Ali Ansari explores an individual's connection with religion, as a faith and a practice.
Why, how and what for… the answer to these could be just one word or it could run into several paragraphs. For, in a world where “rules of reality follow their own inscrutable logic”, making sense of oneself and one's existence is quite an ordeal and, if successful, a rare feat.
Dear Prophet: A Woman's Story is an attempt, a good one. No, it isn't self-help, closer to self-reflection, but rather reflections on existential doubts, those of an ordinary woman who happens to be a Muslim. It is not a narrative about religious morality interspersed with a woman's moans. In fact, Ali Ansari manages to steer clear of letting the story acquire a didactic tone.
Through the story of Zarina and her son Hamid, Ansari explores an individual's connection with religion, as a faith and a practice. Does Islam, or for that matter any religion, has anything redeeming to offer? Maybe for many, maybe not for some. For Zarina, being disappointed by Islam after a while, the choice between Zen and Baha'i didn't require much deliberation, it was first-come first-taken. If she wasn't already introduced to Zen, she would have been sitting in a Baha'i temple, she says. Her engagement with Sufi teachers, the experience of Sama' in a Sufi circle, a glimpse of ‘seeing' as it is meant in Zen or the lessons she picked from books on philosophy and even her son's peyote ceremony of native Indian tribes (the details of which she gets to find much later), all manifest a moment of self-discovery.
And isn't that what life is all about? Discovering. The last two letters — one from Hamid and the other from Nicole (Hamid's guide) — that she receives from the monastery in the end underscores the odyssey: finding real me, finding real you, whatsoever be the means, whatever be the route.
Partly epistolary, for significant portions of the narrative are the letters that Zarina writes to The Prophet and those she receives from her son Hamid, the narrative is not just about philosophy in the realm of metaphysical, the beyond. Ansari brings out the phantom realities at a more terrestrial level in a subtle way when he throws up a question: what does one look in a relationship, what is one seeking?
Zarina and Rashid prefer divorce to separation after 13 years of marriage. They have known each other as cousins before and continue to be in touch afterwards. As husband and wife, something was missing or went missing. Hard to spell it out, feels Zarina. The relationship she then has with Dave is satisfying, both at a physical and an intellectual level. Yet, she says no to a married life with Dave. Security of marriage threatens the control she has on her life. You may not give up on people, but you give up on relationships, perhaps.
What Ansari seems to be underscoring through course of events in Zarina's life is that senselessness is actually emptiness and if she — or we — could accept it completely, it will offer a sense of being free. He leaves it there for the reader to pick it up and make his/her on sense out of it. This makes the writing comforting, rather soothingly confounding. It is all about balance for which a bit of Hopi wisdom, words of Khalil Gibran, some Sufism and religious disciple, all are critical. The metaphysics is perplexing but not beyond reach provided one learns to surrender. A hundred-odd pages and peace that surpasses understanding is then found. Not that simple, of course!
Dear Prophet: A Woman's Story; Ali Ansari, Popular Prakashan, Rs.
Keywords: literary review