Book Review: Nafisa Haji’s The Sweetness of Tears

A second book writing effort often seals the fate of a writer. The success of the first is sometimes attributed to luck, but as Nafisa Haji’s The Sweetness of Tears launched on May 17th (WILLIAM MORROW-HarperCollins Publishers), the advance reader’s edition received for review was temporarily pushed into background due to international events. But in a way the end of Osama bin Laden actually helps one to better understand this work, one about a small genetically connected group which in its own way encompasses the trials and tribulations of the entire human family.

Writer Nafisa Haji has used a very large story canvas here and painted it with the broad brushes of her narrative. And the final product on close review is found to contain superior and finer brushwork as well. The Sweetness of Tears is an extremely ambitious effort, one which really can test the reader’s imagination.

The story is transnational and multi-cultural in nature. It is an American novel, yet one saturated with overseas experiences of differing beliefs and cultures, just like its author who was born in Los Angeles into a family of immigrant South Asian (Pakistani-Indian) parents. The cities of Karachi especially and Mumbai are present here, but many of the lead characters are from within the American melting pot. Faiths (both Christian and Muslim), play a major role. And readers who are not familiar with the two major sects within Islam will also learn about their differences in this book.

The main character is Jo March, a very curious young American girl. Born into a family of devout Christians some of whom are actively engaged in spreading the light of faith both locally and overseas, Jo comes across and finds the answer to a genetic question. “No one disputed the fact that blue eyes are recessive, that two blue-eyed parents cannot produce a brown-eyed child.” She confronts her mother, Angela and discovers the truth, about Sadiq.

And Sadiq Ali Mubarak is certainly moved by the turn of events. “My daughter, who is newborn to me and eighteen years old, knocked at my door last month. She identified herself. First name and last. Jo---Josephine March.” Karachi-born Sadiq is taken aback. “I looked at her face, searching for traces of me. What I saw, instead, was something that reminded me of my mother. Was it her brown, wide open eyes?” Sadiq reflects back on his own childhood and the home he first knew. “A home from which another family, Hindu, had fled to newly independent India before my mother’s came to live in it, in newly formed Pakistan, having left their home behind in Bombay.”

Always gifted with languages (unlike her brother Chris), Jo March is inspired by her “gypsy” Grandma Faith and lets her newfound knowledge of herself take her into the language world of Urdu and Arabic. And then events change everything. “Days after Chris came to visit me in Chicago, the flight path of four airplanes changed the world.” Both Chris and Jo join the American effort in different ways to defend their country. And from that point onwards The Sweetness of Tears joins the post 9/11 world of conflict.

Sadiq’s mother Deena turns out to be one of the most inspiring characters in the book. Her life in Karachi with her parents, former husband and father-in-law and her Shia sect beliefs are quite detailed here for a reason. Deena’s relationship with her father, a worldly man of great ideas but a business failure, and the tale of the monkey and the crocodile make for interesting reading. “Yes, when a man is bad to his mother, it’s his wife’s fault. When a man is bad to his wife, it’s his mother’s fault. When is a man ever responsible for himself?” And some interesting societal observations through Deena growing up like: “But I was never really ashamed of my father’s fiscal failures, because while being rich counted for something, how well you spoke English counted for far more in the game of class and status in school --- in all of Pakistan for that matter.” Her later adaptation to living life in Los Angeles adds to her charm.

Romance is not lacking in this story especially through the “book version” between Deena and neighbor Umar. Somewhere between discussing Gone with the Wind and Dr. Zhivago, two young people, one Shia and the other Sunni discover that there is another story going on between them, starting from the day she literally “fell” on/for him in early life. As young adults things have changed and their meeting after a long absence brings out certain facts to Deena: “What I saw there explained everything---the reason he had stayed away, why he had come to say good-bye. I can only describe what I saw by its effect on me. Every woman should be looked at in such a way, at least once in her life.”

A few glimpses of prose from The Sweetness of Tears just won’t do here. As mentioned earlier, the author is working on a much larger (global) canvas in this book. Osama bin Laden is not dead and buried at sea in this story, but the wars that started after 9/11, especially the one in Iraq, takes center stage here. Millions of people around the world have been waiting for almost ten years now for some kind of closure on this controversial and dark chapter in history. It is here that Nafisa Haji has excelled as a writer, both in humanizing the fighting soldier and the victim. There is a great deal for us to learn again from the historical tragedy of Karbala, the same place in Iraq today that has seen so much death and destruction since 9/11. By offering her version of a healing touch to help to end this war in The Sweetness of Tears, Nafisa Haji has separated herself from the company of ordinary story-writers and might just find herself included in another league. Writing about who is responsible for committing the original sin is no longer the issue. It is how she tackles this subject in her fictional book which really makes it come to life.

- Review by Ras H. Siddiqui

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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