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Six Metres of Pavement tells a moving story of the coming together of a “prefab family” of a man, woman, and child. The reader is left with a firm idea that a family can take many forms, traditional and otherwise, a cause promoted by gay families continuing their struggle for political legitimacy. The six metres become emblematic of the small divides that can frequently prevent us from finding each other, gay or straight, brown or white.The “child,” 20-year-old Fatima, is by far the most interesting character, a feisty bisexual University student whose parents have had an extremely adverse reaction to the revelations of her sexuality. Homeless and running out of funds, Fatima turns to the main protagonist, Ismail, for help.
Ismail, the “man,” is a rather melancholy middle-aged character full of regrets and self-recrimination, unable to give up reminders of “an old love and an enduring mistake.” An accident that happened almost twenty years ago has left an emotional scar that has healed insufficiently.
Luckily for us, the “woman” Celia draws Ismail into a sweet late-life romance even as the palette of her monochromatic widow’s wardrobe becomes more colorful. Through Celia’s character, Doctor interrogates the psyche of a widow who has served her family all her life and is now quite literally looking for a room of her own. Defying societal expectations that grandmothers simply fade away as they age, Celia is experiencing a new vitality and sense of independence.
The narrative is set in the northerly climes of Toronto, this chilly adopted homeland providing the site for a writing class attended by Ismail and Fatima. The self-referential allusion to the art of writing itself is an interesting literary device. The reader is allowed an insight into how these characters see each other, and the stories they create of their own lives, much like a Russian doll of story within story.
The book is populated with a cast of desi stereotypes. Our characters have found themselves transgressing the strict moral codes of the desi immigrant. Fatima can find only censure and paranoia from her parents Hassan and Shelina, who entreat her to reform and become a “good girl.” Nabil, a pillar of the community, is emblematic of the model immigrant who has become successful and can now dispense advice to his brother Ismail, who, as a divorced loner who drinks too much, must listen. For Ismail has made the mistake of giving up on his dreams:
“A starter home is supposed to be temporary. Ismail was supposed to be the sort of husband who would ascend through the ranks of the public service, his income rising with each annual promotion… they’d move to a detached four-bedroom with a big backyard and a two-car garage in an [sic] postal code where the property taxes were higher and the schools better.”
Ismail’s inability to stay away from the Merry Pint, a local watering hole, and his unsatisfactory hookups with the Merry Pinters, women who frequent the bar, have left him with self-loathing and self-pity that make Hunter Thompson seem well-adjusted. He cries frequently. It was while reading about another of Ismail’s lachrymose lapses that I found myself speculating about a cinematic adaptation of the book, and who would populate it.
The book falls with ease within the rich tradition of the social problem novel. Six Metres of Pavement does an important job of making homosexuality acceptable, promoting multicultural understanding, and sympathizing with the aspirations of women. No wonder the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council have supported this work. Some readers might question whether Six Metres of Pavement has an “edutainment” agenda.
Remember the first Indian soap opera Hum Log (1984) commissioned by the Indian government broadcast television channel, Doordarshan? Tucked away within the storyline were messages encouraging family planning and other pro-social values. I am happy to report that any such edification in this book has been well integrated within the human drama that the author describes with skill and flair.
Geetika Pathania Jain earned her doctorate in International Communications. She lives in Cupertino and teaches media courses for the University of Phoenix Online.