“Here I am, breached into this world, all twenty inches of me, all seven pounds, with all my features and appendages in their place. (…) I’m fully and independently human now, even if I haven’t yet taken my first breath,” announces Nawaaz Ahmed’s just-born narrator, Ishraaq, a name chosen by his mother for its meanings of sunlight and radiance.
Still to take his first breath, Ishraaq hovers between knowing and forgetting, in liminal spaces outside of ordinary existence, taking the reader on a journey between the past and the present, excavating the histories of his mother, Seema, his could-be-mother and aunt, Tahera, and his grandmother, Nafeesa.
In a near-gothic start, Radiant Fugitives opens in an interstitial place between life and death, with “a mother who is already dead” and a child unwilling to transition to a world where she no longer exists. Like Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai, tumbling forth into the world and absorbing as well as regurgitating the memories of a time he was definitely not a part of, Ishraaq becomes our near-omniscient narrator, claiming relationships, reaching into a past that is not his, revealing stories, wondering about the future.
This is not going to be a heartwarming story of affirmation and assimilation, Ahmed seems to tell us. And yet, as the reader discovers, it is still a story of hope.
The political and the personal
Set in San Francisco in 2010, right in the middle of Barack Obama’s first term as US President, intersecting with the midterm elections, the book explores an America divided on the lines of not just political ideology but also questions of religion, sexuality, race, and the increasingly abstract notion of what it means to be free. The country that sold the American Dream to the rest of the world has clearly defaulted in its promises to all those who stand on the margins.
Ahmed’s characters span the Democrat spectrum, from being unquestioning supporters of Obama, the voice of hope and change, to dissenters like Seema, who see him as a “conservative in progressive clothing, a White man in a Black body.” That the context is political is obvious from the very beginning, with the Prelude establishing the conflict between Bill and Seema, Ishraaq’s birth parents, who disagree on the scope and functionality of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
We subsequently see Seema as a volunteer for Kamala Harris’s campaign for state attorney general in 2010. Not shying away from the contentious world of politics and its impact on ordinary citizens, Ahmed plunges right into the familiar and the uncomfortable.
The book traces the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in America; opposition to and hatred for Obama being used by the American right-wing to further its divisive cause. It also succinctly summarises America’s history of aggression against West Asia when it says, “America will always want more oil and will always support Israel.”
Ahmed’s novel is as deeply personal as it is political. It is the story of two sisters, caught in a conflict neither seems able to resolve, held together in a tenuous bond by the presence of their mother. Seema and Tahera, only a few years apart in age, grew up in Chennai, under the shadow of a domineering father both sought constant validation from.
Seema’s transgressive act of falling in love with a girl causes a rift that becomes impossible to heal. Her pregnancy and the visit of their mother to assist with the birth brings the sisters together in an uneasy truce. In their fifteen years apart, Seema has embraced her queerness, travelled across continents, married a man, divorced him, dealt with judgement about her “lapsed” lesbianism, and now finds herself in a relationship with an Irish-Chinese woman, a relationship she still feels the need to hide from her mother.
Tahera is sent to America to study medicine by her father following his profound disappointment with his older child. She marries into an orthodox family, becoming more and more rigid in her practice of Islam and her inability to accept any departures from the severe behavioural code she has set for herself and her children.
Nafeesa, their mother, has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and, in her first ever act of rebellion, decides to visit her daughter against the wishes of her husband. The three women spend a week together, jostling against and adjusting to each other, each responding to the child-to-be and the possibilities he represents.
All three have suffered patriarchal oppression. Seema has been cut off from her family. Tahera makes no independent decisions and does not see the problem with having to stock up her freezer with meals for the family if she has to leave for a few weeks, and is still made to feel guilty for her absence. Nafeesa was made to give up her dream of writing and singing Urdu poetry by her Anglophone husband (who, incidentally, marries her because he is so impressed with her rendition of Urdu ghazals).
There is intergenerational drama, for sure, but this very nuanced narrative transforms it into an incisive study of how these women, so diverse in their experiences as well as their expectations of life, navigate America and the world at large.
The anger of women
There is something fairly unusual that Nawaaz Ahmed does in this book. He makes space for the anger of women. Seema has much to be angry about. As teenager, she confronts her anger at her body, refusing to cede control to it when she experiences debilitating pain during an early menstrual cycle.
As a first generation, brown, queer immigrant to America, her political anger is directed towards the state as well as its citizenry that chooses to settle for scraps, instead of continuing to fight the crucial fights. Having participated in protests for most of her adult life, she is forced to question whether protests change anything at all. “Nothing will really change,” she says. “They’ll throw scraps at us to distract us from what we’re about to lose. Even these protests are just to keep us distracted and occupied.”
