The novel starts off with the theme of regret of brothers unable to protect their sisters from their mother’s toxic treatment and from forcefully being taken out of education and being placed into another family through marriage. Contrary to the typical representation of South Asian ‘brothers’ in novels who are able to voice their opinions and be emotionally and mentally strong, Jackie (Jamal) and Sully (Sulaman) struggle to even maintain their own identities with dignity. This in itself shows how they are unable to defend themselves against the unjust decisions made by their mother against themselves, so how will they ever be able to prevent such treatment with their blood sisters?
Within their home in Pakistan, we see the structure of a matriarchal family. It is apparent that the father was struggling to place his foot on trivial day to day matters and maintain his honour and dignity in contemporary day Pakistan as his wife had the final say. Not only that, the mother, as the head of the home was able to manipulate servants, her husband, children and guests and win their awe over through her “charming” smile and carefully chosen words. Once again, we see how males also struggle to maintain their familial traditions and principles when there are conflicts of power within the home.
Even after moving to America and London for studies and becoming academically and financially independent, Jackie and Sully’s relationships are far from that. Whether it be with colleagues or prospective life partners, both brothers feel inadequate of being with the other person due to lack of communication and not knowing how to approach the other, forget fulfilling their emotional needs. However, I do admire the bravery of breaking away from social norms and expectations. Although a lot of their South Asian principles were compromised, their behaviour and mind-sets appears to be conflicted with western expectations of what should and should not be. Towards the end of the novel, Sully and Jackie realise that Pakistan is where they belong. It is where they had left their identities.
Farooki focuses on a cycle of the ‘child’ being used as a tool in adjusting to one’s role as a mother or father. At first, we see how their mother (I don’t think her name is ever mentioned) places herself at the centre of every matter, thus making herself the only one who benefits from her decisions. When her children become parents, they don’t impose the restrictions they had on themselves upon their children. In doing so, they realise that too much flexibility in their relationships didn’t do them any good either. However it is too late to change things. In neglecting what is best for the ‘child’, not only were marriages and family ties broken, relationships and bonds were destroyed too. As a consequence of not receiving love in their childhood, they had showered so much onto their own little ones that they were unable to strike a balance of two extremes. The false portrayal of religiosity of their mother led Sully, Jackie and Mae far from religion, with only Lana left behind to pick up the pieces which she kept close to her heart throughout her life. They all “grew up in a place that pretended piety, but the truth was that we were all tangled up in revolting ways”. Nevertheless, all 3 of Lana’s siblings were able to rely on Lana to be sensible in everything she said and did in religious matters, as she was sensible. Not strictly over-doing it like her mother, and not living a life absent of God-consciousness like everyone else. Religion was her comfort-zone. Even after the passing of their mother, Lana is the only one seen to be holding a Qur’an and reciting it during the mourning period.
Now.. Jackie. We see that even as a doctor, he feels unable to help the patients in his own home. The ones suffering from the disease of a broken family. He is able to help those who are emotionally distant from him whether they be in hospitals, refugee camps or over the phone, but stumbles and struggles with his family. He can deal with blood, but not his own. He is so close to home, yet so far. Every year, he visits Pakistan to help those affected by the war but does not make nearly as much effort to find out how his bed-ridden mother is doing. It is the same with Sully. He wants to prove to his wife that he can be successful and give the world to her and their son, but in doing so, he does not realise that he has forgotten what it means to be a husband and a father. He lives like a stranger in his own home. Unable to even find cutlery and juice, we see how his obsession with uplifting himself in his career results in his marriage going downhill. His son no longer wishes to recognise him, let alone speak on the phone. Once again, failed parenthood due to only thinking of one’s self. Both brothers struggle with their emotions and tending to their loved ones. It is only unfortunate that they realise their role in their family through the death of loved ones. At least it is not too late to make the most of the time they have with those left in their lives.
There is so much to get from this book. I love the way it was written – I got to find out how all the main characters felt through the first and third person narratives and the constant switch from past and present. This really helped in understanding why and how actions in the present were being shaped by experiences and memories from the past, for everyone.
I also wanted to share my favourite quotations from the book. These made me think a lot:
- “Our education, their marriage. Our crime, their punishment”.
- “That I grew up in a place that pretended piety, but the truth was that we were all tangled up in revolting ways”.
- “The servants did what they were told, just like we did when we were children”.
- He’s a writer; he spills his guts instead”.
- “The rich have no race, and we all speak the same language”.
- “I wonder if that’s the inevitable cost of getting what you want; that once you do, you don’t want it anymore”.
- “Separated again, like we were in our rooms, at our table, on the sofa. Another pragmatic partition”.
- “He knew how words could be weapons”.
- “I think you’re the bravest of us all. It’s easier to run away than to stay. You stayed. You were here”.
- “She supposed that war was liberating; people did things differently, they realised they had less time, and less to lose”.
- “Occasionally Mae resented how easy it was for her [mother], and had to remind herself that this was what motherhood was meant to be, correcting the mistakes of her own childhood, rather than getting her own back”.
- “We all go back to where we belong”.
- “Lana knows it is impossible to hold on to anger across a lifetime, to keep the storm seething and the thunder rolling and the lightning flashing, just s it is impossible to remain madly in love”.
- “She grieves for the living’ those who are falling apart, their pieces shattering on the ground, scattering with the wind. For those who do not believe or belong”.
- “The living deserve the truth; the dead have already discovered it for themselves”.
- “It was a gift that she had, knowing when to offer comfort, when there was no solution to offer instead”.
- “It was like the moonlight had stripped all subtlety from us both along with our colour, and we were just black and white all the way through”.
- “You don’t live in the past. You live with it”.
And when Sulaman finally felt he was able to do his part….
“I didn’t cry for my father, but I cry for her. The soft. Living part of me, wimpled in my soft white clothes, rocking in the chair. I’m so strong enough to weep, and as I finally split open, it feels that the tears of years are released. The walls of this white room come tumbling, crumbling down; they flatten and fall. The glass box breaks, and I can finally be touched. I’m free”.
Until next time,