Book review

Two families wrestle with their opposing Muslim identities in Kamila Shamsie’s ‘Home Fire’

From the Man Booker longlist: How do a hijab-wearing woman and a proudly undevout man end up pitting cherries for jam on a terrace together?

Kamila Shamsie, writer extraordinaire, returns with a seventh, timely novel on what it means to be Muslim in the West today. When Khizr Khan claimed boldly last year that his wife and he were “patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to our country”, he was universally praised as a powerful voice speaking against divisive politics. But as pointed out by Sandip Roy (and a few others), the fact that Muslims are asked for their “undivided loyalty” should trouble rather than reassure us. Citizens of a complicated world, Shamsie’s latest book, now longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017, is for you.

Home Fire revolves around two families in London who have diametrically opposed views on how to wrestle with their Muslim identity. The members of one pray, cover their heads, are cautious, and distance themselves from radical elements. The other disowns the religion entirely, brands it regressive and misogynist, breaks old family ties, and assimilates with white, powerful people. But the two families, different as they are, have an old neighbourhood connection that is reignited as their grown-up children meet in a chance encounter.

How do a hijab-wearing woman and a proudly undevout man end up pitting cherries for jam on a terrace together? And how stable is that image? Is it possible in present day London? Shamsie has us guessing throughout the book – questioning both our scepticism and our hope in turbulent times.

City in character

The city of London is a central character in Home Fire. It’s a place where fortunes can capsize or ascend rapidly. It’s a place where immigrant communities huddle together when the sacrifice of culture required to assimilate is too much. It’s a place where when a woman in a salwar kameez sees another she rushes across the road and grabs her arm. It’s where Eid celebrations bring practising and non-practising Muslims together as family. It’s where a woman with a covered head can be spit on in underground trains. In cities called cosmopolitan and melting pots, are harmonious, inter-cultural relationships set to thrive or perish?

Isma has raised her siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, since they were 12 years old. Isma’s depth of love for the twins is as if they were her own children. But the twins form their own emotional enclosure which Isma cannot enter. Their childhood in North London is lived under the unspeakable shadow of their deceased, jihadist father. When asked by curious playmates about the mysterious figure from their past, the three siblings have each tailored their own response.

These different approaches to what family means ultimately separate the siblings in ways they cannot control. Laid down in chronological narrative, Shamsie seems to encourage us to ask what we would have done differently and to carefully question whether it would have made a difference.

Karamat Lone has married an Irish woman called Terry. He has named his son Eamonn instead of the Muslim name,Ayman. He has risen through the ranks of the British Parliament by stepping away from his Muslim roots. As a Muslim man in power, he feels compelled to appear strong on issues of immigration and security. When Eamonn strikes up a friendship with Isma and Aneeka, it brings his two necessarily separate worlds together.

M for Muslim

Early in his career, when the choice between family and religion, and political career and power is presented, Karamat chooses the latter. Home Fire puts the question to him a second time, this time in relation to his beloved and pampered son. What will Karamat choose? And what does it reveal about the pressures and the freedoms for Muslims today?

Unlike books that have come out of West Asia (and, occasionally, South Asia) for decades, depicting extremists as terrifying and unknowable, Home Fire shows the human naiveté that can draw a teenage boy to training camps in Syria. The right narrative, cleverly delivered, can convince a young person who isn’t too sure of themselves. They may not even know what they’re being asked to do. Promises of women, power, brotherhood and ideological clarity are used to lure young Muslims in the West. That these boys are targeted and groomed is often left out of the narrative. People are quick to disown them. Home Fire is an attempt to at least understand them.

Love and kindness

As a devoted reader of Shamsie’s books, I am charmed by the ways in which she returns (anew) to old impulses in every book. Whether it is Raheen and Karim in Kartography (2003) or Hiroko and Sajjad in Burnt Shadows (2009), Shamsie has always written about love in a deeply uncynical way. That love falters, hesitates or betrays is never in doubt. But Shamsie’s stories are determined to show how surmountable love can make every challenge seem. At the very moment we have written her lovers off, they return, hat in hand, to each other with kindness. It is a testament to Shamsie’s powers as a storyteller that we believe her.

