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Review: “The Return of Faraz Ali”, by Aamina Ahmad


Ahmad — who was born in London and teaches creative writing at San Jose State University — puts up no Western guardrails along the sides of her story. In this way, the novel has the assurance of “We That Are Young”, by Preti Taneja. There is no open explanation of what time of day the Fajr prayer takes place, nor how many stops the train makes between Khulna and Gwalior. The implicit message to the reader is simple: be in place or not; no one will translate the signs.

It’s hard to write a novel like this and not face a specter of violence. There is immense misery in this book. Ahmad has done her research and the world she is building – where women in Mohalla are grateful for the birth of a girl because the child, through the work she will inevitably be forced to do, represents a kind of blueprint retirement for the parent; where the murder of such a child is treated as an unpleasant inconvenience – is fictional, but attached to the world as it was, and still is in some places. Throughout the novel, as Ali struggles to reconcile his morality with the orders given to him, while chasing the family past he has been denied access to, the purest form of misery arises. reveals as a heritage, a thing transmitted.

Line-wise, Ahmad has a habit of using softness against the more grotesque scenes, giving them an intimacy that anything louder would likely erase. Early in the story, while trying to quell a protest, Ali smashes one of the young protesters to a pulp: “There was relief in the way the boy’s face opened up to him , his contours, his ridges collapsing so easily, as if he wanted nothing more than that, as if he was set free.

Ahmad’s compassion and deep care for the psychological and emotional nuances of his characters never wavers, no matter how monstrous, self-interested, or defeated they become. The fact remains that Ali suffered the punishment for having refused to follow orders: exile in eastern Pakistan on the eve of Bangladesh’s independence, his brilliant career prospects stifled. Still, Ali’s sister Rozina, once a diva of some fame, navigates the barrenness of life out of the spotlight. It stretches through generations and transformations of place, to a devastating final chapter, fully human, fully engaged with what makes us human, no matter how small the wounds or the immunity of those who inflict them. The powerful can often escape consequences, Ahmad shows, but life without them is its own kind of poverty, its own miserable legacy.


Omar El Akkad is the author, more recently, of “What Strange Paradise”.


THE RETURN OF FARAZ ALI
By Amina Ahmad
339 pages. Riverhead Books. $27.

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