Book review: Daughters of Char Chinar by Almas Hussain.

Daughters of Char Chinar by Almas Hussain.

Daughters of Char Chinar by Almas Hussain. It has been portrayed as a book that focusses on women’s education, hence the ‘Ilm’ bookmark.

*SPOILER ALERT* LONG REVIEW BUT PLEASE READ*

I found this book on a video about books by @pirates_books

I picked it for obvious reasons: 1. the author is my namesake &  if there is one name I’d love to see next to mine, it is Hussain. 2.she is from Calcutta- my mummy’s hometown. 3.the premise of the book is about liberation of women through education & 4. The cover is gorgeous

I got myself a Kindle copy & the dedication (swipe) made me love the author all the more- 1 of her sisters is Rehana (my mummy’s name) & 1 is Farhat (name of my phuppi who actually named me Almas).

I was glad to dig into it. However, one major put off was the author identifying as coming from a Nawab family. Nawabs were feudal lords& there is absolutely nothing to be proud of feudalism – something outlawed in Independent India – & especially in a book which talks of tribal laws that mimic..well… Feudal culture. Anyway, I let it pass coz I realize dat things take time to be understood.

I attended the virtual book launch which had the eminent lawyer & Congress leader Salman Khurshid. I was eager to know his take on the book & one of the first things he mentioned was – Nawabs are feudals, a thing of the past- 😁 Lol… I felt a bit okay about myself ki chalo good, I wasn’t overthinking. Another great point he brought up was how such stories can perpetuate the idea of only a certain group of people  abusing their women. “Know them by their clothes” as @kavereeb prompted. Khurshid confirmed if the author has lived in the part of the world she alludes to (no she has not). But, I had read about the author & she has written another story about gender bias based in Jharkhand (the very premise of which sounds a bit tricky but I haven’t read it so won’t comment yet). Also, after you read the  book , you realize that the author has NOT projected all men as toxic but only very few of a certain feudal family. Some of the majn characters are very supportive males. This gives the feeling that Khurshid had not really read the book, a feeling which kind of galvanized when I finished the book coz there is something so extremely problematic there that I would be worried if an eminent law – fighter and policy maker DOES NOT find it problematic enough to be discussed. (Which also makes me feel Bamzai who is a senior journalist, also hasn’t read the whole book- at least I hope she hasn’t). Now coming to the review, first the pros:
1. The theme definitely was interesting- subjugated girls in this fictional place called Char Chinar but clearly alluding to a certain geography- where ‘women’ are handed over as blood money for murders and ‘rape’ is a punishment, not a crime. Read this line again coz it is important to understand my later comments.
2. The what’s-gonna-happen-next feeling is well maintained until the very end.
3. There are some amazing characters like Jin and Tuktuk.
4. Desire in young girls is shown well. It shows how young girls desire boys, even those who are burqa clad.

Now the cons:
1. I didn’t like the writing style. But that could simply be me:
-I found the pacing to be a major problem. The book seems to be running. It’s like everything is on a fast forward mode. Being an avid audiobook fan compels me to ‘hear’ what I am reading & it sounds like 1.75x already. The book is around 300 pages but clearly needs another 100-150 pages added just to pace things and to build scenes
-The scenes are not built and do not grow on you. There are pages in which as many as three major things have happened with none of the ‘things’ getting any ‘scene’. And happening once or twice, this would have been okay..nope. it’s everywhere. As a contrast I’d recommend the chapter where the Art Teacher learns that Meher & Bela are sisters. That is so well described, I loved it. Soon after in the same chapter, the pacing gets back to running.
-The story is told in the author-narrator’s voice. I’d have preferred it to be a multi POV story as there are so many amazing characters. There are pages & pages of narration with little dialogue.

2. Content:
My oh my, where do I even start with this! But…okay..
– I hated the fact that staging death of a twin and fake-scarring another is an idea used in a book purportedly talking of women liberation. Could have let it pass if it was something criticized heavily. Nope. This idea is considered ingenious & mightily praised by ALL until towards the end when suddenly ALL see how stupid it was.
– the fact that Javed’s “kiss without consent” is romanticized. I think it is HIGH TIME we incorporate consent in our discourse. We are in 2020. We CANNOT show that a boy kisses a girl by surprise and THEN she falls for him. NO NO NO.
We CANNOT.
THIS   PERPETUATES  RAPE  CULTURE.

