Cheated

Just finished a book that I read in just under 48 hours. Writing on My Forehead. It was a beautiful story and I really fell deeply into it hardly putting it down last night, even though so many generations and names of Aunts and Uncles were hard to keep track of.

I loved it...

It was about Saira, an American-born girl of Pakistani-Indian descent who lived with two distinct cultures. The American-bread culture of suburban Los Angeles, where she attends public schools juxtaposed against the conservative, yet vibrant, traditions of her parents' culture.

I was seduced into believing that this was a book praising individuality. Saira's most beloved Aunt is an "old maid" who became a professor of Literature at a women's college in Pakistan. Other than the protagonist, she is the most developed character, and certainly the most interesting. She even says in two different times that she doesn't regret her fate of an intellectual life over domestic bliss. Saira looks up to her Aunt with love and admiration.

The book chronicles several instances of family members breaking away (or being broken away from) expected social mores only to be shunned or completely ostracized by their family, but still living meaningful lives.  In this book, family is the true power. And while I accept and even appreciate the message, I love the counter message:

The people with the most interesting lives, are the ones who branch out beyond the reaches of the traditional: the protagonists grandfather who leaves his family to be part of Ghandi's movements, her own grandfather who leaves his family to start a new one with a western woman, and, of course, the protagonist who chooses to become a journalist (in tandem with her gay cousin, a talented photographer) over getting married.

(If you plan to read the book, stop here, because I'm about to give too much away)..

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So clearly I loved most of the book. It was a tennis match between the life of the pious women (married, with children, of course) and life beyond the expectations of a strong culture. I should have known better: the book begins with Saira's mother using a story with a strong moral to send a message. This was just what author was doing. It took me the entire book before realized that Saira's free spirit and intellectualism were going to lose this match to "making the right moral choice". And, that it was the author's intentions to have this as her main message.

After an entire book with Saira's adventures (starting when she plays Rizzo in Grease, which completely horrifies her mother who calls her slut and whore and shameful because she danced on stage and stage-kissed a boy), she drops her career (and her work-partner waiting for her in Afghanistan) to raise her sister's daughter after her sister's death.  That is all well and good, except it is the only decision she makes with no narrative explaining her choice. I get that she would choose to raise her sister's daughter under the circumstances (her mother's just died, her father's moved back to India after living in the US for 30-odd years). What I didn't like was the pro-life message.

And here's the real spoiler:

Saira and her middle age ex-lover are the biological parents of this daughter. She doesn't have an abortion - and instead gives the child to her infertile sister and her husband to adopt, only to end up raising her. I would be able to digest this message because having an abortion is something that many women possibly regret. I dislike the message that if you give your child up for adoption, you might get this "second chance".

What I don't get? Is her shrug and nonchalance when she sort of says "OK, I'll marry my sister's husband too because that's what a good Muslim girl does".

In the last five pages of the book she turns into her pious sister. Praying, doing housework and eventually agreeing to marry her brother-in-law. Is that really the message the author wants to send young muslim women? Don't branch out and accept Western values, because your fate will bring you back to what your mother wanted you to be?

It's like the protagonist didn't read her own story of who she is.

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Maybe we are all like that. Maybe we make decisions that are so out of character that they don't seem like our own because we can't fight our culture?

If I ever write a book, I will want people to love it or hate it. But I won't want people to love it, as I have, and then hate the last five pages.

I feel cheated...

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