Soul Tracing: Taboo – Ifraah & Irsha

Soul Tracing - Taboo
Soul Tracing: Taboo by Ifraah Samatar and Irsha Akbar affected me at various levels. It’s a story with some powerful writing that you cannot ignore irrespective of your agreement or disagreement with the narrative.
To begin with, it’s a typical love story with quite a predictable plot. What kept me going was the curiosity to know how the authors will choose to end it and it was CLEVER.
I applaud the authors for this singular way of telling the story of a naïve, hopeless girl full of dreams. And, because this topic is so close to my heart, and because I loved the authors’ take on this whole scenario, I felt huge disappointments along the story as well.
At most occasions throughout the book, the story sounded like a fantasy and rightly so… I kept on wondering (rather bickering) how could the authors approach such a sensitive subject with such insensitivity. At first, the novel sounded like another M&B with a religious tadka.
And that’s exactly where the story takes upon the controversy!
The novel takes an apologetic approach that many well-meaning Muslims do take – Shift the blame to culture and individuals in order to relieve the religion off of any blame.
And, this novel blames the both. However, culture (mostly Pakistani) remains the focal point. True! Pakistani culture is a complex religiocultural mishmash; however, not quite the way authors have portrayed it.
I felt angry and then sad by the wrong suggestion that our culture is oppressive and somehow true practice and understanding of religion will liberate us and even allow us the practices that are otherwise looked down upon by our culture as well as religion.
Culture is a very deep thing; cultures are as old as the human race itself. Cultural evolution is synchronous with the very struggles and evolution of humans over generations.
If Yasmin was a single person, the readers who could relate to Yasmin would have felt understood and those who couldn’t relate to her, would still be able to connect with her on a human level. But by generalizing, the authors have imposed the realities of a small segment (if we look at the bigger picture) on a large section of society who understand their religion better than Yasmin’s father, who take pride in their rich culture and who don’t impose the disgusting double standards and ridiculous restrictions as vehemently as the characters in this story.
This generalization did certainly rub me the wrong way. I had to struggle to relate and sympathize with Yasmin. Yasmin’s discussion with Faiza about marriage is also disturbing because the idea was (again) wrongly generalized. It also raises a question on the understanding of the authors of the culture they’re opinionating about.
An excellent example to approach difficult topics is Honour by Elif Shafak; she tells the story of a single woman, but is that the story of a single woman! The author leaves it up to the readers. Soul Tracing: Taboo is disturbing at many levels.
Perhaps the most important question it raises is:
What is liberation?
Is wearing revealing clothes and undergoing the ultimate Taboo (as the authors put it) an epitome of liberation? OR is it a mere defiance?
What’s the difference between Abbas and Dean?
If Dean can be excused due to his childhood trauma, why can’t Abbas also be? Getting raised in an idiotic religious family is no less of a trauma. For me, the conversation between Abbas and Amir is as disgusting as between Dean and Seb. Who is Yasmin to decide that Dean isn’t a monster despite all but Amir and Abbas are?
Shifting the blame from religion to culture is an ever increasing narrative because it allows common people to easily dissociate from the crimes committed in the name of religion.
But isn’t it a bigger lie than the lies told by Yasmin?
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Under the Croatian Sun — Anthony Stancomb


Under the Croatian Sun


Anthony Stancomb

‘God can come up with some funny tricks,’ said Zoran,

‘particularly after he’s had a good bottle of wine.’

‘Under the Croatian Sun’ by ‘Anthony Stancomb’ is an expatriate’s experience in a place far from home and totally different from his hometown.  Leaving behind a cosmopolitan life, successful career and grown up kids, Anthony with his wife, Ivana, leaves off for the island of Vis amid the Adriatic islands in the country of Croatia.

Reading the first couple of pages where Anthony describes the couple’s arrival to the island, the intricate details kind of put me off and I was wondering if that’s the whole book going to be like.  But another few pages into the book, it got more and more interesting. 

The plot of the story is simple enough, a couple trying their best to fit in their new adopted home. The book is written in first person narrative with a male authoritative voice. Anthony’s way of writing is engaging and interesting with humor weaved into the story.  The author has a witty way of describing the couple’s efforts, repeated failures and hard earned achievements in winning the hearts of the locals.

The beauty of the island, its vineyards, green mountains, heavenly smell of flowers, the clear water and the novelty of swimming in it under glistening sun right in your backyard, all painted a vivid picture of Vis for the reader.  One of the great strengths of this book is that author has painted the landscape of Vis acutely.  The descriptions shows author’s delight in the beauty of his new home but dedicating a whole chapter to the flowers again later on, and describing the swimming experience again had me skip a few pages. 