When San Francisco issues marriage licences to same sex couples in 2004 (a short-lived victory that was soon repealed), Seema finds it impossible to participate in the celebration that breaks out around her: “How could queer America justify rejoicing at what is simply fuller participation in the imperialistic American dream, while Iraq is rapidly sinking into further chaos, with car bombs ripping through Baghdad practically every single day?”
Seema cannot erase the intersections between gender and race; cannot unsee the suffering inflicted by America on people who share the colour of her skin. She is angry about having to justify her queerness and defend her marriage to a man. She is angry with the President for never being a real ally to the queer community. By the time Obama pronounces his support for same sex marriages in 2012, it is already too late for Seema, too late for her anger to dissipate.
Tahera, always seeing herself as secondary to her older sister in her father’s affections, embraces resentment early in life. Her intensifying immersion into religion and codified religious practice has stripped away everything that was a source of joy in her previous existence.
She abandoned Keats, the poet whose words she had memorised and experienced as a fount of joy in her teenage. When re-introduced to the poet, in her week with Seema, she grudgingly accepts his writing as a sort of guilty pleasure, feeling the need to hide the book of poetry away.
Acutely aware of the image she makes, the visibility as Muslim that she wears in her hijab and jilbab, Tahera seethes in resentment at how her personal practice of Islam is often perceived as hysteria. She wants to make herself more visible. Praying in a public place is her act of rebellion against a world that would rather invisibilise her.
She worries about her daughter, growing up in an atmosphere increasingly hostile to Muslims and particularly, Muslim women. In a strangely disbalanced corollary, she lashes out against her sister for not keeping to the codes of Islam. Tahera’s anger is often directed inward, isolating herself further.
Faith and radicalisation
Ahmed turns an interestingly inverted lens on the fear of radicalisation that White America seems to constantly be struggling with. Tahera’s eleven-year-old son Arshad is well-versed in the Quran, assured in his faith. Even as he traverses the multi-cultural spaces of his American life, balancing boyish wonder at museums and sea creatures with lessons in religion, he is made aware that he lives in a world that is hostile to him, a nation that is at war with his faith.
Arshad is growing up in a world where violence and terrorism and the threat of being labelled a terrorist are always looming large. The suspicion that South Asian people are treated with, the hate crimes, the desecration of places of worship, the trauma caused by witnessing such desecration, all of these are things that White America largely sweeps under the carpet. Born in America, born with the privilege of citizenship, Arshad is still made to feel like an outsider.
“They said Muslims are not welcome here. Why do they hate us so much,” he asks his mother. There are no easy answers, no instant absolution for seemingly harmless neighbours, schoolmates, strangers in public places, all of whom are complicit in having structured the fear that pervades Arshad’s personal space. For him, and for his parents, religion is a refuge and increasingly intolerant America seems bent on denying it to them. That religion does not decide citizenship or access to rights is a reminder that readers in India need as much as readers in Arshad’s America.
Art as succour
The text is saturated with references to the Romantic poetry of Keats (and a little bit of Wordsworth), the ghazals of Noor Jehan and Begum Akhtar, the romance and rebellion of Faiz, and even a reference to Joan Baez’s iconic rendition of We Shall Overcome at the 1963 March on Washington. Running through it, as a reminder of transgressive, celebratory love, are references to Mughal-E-Azam, K Asif’s 1960 magnum opus, a movie Seema and her family would watch repeatedly when they were still a family.
Poetry and music were brought into the sisters’ lives by their father. Teaching them to enunciate, training them for school elocution competitions, their father asks at a school event, “Why poetry?” and answers with “We may as well ask, why life? If life is a picture, then poetry is the faint flickering light that illuminates it (…) If life is a lamp, then the stirring overlapping shadows it casts all around us are poems. We cannot apprehend the one without the other. And the poet is life’s prophet.”
Poetry, the written word, music, are what give meaning to an otherwise insignificant existence, he seems to say. All those of us who turned to literature, and music, and theatre for solace when the pandemic struck and we found ourselves isolated, even unmoored, will probably find our versions of truth in Naeemullah’s words. For both sisters, poetry has been about finding unexpected joy, unspoken truths.
Ahmed’s novel is a lot like poetry, not just in its impeccable prose and its unusual narrative voice that effortlessly pulls the reader into the complex structure of the novel, but also in the way in which it speaks truths. It exquisitely balances joy against heartbreak. Like Tahera’s favourite Keatsian poems, there is, in Radiant Fugitives, both effulgent beauty and the darkness of “loss and death and yearning”.
Radiant Fugitives: A Novel, Nawaaz Ahmed, Context.