Does this happen? Probably yes. Should this be SHOWN? NOT in a POSITIVE LIGHT. Cozzzzz it HAPPENS only coz it is SHOWN AS SUCH… it has been shown repeatedly. Go through our 90s movies. They are shitty as hell. This cannot be something ‘romanticized’ in 2020. In a book where the theme is women’s emancipation. 😐

– the girls work hard. They rise & shine & all that. But, the secret to their success is inheritance & donation. Let that sink in.

– too much good luck: the author really didn’t know where to stop. Okay the girls have a great school going for themselves. Zubaida dies at a very opportune time ..hmm fine… Then Farid returns 👎🏽
Farid returns after 80,000 years of not being around…AFTER his daughters have eaened a name for themselves, with no one suspecting his intentions & embracing him with open arms 👎🏽
Damn it… Even Farid’s father’s presence (through another son) returns. Whattt is happening? 😂 And the money?? I mean Dickie Drake’s son has a Foundation… Oh pleez. Let me breathe.

– the girls who are extremely beautiful..like drop dead gorgeous…so much that the scar doesn’t turn off Amir & the others- but then Nafisa looks ugly to a CROWD of LUSTING MEN who are out to RAPE. Like seriously? Have you ever heard.. ‘she was spared from rape coz she was ugly’ This grossly undermines the rape of so many babies and ladies far from what is considered conventionally beautiful. Also perpetutaes the myth of beautiful girls alone being harassed.

-Bhola, who flashes his genitals at Nafisa in the Jirga court, later helps the girl’s family know what has conspired & shows them the way to the house. And yes..that vindicates him. Bhola even says something in the lines of…’I was always considered useless.. how helpful I am now.’ Probably the author wanted to show that it is ill treatment by his family which has turned him into this rash fellow flashing genitals otherwise toh every human is so humane. Okay great that Bhola is shown as a grey character..coz.. NO ONE ELSE IS…
– Characters are shown as black or white. Either total villains like Kazi Shah. Or angels like the other men- Hakim for instance. Grey shades are conspicuously missing except in the case of Bhola above where it is jarringly conspicuous.
– Realism goes for a toss when people are shown as liberal to a fault. Take for example the instance where Meher announces that she is pregnant & Nafisa is upset & scolds her sister coz this can have severe societal consequences. Yes. That’s how people react. That’s precisely how people, in some god forsaken place where ‘jirga’ courts function & where a beautiful girl has to be falsely declared dead to ‘protect’ her, should react. But Hakim and Shakeela…nope.nope.nope. “Pre-marital pregnancies in our beautiful mountains are soooooo common.. Happens allll the time.” 
Seems unrealistic AF. Not saying that pre marital pregnancies should not be accepted. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t suit the context at all & Is another attempt at removing all grey elements from people. Making Hakim look so liberal that it doesn’t hurt him a bit that his loving son was having a ‘hidden affair’. I mean…wouldn’t liberal parents expect their children to be more open about their relationships? 🤷🏽‍♀️
– a brief mention of when one of the sisters says that they’d call Jin by his childhood name, Kana, & he turns it down. Why was it mentioned there. Very out of place. Nothing wrong about it. Just… Out of place.
– Too many fillers- example- the whole theatre going…doesn’t add to the story one bit.
– Pre-Climax: Throughout the book I thought that the girls being revealed ( by chance or by self) would be related to the climax (coz obviously so much focus is given on it in the book), but that happens in a very casual way, a little after mid-novel & was disappointingly done. The little to no recation by others such as the super liberal Hakim on learning that the twin is alive & the scar is fake & ppl just moving on as if all this is usual, in fact, praising the chalaki of Nanna, is (as mentioned above) bad pacing & lack of scene building. After this fizzled out Pre-Climax comes nearly a hundred pages of property acquisition .. why? 🤷🏽‍♀️

-Nafisa’s rape is dealt with very insensitively. People cry for a bit but are soon going about as if nothing has happened. okay, probably the author wants to show rapes are no big deal. butttt….I don’t buy that. The author actually chooses to describe Farid’s and Tuktuk’s rivalry WHILE  THEY  SIT  NEXT  TO THEIR  DAUGHTER  IN  THE  HOSPITAL  BED    AFTER  BEING  RAPED.
Yes, rapes shouldn’t end a girl’s life. We and our families should be able to bounce back & live fully & without any stigma whatsoever. But there are ways to show it. The emotional aspect of rape is completely omitted & I find that very insensitive (especially coz the rape itself is described- THAT is something which can be ommitted). I mean, I was sexually harassed & for months I was scared to walk on the road ( even busy roads & in daylight) without constantly turning back to look out for people coming from behind me. I think people should write about sexual violence with due diligence or not write about it at all. Nafisa’s rape is, in a way, the central point of this story. The story begins with her being dragged to the Jirga court. So, this SHOULD have been dealt better.

