If a pregnant woman was in a hospital and her unborn baby was going to die unless a Caesarean section were performed, shouldn’t a doctor do just that?

The response may seem fairly apparent: yes, of course the doctor should perform the C-Sec. Hijab frames itself around questioning this answer while inviting us to doubt the confidence with which we may assume the obvious. Guruprasad Kaginele brilliantly dislodges the self-assurance of our opinions about many other socio-political questions of immigration, belonging, identity, gender, race, and religion with this question.

In Hijab – written in Kannada and translated seamlessly by Pavan N Rao – we encounter the horrible consequences of assuming the “yes”. The medical community of Amoka in the USA has carried out the life-saving C-section in the face of reluctance and coaxed formal consent – and within days, some of the pregnant Sanghaali refugees on whom Dr Radhika operates die by suicide. Cutting open the belly to remove the baby is prohibited by their culture, and the women have apparently died in protest against it, leaving the doctors of the town stunned and shaken.

Questioning the assumptions

I say “apparently” for a reason: this thread of the novel is lost somewhere in its navigation through several pertinent issues. Were these women forced to their deaths or did they willingly die? What happened to the ongoing investigations? These questions are laid aside almost by accident, even as readers get embroiled in many other questions raised owing to the suicides.

There is a binary clash – the American culture opposed by the immigrant culture. Kaginele shines here again and refuses to allow these categories to persist. Despite the doctors’ arrogant insistence, the Sanghaali women are not clinging to stubborn beliefs blindly. These women know their minds and speak them clearly, presenting the multi-layered cultural and economic reasons that they oppose C-sections.

In turn, the doctors have one retort; that the life of a baby – and a mother – is important. Hijab, by posing no other rebuttal to these women, questions whether the interests and agency of the women refusing the C-section do not matter. Is it not another form of cultural imposition to demand that they prioritise the baby’s life? Then again, is it really?

Dr Radhika, an immigrant herself, and a close friend of the narrator, Dr Guru, insists on cultural imposition as an expectation: “Once they are in America, they should live like Americans”, she protests. The hilariousness of the statement is unveiled when Srikantha, the third doctor says, “We eat rice and curry. Radhika, are we living like Americans here?” Simple, brief, and cutting. Hijab is constituted of many scenes like these, all deliberately situated to drive home Kaginele’s argument that it is impossible to neatly define an identity.

No binaries

With incident after incident, Hijab shows the reader how difference is far less delineated than we may assume. Is Radhika “Indian” because she eats Indian food, or “American” because she embraces “American” ideas around medicinal practice? How different is the Sanghaali opposition to C-sections from Dr Smith’s belief that dead babies must be buried for their peace? Is the doctors’ disregard of the Sanghaali womens’ agency very different from anti-abortionist arguments?

These conflicts culminate in a question Dr Guru asks about a Sanghaali immigrant who embraces Indian clothes, Sanghaali literature and American values – “as someone who wants to be an Indian for colourful dresses or a Sanghaali for stories, who does she really represent?”. Kaginele makes his point with a flourish and questions what even is an identity. The potential of this novel lies in the depth and complexity of its questions and thoughts; with every detail, Kaginele complicates the ideas within the pages to deepen the reader’s understanding.

However, this dedication to complexity disappears when it comes to the construction of the characters in the novel. Radhika, Guru, and Srikantha are treated as similarly in the book as in this review, as mere names.They exist in multiple scenes across the pages, but their personas are never fleshed out, their behaviour is often unexplainable to the extent of seeming immature, and their lives remain unidimensional.

Radhika kisses Guru, you wonder why; Guru never brings it up again, you wonder why; by the end, they’re flirting and you’re still wondering where any of this came from. The characters in this novel are simply never people. We know nothing of them except the narrow biographical details we receive in one chapter; a tendency to enlist information is consistent in Hijab.

Information is not narrative

Details are crucial to constituting a story, but the manner in which they are inserted make or break their effectiveness. Hijab demonstrates both, but unfortunately, more so of the latter. In what is a stunning example, a Sanghaali man says “Assalam walekum” to a doctor, identifying him as a fellow Muslim, but the doctor hesitantly responds, ‘Hi.’ One small detail that conveys how the latter is reluctant to acknowledge any association with the immigrant.

But even though Kaginele can clearly execute such brilliant manoeuvres, he all too often dumps information into clunky, unwieldy paragraphs. Pages upon pages describe what a J-1 visa is, a simple Google search of an individual turns into an excuse to write down the socio-political history of Sanghaala, and even conversations are boxed into information-containers .

The loose treatment of this information makes it unsatisfying and ineffective; you are tempted to skim through the words, distracted by the lack of flow of conversation, exasperated by the lack of cohesion. Details turn into a substitute for depth, and it is disappointing that Kaginele sacrifices the story in the process.

The book itself is undeniably inimitable in its fearless pursuit of conversations that many hesitate to begin. Particularly in 2020 – when the world is struggling with the question of refugees and immigrants, from the blind eye that the US government turns to the conditions of its refugee centres, to the recently instituted CAA in India – Hijab is daring and bold in its thoughts, raising pertinent questions and positing many well thought-out ideas. But for all that, there is a deeply ironic tragedy in how this novel sacrifices the multi-dimensionality of its characters and narrative for the sake of ideas that argue that human beings, as well as their identities, are multi-dimensional.

Hijab: A Novel, Guruprasad Kaginele, translated from the Kannada by Pavan N Rao, Simon & Schuster.