This is not a true “review” but a collection of thoughts on the book by Samina Ali. It took me a long while to read it, weighed down as I have been by academic and then parenting work, but once I started it, I definitely couldn’t put it down.
At first, it was annoying. I thought it used Orientalist imagery, and had a very binary approach to India-vs the West. But now that I’ve finished it, I find that the imagery is processed by the protagonist, Layla, whose perspective on “India”- in comparison to “America” -develops and changes and is complicated. The characterization, which at first struck me as flat, emerged as much better in the final analysis. Amme, Sameer, Dad, Naveed, the uncles and aunts -even Zeba — all are very human. Their flaws and their participation in oppression are not whitewashed, but they are three dimensional.
Samina Ali provides a painfully vivid account of religious attacks (gangs, rape and murder) upon Muslims in India. Her vision is critical, but not dogmatically secular or anti-religious, though she raises serious existential questions.
One major flaw in her writing is the transliteration and translation of Hindi/Urdu. At first it irritated me no end. Eventually, as I wept over the last few pages, I decided to forgive her for “manjalises” and “kat kamat is salah” (and its incorrect translation) and a myriad other atrocious attempts at transliteration. Seriously, next time, let me do it for you, for free, just so I can enjoy the book without my skin crawling. This is an issue with many White writers on other cultures, but Ali should have had access to better transliteration.
And next time, I would like Ali to please skip the servants’ attempt at English. Why do we have to pretend the servants speak English? Is this an attempt to prepare the book for a movie? There are always subtitles, you know. “You no worry-worry” and “he no show you he-self” are just aesthetically jarring. I was too distracted by that to focus on Nafiza’s (which, I’m guessing, is Nafisa) character.
Perhaps I forgive Ali for these things because Henna’s misery was too real. Still the ending is rather abrupt, given the lingering, dragging nature of the rest of the book, and a whole lot of action occurs rather suddenly at the end.