My Little Boat is a promising first novel that offers a delightful read. Set in contemporary India, it is primarily concerned with its female protagonist’s search for selfhood and subjectivity. It is also about post-Babri Masjid demolition and post-Pokhran India where an aggressive Hindu nationalism seems to chip away at the composite civilizational heritage, compelling the minorities to take an absurdly defensive position on matters of nationality and the notion of national pride. The setting of the novel is Rahimjanj, a fictional town on the bank of the Gomti, close to Lucknow. Saira generic cialis 20 mg Alvi, daughter of Gloria Evans, an English nurse and Sohrab Alvi, an Indian doctor, grows up to be a talented and much-acclaimed poet. She leads an unconventional life, and after a tumultuous love affair with Yusuf, a Pakistani journalist, marries him. But she loses her husband during the Chinese aggression, just two years after their marriage. After that she lives in London and Paris where her daughter Nasreen grows up. In Paris, Nasreen forms an enduring relationship with Zamurrad, a Moroccan child that Lise, an emigree from Leningrad had adopted and brought up with care and affection.
Nasreen grows up as a girl suspended between languages and cultures. This she could have turned to her advantage, as a true postcolonial protagonist moving easily and effortlessly between cultures and languages. Instead, she feels that she does not ‘belong’ to any language/culture, a fact that has disempowered her and causes an acute identity crisis for her.
The quintessentially unconventional Saira Alvi does the most conventional act in marrying Nasreen off to Javed, the scion of a decaying feudal family of Rahimganj, to save her from the uncertainties and loneliness of a rebel life, which she knew too well. However, Nasreen feels that marriage in a feudal household has clipped her wings and robbed her of “the only certainty” she had. For the first few years she remains drowned in her marital bliss, but when her daughter Mehjabeen goes to study at a school in Dehradun, loneliness and a feeling of emptiness overwhelms her. Javed edits the Urdu journal Tabsira that “aimed at being a moderate and liberal paper”, struggling to project a sane view in the emotionally surcharged atmosphere in the period following the demolition of Babri Masjid. It is also seen as representing the liberal Muslim viewpoint. Its rival is the Hindi paper Ek Desh, an aggressively Hindu fundamentalist rag that considers Muslims as a ‘problem’ and believes in dealing with them appropriately. Srivastava who works for Nai Roshni is Javed’s friend who tries to act as a bridge between Javed and the aggressive brigade of Ek Desh. Rahul, a young reporter, voices his concerns at the rabid and retrograde views propagated by Ek Desh and Javed develops a fondness for him.
These two strands of the narrative –one dealing with Nasreen’s personal odyssey recorded in her journals, and the other narrated by the third person narrator/protagonist dealing with the current situation in India, run parallel.
As Nasreen gradually slides to a still more introspective mode, moving away emotionally from Javed and Mahjabeen, the alienation between communities also gets more and more pronounced. Of course, it remains somewhat unclear what drove Nasreen to her neurosis. Apparently she has a doting husband, a loving daughter and a supportive family. Is it because she could not develop any roots in the culture she was transplanted into? “My mother threw away my future by catapulting me into the past, her past” (p.33), says Nasreen, but this does not sound convincing enough.
My Little Boat is a feminist text. The women characters – Saira Alvi, Nasreen, Zehra, Qamrun Bua, Sister Augusta have all a presence of their own, and are portrayed with great sensitivity. Saira Alvi not only leads her life on her own terms but does not allow any of the men in her life to take control of her situation. In fact, her considered view is that men should never be taken too seriously as they are more pompous and pretentious than substantial. Khusnood Mian, the fanatic maulvi who often queers the pitch for the women in Javed’s family, is the proverbial mcp vitiating the household with his meretricious presence.
The novel will also be read in the tradition of the so-called ‘Muslim’ novels in English, along with Ahmad Ali’s Twilight in Delhi and Attia Husain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column. One has only to compare it with Attia Husain’s novel to see how the younger generation of Muslim feudal families has moved away from the conservative values of their forefathers. And yet they are often made to realize that they belong to the ‘minority’ community, have to feel the angst associated with being a member of a beleaguered minority, and negotiate the problems in their own way. Javed, so protective about his daughter Mehjabeen, writes to her in great sorrow: “I always believed I was living in a secular society, but of late I am beginning to be less sure. I feel guilty instilling any such feeling in you… but the air in Rahimganj is becoming charged with an unreasonableness I have never before experienced. You are an adult now, so I can ask you to observe the trend and keep your own counsel.” One only wishes for Mehjabeen to keep her sanity and not to transform herself, as a reaction, to a fanatic like her friend Rukhsaar. When she meets Rahul, she is impressed by his uncompromising honesty. All considerations of religion and faith are set aside and she falls in love with him. “The air in Rahimganj” gets more vitiated following a murderous attack on a nun in the church engineered by Tarkhunde, and actively supported by others in Ek Desh, and the whole Christian community is terrorized. Rahul carries out the investigation with utmost professional integrity, and as he is reaching close to the truth he is murdered, sending shockwaves down the spine of the decent folk in Rahimganj. The novel is as much about the “Muslim” situation as it is about the “Christian” situation in contemporary India vis-à-vis the overwhelming Hindu majority.
Mariam Karim deftly handles all these concerns with considerable finesse. There are extremely sensitive and nuanced reflections on religion, culture, language, identity, death and so on. Readers will greatly savour occasional nuggets of wisdom, like, “My mother always said that religion in the hands of the young is like fragrant potter’s clay in the hands of a monkey… When the lumps fall and harden, they are misshapen for ever. Nothing beautiful can come of them” (p.232). The language is often luminous and lyrical, particularly in the sections that contain Nasreen’s ruminations. One may have reservations about how the political narrative coheres with the personal one. There are moments when one feels like telling the author gently that art is never so frontal or direct, but makes its strongest appeal when it is subtle and suggestive, working through metaphors and metonymies. Well, it might be said in her defence, that she serves us both – the lyricism of a personal narrative and the aggressive directness of a political one. All in all, it is a deeply compelling and compassionate book, and readers will eagerly look forward to reading Mariam Karim’s second novel.
M. Asaduddin, author, translator and critic, is Professor of English at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.