The pace of the story is fast. We walk through the couple’s first year in Vis as they make new friends, fare with new neighbours and go at lengths to win their trust.  The story has many subplots that are not only interesting but informative and insightful. The village hierarchy and the influence of elders seeps into the narrative like,

“We’ll get to the village through the grannies”

when Karmela, their maid, advises them to use ‘granny power’ to infuse the hearts of the villagers.  The incidents that ensue are funny and delightful.

True to English culture, the history of Cricket in Croatia and formation of Vis Island cricket club occupies a significant portion of their experience and process of acceptance. As a Pakistani, it was satisfying for me to see my country’s name listed with the prominent few.  The first team of the islanders reminded me of the cricket team of villagers in Indian movie, Lagaan.  Though, the detailed commentary of the matches had me skip pages again, but perhaps that was only me or me being a ‘woman’ as Anthony might put it.

The story in an interesting and light way gives a firsthand description of the politics of a former communist country.  Belonging to a country with injustice and corrupt authorities, I could relate very well to the natives’ reluctance to be in the bad books of the authorities by teaming up with the couple in their protests. 

The book underlines the sharp differences in perspective and behavior of people, their struggle to survive and their emotional capacities that becomes their instinct after living in a certain political setup.  The couple’s frustration and active protest as compared to native’s silent acceptance of encroachment on their rights goes to show how profound an effect a stable or unstable political setup has on people over the decades. 

As grandma Klakic puts it,

“Our kittens have to grow up fierce and strong,” she was saying. “They must learn how to kill rats and fight off dogs. If they were just sweet and cuddly, they would never survive, and you wouldn’t want that, would you?” Seeing me arrive, she gave me one of her flinty looks. “And that’s the way it is with our people. We’ve been trodden down for so long that this is how we’ve become. Hard and difficult to deal with, some might say, but, if we weren’t like this, we would never have survived.”

The book has a lot of references… and by a lot, I do literally mean “A Lot” and though they might show author’s zeal to write and his breadth of knowledge, but being a non-English, and as a ‘general’ reader it was difficult for me to put things into perspective.  Not that it made the story less interesting, but I felt constantly at loss for understanding. The book will perhaps be more entertaining for Englishmen but for a more diverse audience, it might not catch up to that end.

All in all, an interesting and easy read.  In the end, both author and his wife get accustomed to the ways of the village and get accepted by the community.  A change in their personality is also discreetly described by the author when he says,

“The way I dress makes me feel at home with the guys at Zoran’s who have a similar taste to mine in practical attire and manly footwear.’ With a snort she’d learned from Karmela, Ivana left the room.

About Author

Anthony Stancomb

Anthony Stancomb was educated at Wellington College, St Andrews University and the London School of Film.  He worked in Feature films and political documentaries for a while.  In his mid-thirties, he left to set up a company that promoted and sold British contemporary art to galleries throughout the world, and  created a worldwide distribution network.  After twenty years, however, discovering the island of Vis, and realizing that running a commercial venture was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, he sold the company and went to live on the island.  Ivana, his wife, is the winner of the Woman of the Year Award for Literature in 2000, and is the granddaughter of the Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic.   With two children who now live in London, they divide their time between Croatia and Fulham.

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An American Brat — Bapsi Sidhwa


An American Bratamerican brat

by Bapsi Sidhwa

As the taxi drove out of Kennedy Airport, speaking in Gujrati, Manek said, “You’re the same old uloo.  That was a damn silly way to behave. What if those chaps had packed us back to Lahore? You’re in America now; you have to learn to control your temper.  There are no grannies and mummy-daddies  here to bail you out!”

‘An American Brat’ by ‘Bapsi Sidhwa’ is an insightful account of the experience of a young immigrant from Pakistan to the United States in the 70s.  The novel also touches upon the reservations and anxiety experienced by different sects in Pakistan due the change from Bhutto’s liberal era to Zia’s conservative one. 

The title of the novel, ‘An American Brat’ is very clever.  It makes us think that it’s going to be the tale of a bratty immigrant girl . . . but we’re in for a pleasant surprise.  The title also in an uncanny way makes one realize that what ‘brat’ is for a First world citizen is not what ‘brat’ encompasses for a third world person.

