Title: The Writing on my Forehead
Author: Nafisa Haji
Publisher: William Morrow
Hardcover: 320 Pages
Bay Area's notable fiction for 2009 - SF Chronicle
From the publisher:
From childhood, willful, intelligent Saira Qader broke the boundaries between her family's traditions and her desire for independence. A free-spirited and rebellious Muslim-American of Indo-Pakistani descent, she rejected the constricting notions of family, duty, obligation, and fate, choosing instead to become a journalist, the world her home.
Five years later, tragedy strikes, throwing Saira's life into turmoil. Now the woman who chased the world to uncover the details of other lives must confront the truths of her own. In need of understanding, she looks to the stories of those who came before—her grandparents, a beloved aunt, her mother and father. As Saira discovers the hope, pain, joy, and passion that defined their lives, she begins to face what she never wanted to admit—that choice is not always our own, and that faith is not just an intellectual preference.
Several reasons allured me towards this book. First and foremost, it is a family story of a Muslim woman of Indo-Pakistani descent. Second of all, the little attestation on the book cover by one of my favorite writers 'Khaled Hosseini'. I love immigrant stories. Especially, one that involves family history. Having devoted most of my childhood years with elders more than my peers, I am naturally inclined towards stories linked to ancestral history and all. One of my favorite pastimes during adolescence was spending limitless hours of time with my grandma (Dadi). She would trace back our paternal lineage, traverse up the family tree, detailing the lives of our ancestors as much as her brain would allow her to siphon. I used to sit on her lap (or by her side, as I grew up) utterly mesmerized by her animated stories, sometimes exaggerated, at times witty, but mostly entertaining. I beseeched her to repeat several of her tales, relishing the memories, reveling in the past. My favorite story used to be the one about my great-great-great-grandmother, who won an award in the court of a 'Chola' King for astonishing him with a delicious dessert made from 'Shikakai' (a bitter powder mainly used for washing one's hair). I still remember how I used to walk tall and proud, my head up, chest out, heart bursting with pride and happiness, for several days after. Once my thirst for the ancestral history was quenched, her stories were later confined to my dad's antics, birth stories of my uncles and aunt. Even though, no dark secrets or shocking truths were revealed during our conversations, she knew how to hold my attention very well. Having raised more than half a dozen children with a meagre income from Dada, poverty took a central stage in her anecdotes. I had been a hapless witness to hunger pangs, sufferings and misfortunes. Though I felt a little powerless over her past, I acquired knowledge, derived hope and gained strength from it. I offered her hope, a promise, a better future. My knowledge of maternal lineage is comparable enough, thanks to Nani. I was not her favorite grand-daughter, though I never held her against it. We used to talk for hours, mostly about Nana, who died even before I was born. Our conversations were held usually after lunch or nap - me sipping a hot cup of tea and munching on pakoras or biscuits while Nani reclined on the Easy-Chair, her eyes closed as she traveled back in time to a period, a place where she really belonged. Nani used to recount every single anecdote with such interesting details, I almost forgot when and where I was. She used to be very detail-oriented, having kept a daily journal all her life. I learnt much more after her death, when I perused some of her journals. Having said all this, it should not come as a surprise that I got all curious and excited from reading the blurb inside the front cover of this book.
In many ways, this novel is a story about the past, about redemption, about hope. Saira's journey to the past, her quest to know more about her lineage was very similar to mine. She acquired so much knowledge from her Big Nanima and letters and journals from her Dada. It gave her enough strength and confidence to pull her through the adverse times she was about to come across later in her life. More than Saira's own, the story is so richly detailed with many other interesting plots and sub-stories. At times, it was even a little hard to keep track of several characters that sprung out of the novel. However, it only added more interest to the story, rather than diverting the attention from it. I even drew a family tree for 'Saira', just so I could keep my pace up with the novel. My favorite character in the book was, of course, 'Saira'. She is smart, unconventional and thirsty of her past. As an aspiring journalist, Saira always had questions for everyone, especially during the bedtime story sessions with her mom. Her family was deep-rooted in culture and valued family traditions, Saira's American upbringing and career aspirations brought forth conflicts and rifts within the family. She could have chosen an conventional, relatively easy life path like her elder sister, Ameena. But, Saira was strong, carefree, independent and assertive when compared to Ameena.
Saira derived inspiration from her Big Nanima, another one of my favorite characters. Big Nanima, raised in India and Pakistan, remained a spinster, to pursue her studies in London. She worked as a college professor and spent her free time adapting English Literature for Urdu plays. She equipped Saira with enough ancestral history and encouraged her to pursue her career goals, to live a life of her own. I also liked how Big Nanima was careful enough to not push Saira too much towards her freedom and taught her to value her customs and traditions as well. Every person, if lucky enough, will have someone in their family, they look up to. For Saira, it was Big Nanima. It was always welcoming to see positive characters like that. Especially in an oppressed community, where women were mostly confined to wearing 'hijab' and serving their husbands and children at home. Big Nanima instilled so much hope and confidence in Saira. Also, her character was a big asset to the story. Her love for literature was so contagious, she brought a huge smile to my face.
With lots of intricate details added to the main plot, the story itself has enough happenings to make the readers glued to the book. When reading novels, I hate switching back too much between time periods, in general. It somehow interrupts the flow, the rhythm. When I started reading this book, I was a little concerned, since her characters lived all over the place from Los Angeles to London to Karachi. Thankfully, it did not happen here. Her writing flowed effortlessly, at a smooth pace, enabling me to keep my concentration. It was an engaging read, overall. I am sure it will certainly hold interest for anyone with an immigrant past, or second generations, who are caught between two cultures.