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Friday, March 06, 2009

The Writing on My Forehead

The Writing on My Forehead, Nafisa Haji’s debut novel, is a multi-generational look at a wealthy Indo-Pakistani family through the eyes of one of its youngest members, Saira Qader. Saira, always the rebellious one in her immediate family, and now a successful journalist, has broken with most of the social traditions of her family but now finds herself in the midst of a family crisis that causes her to consider a return to the more traditional role her family always expected of her.

In a flashback to her childhood, Saira reveals how she finally learned that her family was as split by its secrets as it was by the worldwide disbursement of its members. The family split began in 1947 when a portion of India was carved away to become Pakistan, but it did not end there. Saira and her older sister, Ameena, were born and raised in the United States because their father decided not to return to India after finishing medical school in the U.S. Saira’s father, though, was not the only family member to leave India for good and she has aunts, uncles and cousins in London from both sides of her family.

Despite the geography involved, there is enough wealth in the family to ensure that every wedding or family gathering in Pakistan welcomes family visitors from England and the United States. Saira and Ameena are as much part of the family as their cousins in India and Pakistan, and their parents strive to raise them according to family and Muslim tradition. Ameena is very much her mother’s daughter, willing to do everything her parents expect of her, including the acceptance of what proves to be a very happy marriage her parents arrange for her. Saira, though, is having none of that and, from the time she begins high school, she chooses an American lifestyle that would have shocked her parents if only they had known the extent of it.

The Writing on My Forehead, is a family saga in every way except the number of pages Nafisa Haji uses to tell her story. In flashbacks involving old notebooks, letters, and stories told by the oldest members of the family, the extraordinary history of this Indian family is told at a leisurely, though detail-filled pace. This is a family filled with memorable personalities, some of whom managed to touch history in the making, but most of whom are very ordinary people simply trying to make the most of their lives. What Saira learns about their secrets both draws her closer to them and gives her license to live life on her own terms.

My one complaint with The Writing on My Forehead is the somewhat jarring change-of-pace that occurs near its end. Saira’s recounting of her family history and her own social evolution is accomplished at a pace requiring only fifteen chapters in the book’s first 264 pages. The family crisis, following the events of September 11, 2001, is told at a rapid pace that squeezes another nine chapters into the book’s last 46 pages. Perhaps, that pacing is a deliberate one to demonstrate just how frantically out-of-control Saira’s life becomes at that point, but it left this reader, at least, with the feeling that the author was in a huge hurry to finish her story. The same story, told at the pace used in the first part of the book, would have seen me more emotionally involved in the book’s final revelations.

Rated at: 3.5

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