The plot of the story is easy to follow.  Set in 1970s, it revolves around the protagonist, Feroza.  Feroza is a 16-year-old Parsi girl whose changing personality is alarming for her liberal, confident Parsi parents.  Due to country’s increasing intolerance for minorities with misuse of Hadood Ordinance against them, there is a feeling of suffocation in the drawing rooms of the upper-middle class liberals.

Desperate due to the increasing sense of insecurity and Feroza’s disabling shyness and self-doubt, Feroza is packed away to her uncle in US hoping that

“Travel will broaden her outlook, get this puritanical rubbish out of her mind.”

Thus, begins the story of Feroza’s experiences in another world quite different from the one she had come from, and for a long time into the novel, one keeps on wondering if the theme of the novel was anything other than the obvious one.

It feels more like narration of the life of a young girl with nothing extraordinary happening. The whole theme of the novel revolves around the exhilarating freedom and profound sense of loss as to which an immigrant can surely relate to.  The cross cultural clash is well captured, in detail.  Political reference, though outdated, succeeds to elicit the drastic change in the lives and minds of people during Zia’s conservative rule.  Given Feroza’s involvement in the politics, so much so, that she keeps Bhutto’s poster at her bedside, one expects to read about her interest in US politics of the time as well. 

The pace of the story is on average fast, so it does not bore the reader to the extent to give up.  Some portions are entertaining, witty and clever.  The cross cultural problems faced by immigrants and family pressure, are portrayed vividly.  The tone of the novel is mostly apathetic and one fails to relate to the feelings of various characters save a few instances.  The reader is however kept engaged by various events, big and small, though as a reader you are unable to enjoy their full intensity.

The novel, however, has its moments; when Feroza is interrogated by the immigration, her horrendous experience down the fire stairs, and her funny bantering with Manek all render the novel enjoyable in spurts. 

It would have been more interesting to read Feroza’s mind other than the clichéd chain of events; dazed by the splendor of the New World, learns to live independently, meets a boy, cultural tiff, gets heartbreak, goes on with life. We read the word freedom many times across the book, but what that actual experience of freedom was for Feroza? It seems the extent of her freedom was embodied into one person David, which was unexpected of the standards of Sidhwa.

The main theme of the novel appears to be the identity and loyalty problems faced by young immigrants, torn between their family, traditions and self identity. 

Feroza’s mother, Zareen also momentarily gets sucked into the feeling of unselfconsciousness to which Feroza had fully carved into.  She had shed “the thousand constraints that governed her life” back in Pakistan and with her own money and career, she was discovering her identity, i.e. transforming into an American Brat by Pakistani standards of the 70s. 

This identity struggle, cultural tiff, and sexism in Parsi culture (though not unique to it) is shown from three different angles; from an elder who seems to question the old age customs in her hearts of heart but can’t bring herself to revolt, Manek who being a male has certain liberties that simplify life for him, but Feroza being a girl cannot ignore the contradictions nor is her revolt allowed to be successful. 

From the traditional Parsi houses, the lavish way of upper-middle class, the close knit Parsi community to the skyscrapers and shopping giants of America, the splendor at the Madison or the Bloomingdale’s  to the reeking poverty at the terminal of the 8th Avenue, it was all painted brilliantly for the reader; by far the strongest feature of this book.  It gives an enlightening and detailed account of the Parsi and Zoroastrian religion.  The cultural fears and situations occurring in the book must have struck a chord with the second generation Parsi living abroad.

The characters in the story are very much relatable on many levels.  Feroza and Manek represent the young Parsi generation but may easily represent any young girl and boy; their experiences, their struggle for existence in the First world and their amazement at everything foreign. 

Bapsi Sidhwa is an eminent Pakistani writer and has a first-hand experience of both Pakistani and American culture that shows itself strongly in An American Brat. However, one expects more from her. For those who are just starting to read Sidhwa should better start with The Crow Eaters.

About Author

Bapsi Sidhwa

Sidhwa is widely recognized as one of the most prominent Pakistani-Anglophone novelists writing today. She was raised in the Parsi community, a religious and ethnic minority in Pakistan. Critics regard Sidhwa as a feminist postcolonial Asian author whose novels—including The Crow Eaters (1978), The Bride (1981), and Ice-Candy-Man(1988); republished as Cracking India  (1991)—provide a unique perspective on Indian and Pakistani history, politics, and culture. Her characters, often women, are caught up in the historical events surrounding the geographical and social division—or “Partition”—of India and Pakistan in 1947.

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