At first, I don’t mind saying, I thought this book was too long. There were too many words, too many interactions. But as the outline of the story became clear I realized I would not know what to cut without destroying the careful grooming of our sensibilities. It takes some time to come to the realization that while this is fiction and therefore not strictly true, it is real enough to require us to adjust our perceptions of what we thought we knew about the world. That is a big job for a debut.
The novel itself describes a family of Bangladeshi immigrants to New York City. They live in a reclaimed four-story brownstone in Brooklyn; the father rents a storefront (the awning of which he paints lavender in the opening scene) from a Muslim religious cleric and in which he has established Anwar’s Apothecary. He sells homemade jojoba shampoos, bars of lavender soaps, and beauty products, among other substances that capitalize on his ability to extract essences. Anwar’s wife, Hashi, uses the garden apartment of their brownstone as a hair salon specializing in wedding parties. One daughter, Ella, is a sophomore at Cornell’s Agricultural School and the other, Charu, is just turning eighteen and something of an entrepreneur designer/seamstress. She makes clothes and hijabs (“protective and beautiful rooms, just for one”) out of old saris and other unusual fabrics for fun and extra cash. She plans to attend NYU in the fall.
One immediately senses the enormous vitality in such a family. But a family is just a family after all, with all the complications and stressors two post-adolescent but unmarried daughters pose to a household. To add to the complexity, the college-aged daughter of the religious cleric from whom Anwar rents his storefront has run away from home and comes to stay at the Saleem’s brownstone, unbeknownst to her own father, a brutal man with an ungovernable anger and a pure sense of rightness.
My introduction cannot prepare the reader for that summer (2003) in New York with the Saleems. Bicycles, sex, pot, religious fervor, gay pride, family hatreds, night-opening flowers, silk saris, infidelity, hallucinations, lentils, heirloom seeds, weddings, mistakes, indelible friendships, forgiveness, real love, firebombs, and growing up are all on the table. It is a cornucopia that only immersion can satisfy. One may come away thinking, as I did, that one’s perception of the world has changed irrevocably.
A couple of interesting and useful things Tanwi Islam taught me include the phrase maya lage which means something like "feeling empathy and sympathy and love and hurt—all in one…It was fitting whether someone’s house foreclosed or an earthquake claims thousands of lives." In Buddhist and Hindu traditions the Goddess Maya is the Mother of Creation, and is believed to manifest Nature simply by the power of Her will. Hers is a truth that lies far beyond the veil of our existence. The name Maya literally means "illusion" and is associated with magic. You’ll understand all this much more when you finish Islam’s novel, when all is revealed.
Islam also introduced me to two writers I’d not heard of before: Tarfia Faizullah and Taslima Nasrin. In the beginning to Part II, entitled “The Black Forest”, Islam credits three stanzas from “Dhaka Nocturne” that stopped me in my tracks:
I admit that when the falling hourThe other reference, Taslima Nasrin, is mentioned later in the context of the suppression of writings from women by religious radicals. She is a former physician and poet whose feminist writings have been banned in her native Bangladesh, India, Pakistan…anywhere Islamic fundamentalist views prevail. A fatwa has been issued against her and she now lives temporarily in the United States for her protection.
begins to husk the sky free of its
saffroning light, I reach for anyone
willing to wrap his good arm right
around me for as long as the ribboned
darkness allows. Who wants, after all,
to be seen too clearly?
--Tarfia Faizullah, from "Dhaka Nocturne," Seam
Any book that insists itself upon my consciousness as much as this book has deserves some attention. I expect we have not heard the last of Tanwi Nandini Islam and I can only celebrate that fact.
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