Month: December 2018

Book Review– A PLACE FOR US

It had been some time since I cried reading a book. A Place for Us did that for me.

Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel by Hogar Publishers with Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint (her debut as an editorial director too) is a story of an American Muslim (South Asian) family torn between finding their individual selves and their roles within the family that is headed by a strict Muslim father. In a deeply polar American society, it is a family whose characters are in a constant battle with themselves, their family and the world around them to find relevance, liberty and peace and to identify with the same.

A Place for Us begins with the wedding celebration of the eldest daughter Hadia in California. It’s special not just because Rafiq and Layla’s first child us getting married but more so because Amar, the youngest child and only son has come back home to be a part of the celebrations, after three years of having fled. The story would revolve around circumstances that led to Amar’s estrangement with the family, interwoven between memories of the parents—Rafiq and Layla—and their children, Hadia, Huda and Amar, that go back and forth in time.

What I found beautiful about the book was how the story progresses through the point of view of different characters, often repeating the same memory from how different characters saw it and how it affected them in smallest of ways—typical of familial love, limitless and unwavering, and yet envious and rival. Sometimes it might feel like a typical diaspora family, dislocated and misplaced—parents trying to raise their kids on not only strong Muslim (Shia) values but also inherently South Asian ones, i.e. extrinsically motivated, God fearing and society pleasing—and yet it’s also a family that may just be any other South Asian family: native language speaking at home, ‘kasam’ giving, sibling-secret-keeping because the parents would never understand certain stuff, and ritual following: of Ramzans, and Moharrams and Jashans and wedding rasams and walking under the shade of Quran, or tracing Ya Ali on the foreheads of your loved ones.

But that’s just the feel good part of the book. What was heart wrenching, tormenting and yet absolutely relevant for our part of the world is how families are destroyed because of the parents’ ego—of loving but not expressing their love; of having their own set expectations from their children, where kids have to be obedient children, unquestioning Muslims and top performing students who go on to become doctors and engineers and lawyers and businesspeople, nothing less; of never apologizing to their children even in the face of a grave mistake that might lose them their child; of comparing their children with others’, even with their own so that the only recipient of love is the child who is the smartest and most obedient.

So when Amar leaves, a part of Rafiq and Layla’s soul also leaves. But it’s too late to mend ways. Perhaps the saddest thing in the world is to see your child (so let down from the people who gave birth to him) leave you. But it’s dejecting for the child too, to resort to leaving them, for he could not think of a single thing that could revive his relationship with his parents. There is not a single more heart breaking thing than the feeling of not feeling at home with your family.

And so I cried when the family tore apart because of secrets, betrayals, and smallest of estrangements that accumulated and could not be contained any more.  The truly emotional part of the book that actually made me cry was the last part, from Rafiq’s perspective. The feelings of a father—not so overt in expressing his love, who is guilty and yet protective—are written so raw and bare, it’s a pleasant surprise coming from a debut author. As much as this part is emotional and poignant, it leaves a feeling of longing in you, in a way that you would want to mend how each member of the family has been wronged.

Fatima Farheen Mirza has done an amazing job penning down the story of this family spread over decades, which is so interconnected and yet so dissociated from each other in its own way—in children trying to find their own identity, in parents trying to protect their children, loving them while also not expressing it, in understanding them and yet not understanding them enough to save them from themselves.

A Place for Us is a story of perhaps every South Asian middle class family (not just American) that struggles with the idea of expressing their wholehearted love.

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Love Letters to the Dead

Dear Sarah,

September left in a jiffy. Just when I was beginning to get used to its unpredictability, it said its farewell. Remember the humid Septembers, beginning of cold winds? This was one was rainy.

Although morning walks were beautiful—our same old route via little church cottage—but a little too slippery and a little too cold for September.

October is going to be hard. As always. If you were here, you’d keep badgering me to prepare for it. ‘Plan for the rainy days Hadi!’ shaking your head at my procrastination. But then if you were here, I wouldn’t need to prepare.

It’s October the 4th today. 10: 37 pm. It has started to get colder. Just the kind of cold you would love. The chilly windy October when we would go out for a stroll down the hill right after dinner. When the winds would howl and you would laugh with the winds. I always thought it was silly. The winds have begun to howl outside the window starting tonight. I miss your funny laugh.

I’m sorry I couldn’t write. Not that I didn’t get time, but I was avoiding you, in a way. Like you had said. Trying to move on. But sometimes it gets too much.

This Saturday, I began repairing the attic, after year long procrastination. It’s probably not a good time but it had to be done. Last winter the snow came seeping through the broken planks, remember? I had to shift your old books from your grandfather (that you were trying to treasure), to the leather couch in the study. Initially, it was a momentary decision. I thought I’d put them on the shelf in the living room in a few days. But then I let it be, although it was such a mess. We couldn’t sit on the couch all year. But it was probably an act of protest. A part of me didn’t want to shelve the books because that part of me believed that if I left the books long enough, a part of you would probably come back to push me into shelving them. It doesn’t make sense I know. But I was always a little stubborn.

But so were you.

I wasted the whole summer putting it off. I can’t say sorry, I know. I finished The Idiot from your collection, so there’s that. One book this year after more than three years. You should congratulate me for that at least.

Huda has recently learnt to write all the alphabets. The lower foot of the wall by the fireplace in living room is littered with her colorful scrawls. Yesterday she asked me to help her write her name on the wall.

‘H-U-D-A’, she pronounced each syllable, carefully stretching each one of them until she wrote all the four letters with a green crayon. Then she asked the spelling of Baba and wrote it with a blue crayon right beside Huda. She smiled looking at the two words–green and blue, squiggly and scrawny–the same dimply smile of yours that reaches the eyes and said, ‘if I had a mama, we would write her name here,’ pointing to the left of where H-U-D-A was written.

