Cover Imsge of the book, 'Radiant Fugitives' by Nawaaz Ahmed. (By Arrangement)
Three Muslim women, a mother and her two daughters, one of whom is estranged from the family, get together in San Francisco after a gap of a decade and a half. Seema, based in San Francisco, is pregnant, and due to deliver soon: the approaching birth of her child is an event special enough to drag her terminally ill mother, Nafeesa, all the way from Chennai to America, against her husband’s express wishes. Tahera, Seema’s younger sister, settled in the US, leaves her husband and two children to fend for themselves for a week to be with her mother and sister.
Seema’s estrangement arises from her sexual orientation: she is homosexual, and when she comes out in the open after doing her master’s in England, it’s more than her poetry-loving but devout and authoritarian father can stand. He hasn’t spoken to her since, and Nafeesa hasn’t the spine to stand up to her husband.
It’s taken her own impending death and the arrival of another grandchild to get her to visit her elder daughter. Tahera, the devout younger sister, a obstetrician and gynaecologist, too, follows her father’s lead: she’s hardly been in touch with Seema either. Observing all this is Bill, Seema’s child’s father, a black: Seema meets him before she starts working for Barack Obama’s campaign. Bill is no longer Seema’s lover but a good friend, come to see the birth of his own child.
The women spend a week together, with Nafeesa hoping to build bridges across the chasms that have grown over the period of their estrangement. Instead, all three women are faced to confront large segments of unpleasant history. Echoes of sibling rivalry, for instance, expressed in Tahera’s resentment of and rage at Seema, run through much of it. This rivalry seems to underlie Tahera’s rejection of Seema. Guilt eddies through the narrative, as does anger, and at the bottom of it all is Nafeesa’s husband’s unbending religious conviction, which stands in stark contrast to his love for Keats’s poetry. And Seema’s death in childbirth destroys hope.
Ahmed tells the story well. He has a gift for the language that will likely brighten with usage, as he grows in simplicity and wisdom. There’s an undeniable rhythm to his words, some insights into human motivation are striking, and there’s an occasional poetic compassion in his writing.
It could’ve been a good story, but it’s let down by two things. First, the narrative device lacks credibility. The just-born child of a dying mother telling a story like this, sometimes from far away in space and time, makes the novel look contrived. A simple, regular third person narration could have carried the story much better.
Second, and more serious, is part of the premise of the book. Seema is lesbian. Her reasons for having a child lack conviction. Seema believes that heterosexual couples get much better treatment in society — even in the restaurants she visits with Bill before they get into bed — but that doesn’t seem sufficient ground to go through a possibly unpleasant sexual experience to acquire a child that’s bound to grow up in an unconventional environment. So you run into the inevitable question: did the author in his, struggle to create an unusual narrator, compromise?
Finally, if you want to pick nits, here’s one: Tahera apparently lives in Irvine, Texas. There’s a place called Irvine in California, and another called Irving in Texas. Ahmed means Texas, but he could have gotten his geography straight.
That said, Ahmed’s talent is beyond question, and this book is still a worthwhile read.
By Nawaaz Ahmed
Westland, acquired from Counterpoint, USA
pp. 385, Rs.699