Across three generations
If there is one good thing about a job that involves reading piles of bad books, it is that once in a while comes a story that is so exquisitely plotted, researched and written that it blots out the bad memory of all the trash you have read. Anosh Irani’s Dahanu Road is that book. Set in Dahanu, the chikoo-growing suburb of Mumbai, Irani tells a tale of three generations of Iranis—Shahpur, Aspi and Zairos. It is a story of intertwined destinies and uncomfortable class divisions crafted in an unapologetic voice.
In 1920, Shahpur Irani, a 10-year-old boy, escapes Muslim persecution and flees to India with his father. Eighty years later, at the turn of the millennium, he is a grand old seth, the owner of acres of chikoo farms that employ the local Warli tribals. Dahanu Road begins with the suicide of Ganpat, a worker on the farm. Zairos, Shahpur’s 20-something grandson who discovers the body, is left to deal with the family of the deceased. He meets Ganpat’s daughter Kusum, who’s married to an abusive drunk, and finds himself irresistibly attracted to her. Zairos breaks the century-old class rules and upsets the delicate balance of the fair-skinned Iranis and the sun-hardened Warlis not because he pursues his passion for Kusum, but because he cares for her.
The narrative interlaces the past and present, each providing the context for the other. Irani has researched the Warlis, their disagreement with and revolt against the landowners of Dahanu, extensively and sets down a powerful context of the conflict in the plot. And though the author has lived in Canada for a dozen years now, he paints a very intricate and very real picture of dusty Dahanu. So much so that days after I finished the book, my dreams were still of Zairos and Kusum—running through the chikoo plantation, riding the bike through the suburb’s tiny streets, having lunch at the Crazy Crab restaurant. In this age of multiple stimuli and fleeting narratives, anything that endures more than a day is implicitly superior.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is a British Muslim girl living in north London who wears a headscarf out of choice and wants to get married. So she makes a list of six qualities for her ideal man. He should be attractive, university-educated, be born or have lived in the UK, Canada or US since he was at least 18, have a social circle, vision and some sparkle. Then, she proceeds to have a series of the familiar samosa and sweets “boy-seeing” ceremony. There is Mobeen, who plays a practical joke on her, Karim, who blames a bolt of lightning for not reverting with an answer, and Khalil, who did not want to marry anyone who was only 5ft 3 inches tall. And so they go on, some 280 pages of badly behaved or completely unsuitable boy stories. It’s all too familiar, none too hilarious.
As someone indifferent to marriages, I find it hard to understand why Janmohamed—Oxford-educated, well-employed and well-travelled, as she constantly reminds us—is obsessed about finding a husband. But her explanations of the challenges of being a cosmopolitan, practising Muslim are engaging. She discusses her interpretation of the Quran and powerfully details her choice of wearing what is often perceived as the garb of the oppressed. In an ideal world, this book would not have been written at all—girls shouldn’t be preoccupied with finding the One and Muslims shouldn’t have to explain their choices to the world. But then an ideal world is as fictitious as a perfect husband.