Review of “Radiant Fugitives” by Nawaaz Ahmed
It is with the circle of life and death that Nawaaz Ahmed begins his first novel, Radiant fugitives. In a San Francisco hospital room, Seema dies giving birth to her son Ishraaq, the narrator of the novel. As he oscillates between life and death, we meet the rest of Seema’s family in the waiting room: her ex-husband Bill, mother Nafeesa and younger sister Tahera.
Radiant fugitives is the story of three women – a mother and her two daughters torn apart by their past and reunited in a final attempt at reconciliation by their dying mother. Seema’s pregnancy unites her with Nafeesa and Tahera years after she was disowned by her father for turning out to be a lesbian. Tahera, a devout and practicing Muslim, criticizes her sister’s life choices. Nafeesa, terminally ill, travels to San Francisco to work things out between her daughters against her husband’s express wishes. Since Ishraaq’s birth, the story goes through flashbacks as Ahmed traces the complex roots of their hostilities to each other and, more importantly, to themselves.
Families within families
Most South Asian intergenerational novels focus on the struggle between modernity and tradition as the main reason for the conflicts between its characters. Ahmed offers a much more nuanced approach. Here, the struggle is over individual identity when the forces that shape it – political, religious, gender, family – are themselves in conflict with one another. The
the characters break under the tension between loyalty to themselves and to their family roles. As Seema’s partner Leigh observes, Seema’s reservations about introducing Leigh to her mother and sister are not so much about Islamic restrictions as they are about the imaginary judgment of these two women. Ahmed is fair in his observation of families within families as an undeniable reality of South Asian households – Tahera and Nafeesa’s bond grows stronger when they have to depend on each other to resist the joint strength of the father. and the strong personality of the eldest daughter.
Throughout the novel, Ahmed remains aware of the importance of politics which he makes personal. Seema and her ex-husband Bill reunite and go their separate ways over the issue of same-sex marriages and politicians’ stance on it in the presidential election countdown. While they both support Obama and Kamala Harris, Seema is skeptical of Obama because he is unlikely to come out in favor of same-sex marriages. The rise of intolerance against Muslims in America, the war in Iraq – all of these issues deeply affect actors as they worry about America’s future. Tahera is aware of being watched because of her hijab, and Nafeesa advises her to blend in to avoid ostracism in post 9/11 America.
To alleviate the tension of families and politics, Ahmed turns to poetry, interspersing the narrative with poems by Keats, ghazals, and loving descriptions of Islamic rituals. The hazy beauty of San Francisco allows the characters to breathe between pivotal events. Making Seema’s unborn son the narrator, however, seems like an unnecessary trick. It tends to be confusing after a while.
What underlies Radiant fugitives are choices. The end is an elegy at the price you pay to be individualistic: Seema obtains the freedom not to be jostled by the world “at the expense of keeping everyone at a distance. She remembers her family, her friends, her lovers, her homes, the many people she left behind or from whom she escaped … She only knows how to fight the universe, like s ‘there was no other way to access his secret storehouse of happiness.
Nawaaz Ahmed’s first novel is unique not only in its characters but also in its prose. We wonder if this will have repercussions on the way we look at the canon of the great American novel.
Radiant fugitives; Nawaaz Ahmed, Westland, ₹ 699
The reviewer is a freelance writer and illustrator.