Another old thread that returns in this novel is the value of human touch in South Asian communities. In Salt and Saffron (2000), Shamsie wrote a sentence I have never been able to forget:

“…more than monsoon rains, more than crabbing beneath a star-clustered sky, what I missed about Karachi was the intimacy of bodies.”

Isma has always comforted Aneeka by holding her when she is upset. But when she moves to the States for a PhD, they lose this crucial way of connecting with each other. Aneeka and Parvaiz synchronise their heartbeats. Their way of relating to one another is tied up in having bodies that mirror the other’s.

Home Fire is a book to lose ourselves in. I read Shamsie’s latest on a day encumbered with relatives and chatter, but I slipped into the book so completely I rarely heard them. The characters are vulnerable, flawed and determined. No one chooses to be helpless. They find their individual ways of confronting the odds stacked against them. This is one of the very best books of the year so far.

An excerpt from the novel

A man entered the office, carrying Isma’s passport, laptop and phone. She allowed herself to hope, but he sat down, gestured for her to do the same, and placed a voice recorder between them.

“Do you consider yourself British?” the man said.

“i am British.”

“But do you consider yourself British?”

“I’ve lived here all my life.’ She meant there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive.

The interrogation continued for nearly two hours. He wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites. after that early slip regarding her Britishness, she settled into the manner that she’d practised with Aneeka playing the role of the interrogating officer, Isma responding to her sister as though she was a customer of dubious political opinions whose business she didn’t want to lose by voicing strenuously opposing views but to whom she didn’t see the need to lie, either. (“When people talk about the enmity between Shias and Sunni it usually centres around some political imbalance of power, such as in Iraq or Syria – as a Brit, i don’t distinguish between one Muslim and another.” “Occupying other people’s territory generally causes more problems than it solves” – this served for both Iraq and Israel. “Killing civilians is sinful – that’s equally true if the manner of killing is a suicide bombing or aerial bombardments or drone strikes.” There were long intervals of silence between each answer and the next question as the man clicked keys on her laptop, examining her browser history. He knew that she was interested in the marital status of an actor from a popular TV series; that wearing a hijab didn’t stop her from buying expensive products to tame her frizzy hair; that she had searched for “how to make small talk with Americans”.

“You know you don’t have to be so compliant about everything,” Aneeka had said during the role-playing. Her sister, not quite nineteen, with her law-student brain, who knew everything about her rights and nothing about the fragility of her place in the world. “For instance, if they ask you about the Queen, just say, ‘as an Asian i have to admire her colour palette.’ It’s important to show at least a tiny bit of contempt for the whole process.”

Instead, Isma had responded, “I greatly admire Her Majesty’s commitment to her role.” But there had been comfort in hearing her sister’s alternative answers in her head, her Ha! of triumph when the official asked a question she’d anticipated and that Isma had dismissed, such as the Great British Bake Off one. Well, if they didn’t let her board this plane – or any one after this – she would go home to Aneeka, which is what half Isma’s heart knew it should do in any case.

How much of Aneeka’s heart wanted that was a hard question to answer – she’d been so adamant that Isma not change her plans for America, and whether this was selflessness or a wish to be left alone was something even Aneeka herself didn’t seem to know. A tiny flicker in Isma’s brain signalled a thought about Parvaiz that was trying to surface, before it was submerged by the strength of her refusal ever to think about him again.

Eventually, the door opened again and the woman official walked in. Perhaps she would be the one to ask the family questions – the ones most difficult to answer, the most fraught when she’d prepared with her sister.

“Sorry about that,” the woman said, unconvincingly. “Just had to wait for America to wake up and confirm some details about your student visa. All checked out. Here.” She handed a stiff rectangle of paper to Isma, with an air of magnanimity. It was the boarding pass for the plane she’d already missed.

Isma stood up, unsteady because of the pins and needles in her feet, which she’d been afraid to shake off in case she accidentally kicked the man across the desk from her. As she wheeled her luggage out she thanked the woman whose thumbprints were on her underwear, not allowing even a shade of sarcasm to enter her voice.

Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie, Bloomsbury India.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.