India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, yet no significant writing by Indian-American Muslim novelists has emerged in the body of immigrant fiction in this country. That is, until the arrival of Samina Ali on the scene. Within Islamic culture in India, Hyderabad holds a unique place, as it has evolved from a princely state under the Nizams to a state capital in modern India. Ali portrays this culture with great sensitivity in her debut novel Madras on Rainy Days. She is the voice of the masses of Muslim women who are both invisible and mute.
Ali undertakes a bold enterprise, portraying a community that practices double standards in its treatment of men and women. Layla, Ali’s protagonist, has been exposed, like her creator, to both Hyderabadi Muslim culture, governed by its rigid “Old City” conventions, and the egalitarian, Western culture of Minneapolis, where freedom includes sexual freedom. Her parents choose a Hyderabadi Muslim groom, Sameer, for her who turns out to be a closeted homosexual. Layla is insecure about her identity since she is a child of divorce. A marriage, even an arranged marriage, seems like a stable alternative in Layla’s search for both a home and parents. Sameer, for his part, looks to a possible life in America not only as an escape from the encroachment of religion into his public and personal life but also to avoid job discrimination as a minority Muslim in predominantly Hindu India.
One of the central themes of the novel is entrapment. Women can never be independent in Muslim society. Even language reflects how a woman is defined only by her relationship to others. She is bevi (wife), bhabhi (sister-in-law), apa (sister), amme (mother), and there is even a word for the other woman, sanken. Men, particularly younger men, too feel entrapped in the walled city of Hyderabad.
The novel is rich in its symbolism of the walled Old City with 13 gates. The mosque is a towering presence reminding people of religion’s supremacy over human lives.
Madras on Rainy Days is full of ironies, of expectations gone awry. It is also the story of the dilemma facing every immigrant family in this country, in balancing the values of competing cultural heritages. With this novel Ali fills a lacuna in the body of immigrant literature in which Muslims are conspicuous by their absence.
FROM POSSESSION TO SELF-POSSESSION
Samina Ali, a fresh voice articulating the plight of Indian Muslim women, lives in California with her 4-year-old son Ishmael. She was born in Hyderabad and grew up both in the U.S. and India. She received her MFA from the University of Oregon. Ali spoke to Lakshmi Mani recently about her debut novel Madras on Rainy Days, choices for American Muslim women, and double standards for men and women.
What prompted you to write this extraordinary novel about a woman who abdicated her freedom of choice as an American Muslim and tried to go with the flow of Hyderabadi Muslim tradition?
Well, it was inspired by my own story. When I was 19, I went back to India and got married to an Indian Muslim Hyderabadi, arranged for me. The marriage was never consummated. It was only after I came back to the U.S. that I discovered why. My story was a little different from the novel. My novel was inspired by that experience but it was not journalistic, not a memoir. The characters are different.
It is a wonderful book, refreshingly frank—no hypocrisy, no gilding of faults that can be found in any culture. Getting back to Layla’s case, are you saying that we are bound inevitably by our cultural past and that there is no escape?
The arc of the novel shows the process of Layla moving from a place of possession to a place of self-possession. She begins the novel in a place where she, as a Hyderabadi Muslim woman, has no agency, power, or control over her own life. She is forced to get married to this person as a family obligation, cultural obligation, and religious obligation. But as the novel progresses, Layla begins to find that she does have a home in Sameer’s home. She learns how to pray and read the Qur’an with her mother-in-law, and only by doing this she is able to understand what is expected of her as a woman in Islam and how Islam is practiced, or rather mispracticed. By the end of the novel both Layla and Sameer realize that they do have agency, and that their lives are not controlled by kismet. She realizes that the choice is ultimately hers. This novel is a very feminist novel.
I talk about this in my reading groups. Muslim women don’t identify with the Western feminist movement because it is a White middle class movement, but they also don’t identify with Alice Walker’s movement because they see it as a Black movement. Muslim women must then begin to say, if we don’t like to identify with either the White or the Black feminist movements, then what is it that we define as American Muslim feminism.
There are some American Muslim women who have gone back and accepted arranged marriages, and are happy with the system, and some are not. It is the same with wearing the chador. For the Muslim woman, the point of feminism is not whether she accepts or rejects these traditions but that she has a choice. At the beginning of the novel, Layla is manipulated by her culture and her parents. It is only later in the novel after the events that overtake her, and especially after her cousin Henna’s death that she claims her womanhood. The chador, which gives her invisibility enables her finally to take charge of her body as her own, not somebody else’s possession. She realizes that whether she makes a mistake or not, the choice is hers.
At the end of the novel, Layla asks: “Where would these streets lead?” How is this resolved?
After 9/11, I went back to the novel and revised it so that all my characters were well-rounded, so that nobody in the West would stereotype them. All the characters, especially the men, have both good points as well as bad.
During my research for an article “Beyond the Veil: Islamic Women Break the Mold” (Little India, 1995), I discovered that traditional Islam, protected through Quranic reforms some rights for women. A woman could receive the maher or dowry from a husband. I also found out that the custom of wearing the veil is less a Quranic stipulation than an influence of Byzantine and Iranian influence. Has the Qur’an been interpreted differently in Hyderabad, by its own Old City custodians of Islamic culture?
Yes. At the end of the novel, during the self-flagellation ritual of Muharrum, the women are looking down at the men, while the men are looking up at God. The women are always looking down, and the men are always looking up, as if speaking to God.
Did you encounter a lot of opposition to your novel from the Muslim community in India as well as in this country? Taslima Nasreen, author of Lajja, comes to my mind when I ask this question.
I haven’t yet, thank God. I still have my home in India. My mother still lives there. I have not said anything that is not true. Some of subjects are taboo, like talking about homosexuality. The loss of virginity for a woman is another. The father can live with two women, and that is OK. But why?
Don’t you think that the men, like Sameer, are equally trapped in Hyderabadi society, and suffocated by the Old City rules regarding personal and public behavior?
Yes. Sameer has obligations as the eldest son towards his family. He is just as much a victim. Though he was not able to provide anything as a husband, in the end he provides Layla with the most important thing in her life, her freedom. What I am hoping for is that Muslim men will realize that without their cooperation Muslim women will not get their basic human rights.
Why do you portray Layla as a sacrificial figure, always suffering secretly?
That is the only way Layla can survive in that society, since she has lost her virginity. The punishment prescribed even in the Qur’an for men and women who have sex outside the marriage is stoning.
Are you planning a sequel to this novel?
No, not now.
I was struck by the attention to concrete details and the vivid descriptions in the novel, which seemed very suitable for making a movie. Have you been approached by any filmmakers?
(laughing) Do you know any?
Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.