayed. Anyway, on a second reading I was able to catch some of the subtleties in Mohsin Hamid’s novel. Besides the play on the character names, there are also numerous direct and indirect metaphorical references to Star Wars as well as the crusades, adding layers of meaning to the novel’s theme. And of course the choice of Flight 417 out of all Tintin titles is no random coincidence either. Another thing I was able to appreciate better on the second reading is the variation in tone between the old and the reformed Changez. When he recounts the past he speaks with the easygoing diction characteristic of American prose. When he is in the Lahori present, his speech bears the idiosyncrasies of post-colonial English. ...more
**spoiler alert** I liked the fresh and in-your-face narrative style in the opening to Roopa Farooki's Bitter Sweets. I also appreciated the witty cha**spoiler alert** I liked the fresh and in-your-face narrative style in the opening to Roopa Farooki's Bitter Sweets. I also appreciated the witty chapter titles, even though they often gave away the plot's direction. Halfway through, as the narration switched to the character's present, the novel became formulaic, almost a soap opera. Of course that's because the themes of lying & dissembling & hidden truths are vital elements to the enduring suspense of TV family dramas. There are moments when Farooki attempts to take the story to another level, with references to theater (Racine's Andromaque, Shakespeare) and philosophical/linguistic concepts (the dual mind involved in self-deception, nature versus nurture) but these ideas are simply alluded to -for the benefit of the reader's futher reflection- rather than investigated thematically within the novel itself. Another half-delivered element is the voice narrated by Sharif. His first-person segments are insightful, and have thematic potential. I hoped that something would come of that, but his pieces didn't evolve further. I was eventually disappointed with the All's Well that Ends Well non-confrontational conclusion, because it's never just so in real life. ...more
I liked the organization of the memoir, titled by theme, and then the age & dates at the bottom of each page as a quick reference.
Some remarks ---I liked the organization of the memoir, titled by theme, and then the age & dates at the bottom of each page as a quick reference.
Some remarks --->
1. The young boy interprets the aggressive racist behavior as inevitable even though it greaty angers him personally. It's true that kids can be bullied and harrassed at school, regardless of their background, and part of growing up is learning to deal with it. The young Imran though witnesses his own mother at the edge of a nervous breakdown because of similar behaviour by the adult segment of society, and that’s what is/was the root of the problem. The facts about his mother are but briefly mentioned; I wanted to know more, especially whether Imran’s parents do eventually come to feel 'at home' after all these years in Britain.
2. I thought it was very poignant that the narrator's only reference for learning to be a adult male is via larger-than-life t.v. & film characters. It's funny to see how his infatuation with his English teacher never evolves; it is merely transposed onto another female (his fellow college student). And the exasperation at the girl choosing an 'immature' boyfriend rather than a proper guy is right on the mark! I spent some time thinking about this. It’s obvious to the reader that appropriate role models are lacking within the Pakistani familial & social environment, making it difficult for Imran to learn how to socialize 'normally' with the other sex. Or maybe it was simply that he was the eldest, and lacked an older brother that he could mimic and/or be advised by. Or even worse, that no socializing is meant to take place btwn young people of the opposite sex before marriage. It also seems as if within Pakistani culture the concept of 'teenage years' is absent; one apparently goes straight from childhood into adulthood, and there is no period where goofing off & experimenting with one's roles & identity is taken for granted.
3. The theological debate: I found it all rather funny, mainly because of its futility. FYI, I grew up in an exact reverse situation: as a European child & teen living in several Middle Eastern countries, so that many memories of my own that parallel the author's. I remember at age 4 or thereabouts, in Damascus, coming home one day after playing with the neighborhood kids, eager to show my mother I'd learned something important. I took two bath towels, laid one down, covered my head with the other, knelt and lowered my head to the ground, and like Imran, mumbled gibberish Arabic prayers. My mother had a fit, but I so much wanted to do the proper thing! Fortunately my father raised us agnostic, and I was spared the internal turmoil of trying to figure out the whys and wherefores of religious faith vis a vis credibility (or, as Imran calls it, 'the scientific aspect' of Islam). Despite my personal lack of interest in the subject, the matter of religious background remained a barrier, especially during my university years. The student population was a diverse one; however the underlying understanding was such that men & women of different faiths stuck to their own kind. Of course, being in a minority, it was only natural that I'd be attracted to the 'other' kind, for both practical and personal reasons... being a non-believer was more often than not a worse thing to be than a person of a different faith....more
The Dard-e-Dil family saga, the stories and the secrets, told by the young Aliya is the means by which she attempts to find the rhyme and reason of heThe Dard-e-Dil family saga, the stories and the secrets, told by the young Aliya is the means by which she attempts to find the rhyme and reason of her attraction to the 'wrong' type of guy, a fellow Paksitani unfortunate to have been born on the opposite side of the tracks as herself. Discovering the truth behind the unmentionable, the fate of her starred not-quite-twin will, she believes, lead her to the right choices she needs to make. It sounds just like any other tearjerker love story, but it's smartly told, with tongue in cheek humor and deft wordplay along the way. But it's not all meta-narrative, the story is well-grounded on several themes, eg, the personal tragedies caused by the Partition. I wish though that the frequent references to exotic foods (especially the title) would have been less prominent, as it brings to mind the sappy magical realism of Laura Esquivel. ...more
A well-written, balanced book. I enjoyed reading it, not so much for the political-thriller suspense, as for the way that Shamsie masterfully writes hA well-written, balanced book. I enjoyed reading it, not so much for the political-thriller suspense, as for the way that Shamsie masterfully writes her protagonist's first person narrative. I was pulled into Aasmani's story, her complex character, her authentic voice, and the credibility of her emotional conflicts.
Another aspect that I liked is that Shamsie is unashamedly depicting the Pakistani educated/sophisticated/privileged class she is familiar with, rather than pandering to Anglo readers' expectations for something folkloric or epically historical. The story is set in the present day, and the extensive references to the politico-historical background of the country in which it is set is merely that, a referential background to the characters' personal & familial conflicts, which are ultimately the driving force of the story. (And for my own personal reasons I was *charmed* by the Wizard of Oz references....)...more