Wow! What a wonderful debut by Fatima Farheen Mirza! And at such a young age too! Beautiful writing, well-etched characters with a lot of depth and an amazing emotional multi generational family drama. As an Indian American woman and a first generation immigrant raising her kids in a culture that is very different from the culture that she was raised in, I felt that the insights the author provided into each of the characters were right on the mark. This is the primary reason why I liked this book so much. I have my standards set high for Indian American authors so I had my own doubts about Fatima Farheen Mirza when I picked up this book, despite all the rave reviews. She more than lived up to my expectations. She is a master story teller and a talented writer. I am definitely looking forward to more from her in future. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This is a multi generational family saga of an Indian American Muslim family as they struggle to bridge the gap between the conflicting cultures that they are caught in between, trying to pave their own way without fully giving up their roots, every generation moving a bit closer to finding that perfect balance between the two cultures.
Amar is a character that stayed with me. Highly sensitive, strong willed and a free thinker who always questioned everything, even the religious matters that he was not expected to question at all. “‘You have a choice Amar’, Hadia had advised him years ago. ‘All of us are in the same boat, but you are the only one who chooses to thrash about, making unnecessary waves. You can be still. You can go with the flow. That way you’ll save energy to swim when you need to.'”. Yes, Amar could choose to go with the flow. It would be lot more peaceful but he would be compromising his own integrity and he would most likely grow up to be another Rafiq (his father).
The parents, Layla and Rafiq, struggle with Amar because their own upbringing back in India ingrained into them the rigid belief that a child who questions certain things that are not meant to be questioned, a child who is strong-willed and constantly defies his parents, is a disrespectful child who needs to be disciplined more strictly. The father, Rafiq, has a much harder time with Amar than the mother, Layla. He withholds his love from Amar, makes Amar a target of his anger and frustration, expects Amar to comply to his wishes, etc, thus causing a huge rift over the years between Amar and himself.
The final section of the book is a first person account of Rafiq as an old man, looking back at his life and reflecting on his actions. This was the best part of the book for me. It’s touching to see how Rafiq cared a lot for his son and acted the way he acted because he truly believed that he was acting with the best interests of Amar on his mind. In other words, he did his best based upon where he was at any point of time in his own personal journey.
Two other characters that have been portrayed well overall are – Layla, Amar’s mother and Hadia, Amar’s older sister. The silent transformation that Layla undergoes during the course of the story, from a woman who has always obeyed her elders, to a wife and mother who wanted to give her son her best but never dared to speak up against her husband even when she felt that his actions were inappropriate, to a protective and intrusive mother who unknowingly betrays her son’s trust in an attempt to protect him and also to preserve the family honor because honor was more important to her than love, and finally into a woman who stopped caring about what other people think and for once was able to prioritize her son’s needs at her daughter’s wedding, Layla is a strong character in this story.
Hadia, the eldest child in the family, is someone who tried to live up to her father’s expectations all her life. Responsible, thoughtful and compassionate, she was sheltered by her family for most of her life until she earns her entry into Medical college and that turns out to be her ticket to freedom. She carves out her own path and eventually becomes more integrated into the society that she was born into, much more than her parents were ever able to accomplish for themselves. Huda, the second born in the family, is neglected through out the story. There isn’t much about her except that she also, like her elder sister, finds her own path in life and becomes a teacher.
As a parent who is on a similar journey as Rafiq and Layla, there are a lot of valuable insights for me in this book. It was interesting to see how even the most loving and well-intentioned parents can get stuck in their own rigid beliefs and thoughts, thus paying a huge price for it, like Rafiq and Layla. Reading this book reinforced my own belief that unconditional love and acceptance of their children should be the primary goals of any parent, no matter what cultural background they are from, even of it means that they won’t be able to fit into the community that they so desperately want to fit into. It’s not an easy thing to do but definitely the right thing to do.
I would highly recommend this book to any first generation immigrant parent who was raised in a conflicting culture from the Western culture and also to their adult children. I would also recommend this to anyone out there who is willing to expand their horizons a bit by reading books that would give them glimpses into another culture and religion.