Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina (1878) with a sentence that appears to offer profound wisdom while being the kind of aphorism that easily becomes a quiz question. As if summarizing the novel for readers too busy to read the whole thing, he writes: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Happiness is tedious and boring; smiles and contentment don’t offer scope for dramatic tension. Unhappiness is specific and can be traumatic—it becomes more interesting because it enables characterization and plot. In classic Russian tradition, Tolstoy would take hundreds of pages before reaching a conclusion, where strands meet and puzzles get solved. But first we would encounter dozens of finely-drawn characters, even if some of them appeared only in a few scenes.

The Friendly Ones: By Philip Hensher, Fourth Estate, 624 pages, ₹599.
The Friendly Ones: By Philip Hensher, Fourth Estate, 624 pages, ₹599.

Philip Hensher has done something similar with his 600-odd-page novel, The Friendly Ones, that encompasses four decades of British life through the stories of two families—the Spinsters and the Sharifullahs—whose homes are separated by a fence in Sheffield. Hilary Spinster is a retired doctor who lives with his long-suffering wife Celia. He hasn’t really loved her, though they have four children, nor can he forgive her for a past indiscretion. Even as she is seriously ill, he considers divorcing her (a nod to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale), shocking their adult children who assemble at the family home, partly in anticipation of her death, and partly hoping to avoid the disaster foretold, but unsure of what they should be doing.

The children’s lives aren’t happy either. There is Leo, who had once secured a place at Oxford despite having studied at a state comprehensive school, only to drop out, bringing unspoken disgrace to the family—then slowly disappearing from their life. Blossom’s husband works in the City, as London’s financial district is called, and she aspires to be part of the landed gentry, the British aristocracy, a class in which you can only be born or marry into, but can’t simply rise to. Lavinia grapples with troublesome lodgers, and, later, a more troublesome teenager. And there is Hugh, the actor, whose promising life is cut short in a terrorist attack.

The stories of these four characters are formidable enough, but Hensher adds colour to the stiff-upper-lip family life by introducing us to the neighbours next door—the Bangladeshi family of Sharif and his wife Nazia, who have moved up to the leafy street recently. Sharif teaches science at the university. Their children include the Cambridge-going Aisha and the intrepid twins Raja and Omith. We learn they are secularized Muslims who feel at ease in England because they serve pork pies and Cornish pasties at home.

The novel begins with a party at the Sharifullahs’—they have invited family from different parts of England to celebrate their new home and Hilary is busy pruning a tree when a minor disaster strikes. As one of the twins nearly chokes on food, Hilary jumps over the fence and performs a quick tracheotomy to revive the boy.

Aisha has brought a socially awkward Italian boyfriend whom she dumps that weekend, and, drawn to Leo, she rather inexplicably writes him a love letter, which Leo rejects condescendingly and ungraciously, as Eugene Onegin did to Tatiana in Alexander Pushkin’s eponymous novel (Hensher acknowledges the debt openly). Many years later, like Eugene, Leo would try to reconnect with Aisha, only to be snubbed by her.

Celia’s death unglues the Spinster family; it would seem Hensher has written a simple morality tale of how contemporary English family life is doomed to unhappiness because of repressed emotions, and that Sharif’s family is happier. But there is a deeper, darker tragedy in the latter too.

Sharif is the model immigrant—moving upward economically by working diligently, well-mannered, his wife Nazia making an effort to integrate in what is a small northern England town. They are quick to understand the nuanced signals of unhappy neighbours and learn local mores. And they are grateful for the opportunity England has provided. But turn the clock back to 1971, when Pakistan was on the brink of a break-up, with East Pakistan wanting to become Bangladesh, and Pakistani troops responded by unleashing a reign of terror.

At that time, you could divide the Bengali people three ways—those who supported independence, like Sharif and most of his family; those who fought for freedom by joining the Mukti Bahini, like Sharif’s younger brother Rafiq; and those who collaborated with Pakistani troops and betrayed Bengalis—the razakars, or the “friendly" ones. Mahfouz, who has married Sharif’s sister, is one of the latter. Mahfouz reveals Rafiq’s whereabouts to the Pakistanis, who take him away, never to be seen again. Rafiq’s character is drawn from Jahanara Imam’s engrossing and tragic memoir, Ekattorer Dinguli (The Days Of ’71), where she tells the story of her son Shafi Imam Rumi, who disappeared after he was betrayed. Imam would later come to be known as shahid janani (martyr’s mother) and lead the campaign to bring the war criminals of 1971 to trial in Bangladesh.

After Rafiq’s disappearance (and presumed death), Sharif cuts all ties with his sister and her husband Mahfouz, avoiding all contact with him even after they both end up in England. Sharif is well loved by his department and colleagues but he encounters crude racism. When rowdy boys of a neighbouring school call him “Paki", he loses his calm and tells them: “Do you know what I am? My country was Bangladesh. I have more reasons to hate Pakistan than you do" (Hensher’s understanding of Bangladesh is affectionate and profound—his husband is the Bangladeshi human rights lawyer Zaved Mahmood, and, in an earlier novel, Scenes From Early Life, he had movingly recreated the Dhaka of the 1970s). The sections where he describes Dhaka under siege are vivid and memorable.

It is when Hensher brings the two families together that the novel becomes a sum greater than its parts. We discover the unlikely emergence of friendship between Sharif and Hilary, a bond that becomes close enough for Nazia and Sharif to host Hilary’s 100th birthday party, a warm coda to the novel, even if somewhat optimistic in an England divided over Brexit and its aftermath.

Sharif will never get what he wants—his brother won’t return; his mother dies without getting justice for the loss of her son; he won’t get reconciled with his sister; but there is justice—of sorts—when deep-seated fundamentalism consumes Mahfouz and his family.

The Friendly Ones offers a remarkable portrait of Britain today, of its outwardly calm but inwardly pained families, caught in a world where headline-grabbing events like the London terrorist attacks and phenomena like young British Muslims joining the IS spill out of television sets and affect the lives of those who saw themselves merely as bystanders.

lounge@livemint.com

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