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The world never goes away: Review of ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ by Ranjana Sengupta

That the Partition with its attendant wounds could, more than half a century later, impact the fates of two young lovers in a small coastal town in Wales, seems unlikely, if not far-fetched. But Karuna Ezara Parikh’s accomplished debut novel, The Heart Asks Pleasure First, fashions an all-too-plausible scenario where this, in fact, could happen.

Aaftab, a law student from an affluent but orthodox Islamabad background meets Daya, an aspiring dancer from Lalabad (a thinly disguised Delhi), from the ranks of India’s uber liberal intelligentsia, with parents who proudly wear their secular credentials on their sleeve. Daya, who has come to study ballet in this Welsh town, meets Aaftab in a park where he is sitting on a bench reading Anna Karenina. They soon fall in love. But from early on in the relationship, Aaftab has misgivings about its future, having acquired the wisdom of avoiding unwinnable situations through his dealings with his abusive, authoritarian father.

Shades and nuances

His approach to Islam is heavily influenced by the Sufi poets he loves reading, and his religious observances are confined to attending Friday prayers in the local mosque. This is the extent of his contact with the small, tightly knit Muslim community which is increasingly being influenced by the new imam’s radical sermons, finding in them a defence against the casual racism of the townspeople.

From Daya’s perspective, which Parikh evokes with great sympathy, the religious and nationalist differences between herself and

The world never goes away: Review of ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ by Ranjana Sengupta

Aaftab, particularly the former, have little relevance. She shares her parents’ liberal humanist belief that it is irrational to hate an entire country or community. One can hate an individual, according to this worldview, but not a nation or religion. The action takes place in the early 2000s: therefore 9/11 as well as the attack on India’s Parliament happen in the course of the narrative. While the former event impels Aaftab to examine what his Muslim identity means to him, Daya, in the wake of the Parliament attack and subsequent military mobilisation, is forced to consider her feelings of outrage, but finds they have little bearing on her feelings for Aaftab.

Wasim, Aaftab’s roommate, represents the alternative third position. This lower-middle class boy from Rawalpindi is a non-Westernised counterpoint to Daya’s secular liberalism and Aaftab’s Sufi-influenced Islam. Wasim comes across as grounded and loyal, a friend to both Daya and Aaftab, but from his viewpoint their relationship is impossible — even though they conceal the extent of their involvement from him.

He is a devout and practising Muslim, but refuses to have any truck with the fundamentalists; he is a devoted son and brother but allows his family to think he’s studying medicine and not the considerably less prestigious physical education. In Parikh’s telling, he has shades and nuances — more multi-dimensional in contrast to Aaftab’s relentless self-examination and Daya’s blithe unquestioning acceptance of her parents’ virtues and values.

Haunting language

Matters come to a head when Daya has to rush home because of her father’s serious illness while the imam mounts a campaign against Aaftab for his relationship with a non-Muslim. The denouement is swift and brutal but with a small sliver of hope left at the end.

Parikh’s story explores a space where these two earnest young lovers come together trying to discover if it is possible to find a personal truth which is unaffected by the impersonal forces swirling outside their bubble — the forces of history, politics and old hatreds. But they find — as did others from Paris and Helen to Anna Karenina to the victims of so-called ‘honour’ killings — that complete insulation is not possible; that the world never goes away and always punishes what it sees as transgressions. The universe Parikh creates, that of a small diaspora in the small quiet town of Cardiff, with its tight sense of inclusion and exclusion, its codes and punishments, has been explored before — Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam comes to mind.

Her language is fluid and haunting and the writing is remarkable for its gentleness. But there are some drawbacks: Daya and Aaftab are somewhat one-dimensional figures and their parents — whether Aaftab’s violent and intractable father or Daya’s parents with their undiluted goodness — sometimes feel like caricatures. Besides, the long, dense expositions of political or historical background (Akbar’s Navratnas, Osama bin Laden’s antecedents, and so on) are not knitted into the story but interrupt the narrative annoyingly.

But these are minor cavils. Taken as a whole, The Heart Asks Pleasure First is a remarkable debut that bravely tackles some grand, tough questions about how the past bleeds into the present, and about the role of love, loyalty, history and faith.

The Heart Asks Pleasure First; Karuna Ezara Parikh, Picador India, ₹699

The reviewer is former Deputy Publisher at Penguin Random House India and author of Delhi Metropolitan: The Making of an Unlikely City.


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