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The secret store of happiness: Review of Nawaaz Ahmed’s ‘Radiant Fugitives’

It is with the circle of life and death that Nawaaz Ahmed begins his debut novel, Radiant Fugitives. In a hospital room in San Francisco, Seema dies giving birth to her son Ishraaq, the novel’s narrator. As he seesaws between life and death, we meet the rest of Seema’s family in the waiting room: her ex-husband Bill, her mother Nafeesa, and her younger sister Tahera.

Radiant Fugitives is a story of three women — a mother and her two daughters torn apart by their past and brought together in a final attempt at reconciliation by their dying mother. Seema’s pregnancy unites her with Nafeesa and Tahera years after she was disowned by her father for coming out as lesbian. Tahera, a staunch, practising Muslim, is critical of her sister’s life choices. Terminally-ill Nafeesa travels to San Francisco to set things right between her daughters against the express wish of her husband. From the time of Ishraaq’s birth, the story moves through flashbacks as Ahmed traces the complex roots of their hostilities towards each other and, more importantly, towards themselves.

Families within families

Most South Asian intergenerational novels focus on the struggle between modernity and tradition as the primary reason of strife between its characters. Ahmed offers a much more nuanced take. Here the struggle is about individual identity when the forces shaping it — political, religious, gender, familial — are themselves in conflict with one another. The

The secret store of happiness: Review of Nawaaz Ahmed’s ‘Radiant Fugitives’

characters break under the tension between loyalty to themselves and to their familial roles. As Seema’s partner Leigh observes, Seema’s reservations about introducing Leigh to her mother and sister is not so much about Islamic strictures as about the imagined judgement of these two women. Ahmed is spot-on in his observation of families within families as an undeniable reality of South Asian households — Tahera and Nafeesa’s bond deepens when they have to depend on each other to withstand the joint force of the father and the elder daughter’s strong personalities.

Poetic turn

Throughout the novel, Ahmed remains conscious about of how much of the political he makes personal. Seema and her ex-husband Bill come together and are separated on the issue of same-sex marriages and politicians’ stance on it in the countdown to the presidential elections. While they both support Obama and Kamala Harris, Seema is sceptical of Obama because he does not risk coming out in full support of same-sex marriages. The rise of intolerance against Muslims in America, the Iraq war — all these are issues deeply affecting the cast as they worry about America’s future. Tahera is conscious of being stared at because of her hijab and Nafeesa advises her to blend in to prevent ostracisation in post-9/11 America.

To lighten the tension of families and politics, Ahmed turns to poetry, interspersing the narrative with poems of Keats, ghazals, and loving descriptions of Islamic rituals. The foggy beauty of San Francisco allows the characters to breathe between pivotal events. Making Seema’s unborn son the narrator, however, seems like an unnecessary trick. It tends to confuse after some time.

What underlies Radiant Fugitives are choices. The ending is an elegy to the price one pays for being individualistic: Seema gets the freedom of not being pushed around by the world “at the expense of keeping everyone at bay. She recalls her family, her friends, her lovers, her homes, the many she’s left behind or escaped from... She only knows how to fight the universe, as if there were no other way to access its secret store of happiness.”

Nawaaz Ahmed’s debut novel is singular not only for its characters but also for its prose. One wonders if it will have repercussions on the way we view the canon of the great American novel.

Radiant Fugitives; Nawaaz Ahmed, Westland, ₹699

The reviewer is a freelance writer and illustrator.


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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 12:52:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-secret-store-of-happiness-review-of-nawaaz-ahmeds-radiant-fugitives/article37818385.ece

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