Among the situations that affect her characters are: enforced arranged marriage, broken home, interracial affair, domestic violence, child abuse, homosexuality, abortion, miscarriage, black magic, repressive Muslim culture, talaq talaq talaq, dark skin, young woman unilaterally discarded by husband to eternal shame of family, bloodstained sheet examined by in-laws the night after the wedding....and the book ends with a predictable burst of Hindu-Muslim violence.
The characters are equally melodramatic, even the supporting ones. The protagonist, Layla, bleeds for weeks with a miscarriage, and no one considers taking her to a doctor. Instead they take her to a blind alim. Later, when the couple is having sexual problems, they go to yet another alim, who just happens to have a child with a brain tumour. The one nice aunt is dying of cancer. The uncle had raped a servant girl. Layla's husband Sameer had been badly injured in a motorcycle accident years ago, and his vindictive mother had refused to take him to hospital so he has one leg forever shorter than the other. Layla's favourite cousin was cast out by her husband and is hugely pregnant to boot. Her father's second wife is also pregnant.
As a picture of Hyderabad, the book is just as strange. (yes, despite the title almost all the book is set in Hyderabad). The women are mostly locked inside and swathed head to toe and even though she wanders the streets with her husband on a motorcycle, the only time Layla sees any other women is when she goes to an All-American pizza parlor, where, gasp, the women are smoking, drinking Coke, and wearing jeans.
The 'twist' in the story is obvious from about page 50, but Layla, whose school years have been divided between Indian and American schools, refuses to see it until it is explicitly pointed out to her, in so many words.
There are occasional clever lines -- "[for my parents] birth and death occurred in India, but not life". The writing is marred largely by the bursts of transliteration, which is done very awkwardly. 'bevi' for 'bibi' (wife)? 'chalu' for 'chalo' (let's go)? The faithful servant is called 'my nanny'. Women wear chadors, an unfamiliar term in Hyderabad, instead of burqas. Worst of all, the servants are made to speak a painful pidgin:
Nafiza: "You no married and already you sick of you husband? What happen, child? [..]I no stop you. I see you happy. Happy with him. He has pretty-pretty face, you tell me you-self. You ask me if he face more pretty than you, that maybe he no love you for this". (p47)
Raga-be: "You no safe at this hour. Time heavy with djinns and things that no sleep no more. Demon you dream of no real demon so even he no match for this." (p77)
In interviews, Samina Ali has said that much of the story is autobiographical, in which case it may seem unfair to criticize it as being excessively theatrical. But the writing, too, is designed to bring the drama to the forefront, staged as it is around a series of incidents. One such incident is when the girl's father kills the sacrificial goat for the wedding (which has been tied to a tree, bleating for days, in loaded analogy), and then, still stained with its blood, sits down to eat joyfully of its meat while the women cower indoors.
There is plot potential in the contrast between Sameer's dreams of freedom in America and Layla's dreams of belonging in Hyderabad. As a lesser plot, their unconsummated marriage could also have been interesting. The tortured Sameer could easily have been a caricature, but instead the author has drawn him with sympathy and dignity. I wish there had been more to like in the book, but it was rather like a wedding feast that went on and on until I was longing for some dal-roti.
Book Description: In the heat and clamor of the ancient city of Hyderabad, Layla and her mother, their faces veiled behind chadors, rush through the city's narrow alleys. It is two days before Layla's marriage to a man she hardly knows, and the family is in crisis. Layla has begun to defy the union the family has so carefully arranged for her. (book blurb).
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