She’s a little work of art.

The little cottage opposite ours with blue wooden door finally has owners. They moved here last month. It’s a middle aged couple, probably in their forties. You would probably argue they are still young and not ‘middle aged’. Although they might be younger. But even thirty-two looks middle aged to me now. They are lovely though. First thing they did, they changed the color of the blue wooden door to bright orange.

Huda sat by the living room window all day watching Nina and Moosa—that’s their names—paint the door. They painted the door seven times, she told me. When we went out for a walk the next day, Huda told Nina that she liked the new color of the door. ‘Just like autumn,’ she said. I saw Nina smile at her for a long time.

Few days later, she brought chocolates for Huda when she was at school. We sat by the steps of our front door. Nina told me about her husband, who works for the government and about their seven year old son who they lost to a seasonal fever. I didn’t know it was still possible. She told me this so conversationally, I was taken aback for a few seconds after I processed it. But then I saw her hands, shaking—just a little, so that only those in suffering could see. I couldn’t say anything to her. Those are the things only you are good at.

But then she did the strangest thing. She took my hand and said, ‘I told you only because you miss her too.’

Does it show in our eyes if we miss people too much? Or love too much? Or lose too much? I’ve been thinking about it lately. I am not ashamed of missing you. What unnerved me was how someone with a similar pain could see your loss so easily—like stripping you naked. What embarrassed me more was not recognizing the sadness in her smile when she looked at another’s child. For days I had thought they loved Huda because they didn’t have their own child. They did have a child. Only he has left. Why am I so self-centered Sarah?

Nina often comes at the library to read. Since Moosa works late till evenings, Nina brings her books here and reads till lunch. She mostly reads poetry. T. S. Eliot and e. e. cummings and Frank O’Hara. You two would have been such good friends. But now she has to tolerate me with my silly fantasy interests.

Sometimes it’s so easy to open up to certain people. It’s like I’ve known her for the longest time. Nina knows everything about you by now. When I showed her your picture, the one in the wheat fields where you’re wearing your straw hat and yellow overalls, laughing against the sun, she smiled and told me she always knew how Sarah would look like, ‘bright and sunny, like the color of a smile.’

I never thought of you in terms of that metaphor. You were so many things to me. But perhaps I’d add that to my list of metaphors for you.

Last weekend, Nina and Moosa invited us for dinner. Huda was awfully excited, since she has never been to a dinner before except at your parents’. She kept asking me what to wear for ‘Nina Aunty’s dinner’. Eventually we decided on a yellow jumper that Nani Ma had gifted her last month. We made a little ponytail too. It turned out pretty fine. To be honest, I didn’t know what to wear either. Dinner mannerisms were always your forte. And it’s been such a long time since I went to a homely dinner. Perhaps the first after you. So I just ended up wearing a black Shalwar Kameez. I wasn’t thinking anything when I wore it. It was just the first thing that came to my mind.

We got them a ‘Home is where Heart is’ art piece.

It was the first time I saw Nina and Moosa together in their home. It was as if I had missed seeing a proper home for a long time. Although I could sense a constant feeling of absence, or lack of presence of something dearly missed, but I could also see so much calm. There was coherence in everything they did, like their minds and movements were aligned. It was overpowering. There was a mysterious understanding you wished you were also a part of. Does living together for so long do that to you? I guess I would never know.

After dinner, we sat in the living room talking about life in general, Huda falling asleep, her head in Nina’s lap. Moosa had turned on the radio lightly in the background and was telling me about the restructuring plan of the town to be carried out this winter (taking advantage of the off-season for tourists), when Bryan Adams’ Everything I Do began playing on the radio. It was in the way he looked at Nina for a second and smiled, not breaking monologue with me all the while, that said everything. As if Huda and I did not exist. It looked like they were the only breathing humans on the planet.

I looked at Nina for reciprocity of his feelings. She was in the moment, smiling, and she was somewhere else with him. It was their song.

For days, their smiles have remained with me. Envy is a powerful feeling. Destructive. I’ve always been wary of it. But that evening I felt a tinge of envy for which I have not been able to forgive myself.

Nina asked me that night to prepare for Huda’s birthday celebrations. ‘It’s not too far away’. I told her we don’t celebrate Huda’s birthday. ‘But this year, we will.’ Moosa said, like it resolved the matter.

Nina knows you left us the same night but she says that I should not punish my own child for it. I know you think the same way. But some things are not so simple.

‘She doesn’t even know she is turning four in two weeks. Kids this age are so excited about their birthdays. Think about her.’ She came to talk about it the next morning in the library. But she doesn’t understand. And neither do you.

How is it that someone decides to take your most beloved possession from you and bestow you with something that comes to be your other most beloved possession? What if you were fine with what you had? That is not to say that I love my child any less. But what is the joy of fatherhood if I can’t share my happiness with you?

I know you’re still skeptical but at least you know how I think. Just a little. Nina didn’t. But then her grief is different here from mine. So I ended up saying yes to Nina’s invitation to Huda’s birthday party. I shall be a guest.

I wish this month would get over soon. I might start shelving the books on the couch in the living room shelf from tomorrow. Anything to distract myself.

I’ll write to you on October 31st. May be Huda can be a little witch on Halloween.

 

Love,

Hadi

Author’s note: Love Letters to the Dead has been published in 9th issue of Confluence Magazine UK, a litersry magazine funded by Arts Council England. It can be found here: https://www.confluencemagazine.co.uk/confluence-issue-9