THE HOUSE OF BILQIS by Azhar Abidi. Viking/Penguin Group, Inc.: New York. April 2009. Hardcover. 224 pages. $24.95. www.AzharAbidi.com40936b6528038aea5904178f6deaff57-2

In 1985, eight years after General Zia grabbed power from Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan was a country in the throes of great change and upheaval with Islamization and Kashmiri insurgency. The House of Bilqis by Azhar Abidi offers an emotionally turbulent parallel of a mother and son in an East-meets-West-stays-East story of love divided and lost. In engaging and powerful language, Abidi pits a mother and her expectations against a son and his need to fulfill his duty to her on his own terms. Deep within its compelling juxtapositions, the novel finds solid footing in its portrayal of a woman who stands her ground and lives her life as she believes it was meant to be lived.

Samad Khan, educated outside of Pakistan and living in Melbourne, falls in love with and marries an Australian woman against his mother’s will. Nevertheless, in Karachi, Bilqis holds her head high and gives a wedding reception with the majesty expected of this particular Khan family.

Following the reception, Samad and Kate return to Melbourne but not without the couple asking Bilqis to move to Australia where she would be closer to them. Standing her ground, and disappointed that it is she who is being asked to begin her life over, Bilqis declares that her servants will look after her and that she is not about to leave behind the life and respect she has built in the city, at the university where she teaches, or with those who serve her.

The choices that Samad and Bilqis make impact their expectations of each other in such a way that only death and time will close the gap, heal the wound, and reveal the feelings that are never given a voice.

The House of Bilqis concerns itself with the changing of generations: a mother facing old age without the comforts she believed would eventually be hers, and a country wrapping itself in a restrictive and violent new skin. Rather than focus on those who leave, Abidi ingeniously tells the story through the eyes of the one who is left behind. Bilqis is the lifeblood of the story, and it is around her that the other stories revolve like the planets around the sun. She is the constant to the variables. She remains in the once-grand home, in her increasingly-violent country, in her protective cocoon with her servants to watch over her. While Bilqis cannot fully accept the many changes in her life—Samad’s marriage, her rich family history crumbling around her, Pakistan becoming a militaristic state, the breakdowns of traditions—she nonetheless carries on in a fashion that never allows her standards to waver.

Although the author states that the novel is not autobiographical, he, too,­­ left Pakistan, married an Australian woman, and started a family. Abidi’s story is universal, his writing is intelligent, and the outcome is honest. Certainly his empathy for his main character comes from real life to some degree. In a Wall Street Journal interview, Abidi states that what he would like his readers to take away from the novel is the character of Bilqis, the mother. “For me she is the most vivid character in the book. I want them to remember her and think of her as a human being,” he says. “What she goes through as a mother is what I want to last. [Bilqis] represents the true meaning of this book, which is about the journey a mother has to make.”

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.

 

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