I would have accepted ALL THIS. Really. I mean it is very Danielle Steel-ish and Maeve Binchy-ish over dramatic filler-full story..& probably an author whose craft is not as strong as others in dealing with the subject she has chosen. but okay… In my head I’d decided that I’d still give it a nice 2.5 stars. BUT. Then came the climax- every bit of which was unnecessary. Here goes:

– Nafisa gets pregnant out of the rape. I think this was an unnecessary extension especially given what happens at the end. But, okay.
– She chooses to keep the child & become a single mother. I agree that CHOICE is important. And a woman who chooses to keep the child should be allowed to. I also understand why the author selected this path ..to show that Nafisa was now bold enough to be a single unwed mother in that horrendous place. BUT… the only problem here is that, women usually find it difficult to NOT KEEP these children. Women who want an abortion coz they don’t want a child out of rape, do not know how and where to go to seek that abortion. A lot of these girls are young & die at childbirth coz their bodies have not developed to bear a child. They use unsafe medical methods & die of sepsis.
Shall I tell you WHO should have been shown as a  proud single mother? Meher. The author could have well shown Amir deserting her or just fucking falling off a cliff while driving (coz anyway the book is super dramatic) and Meher being an unwed single mother who raises her child proudly coz she loved Amir, and that child was conceived out of real passionate lovemaking  & not rape (in spite of the political correctness of mentioning condom & ‘jumping’ to avoid pregnancy). Nafisa should have been shown as being open about her rape, but then seeking medical help and terminating the pregnancy….
– Javed is shown as a good man who doesn’t stigmatize Nafisa, wants to go ahead with the marriage and raise this child (of rape by Zorawar) as his own. All good except that….
-Nafisa learns that her rapist (& remember we read the rape described) the one who tells her to convey to her family that she was raped doggie style, the rape that puts her on her death bed. That rapist is none other than Mr. Javed. The man she fell in love with after his non-consensual kiss. He tells it in an attempted loving way…that the child is his own.. nafisa’s initial reaction is obvious. She is hurt and angry & even lashes back at Javed when he calls the rape ‘lovemaking’. But soon she has forgotten all about the ‘hurt’ and wants Javed back. Wen Zorawar explains that Javed offered his ‘raping’ services to protect Nafisa from Zorawar and others’ raping her “coz you know we would have ravaged you and left you dead, but my cousin is such a gentleman rapist”, Nafisa is all soft and mushy. She TOTALLY UNDERSTANDS THE protective nature of this rape & that two eunuchs had overseen “full penetration” by Javed. And Javed the obedient has now gone away coz Nafisa had told (fool that she was in not gauging the nature of rape earlier) him to go away. Now Nafisa is pining for her lover-fiance-child’s father- rapist.
But, mind you… She has forgiven him even before Zorawar gives this twisted abhorrent explanation (which anyway she accepts ). Nafisa says her “personal suffering is nothing when compared to the ’cause’. Yes, Javed raped me but he was the one who rehabilitated me back and is bringing funds for the academy”…something in those lines.
I cannot begin to say how disgusting this aspect of the book is. It’s  like saying that you can rape a girl if you love her and have promised marriage. It’s almost legitimizing date rape, marital rape and is completely at odds with “No means No” which people are struggling to make society understand.
It’s like saying that you rape a person & help her out financially, & you are sorted and all is well.
It’s like saying that a milder rape is better than a severe rape.  What is a milder rape anyway?
It’s just absolutely disgusting.

What Javed did was wrong. It was rape. I’d have STILL understood if Javed committed the act and then went and killed himself for not being able to live with himself (okay also dramatic) .. or maybe atleast Nafisa not accepting him back coz a rape is a rape is a rape. But what was shown was a glorification of Javed. And THAT is  problematic. EXTREMELY PROBLEMATIC

It would have been easier to accept Nafisa being raped by Zorawar who is anyway a villain.. but to say that the “hero” has raped the heroine. And the heroine is okay with it. And infact this rape is one of the reasons why the “hero” is heroic… Oh my God. It is nauseous.

I cannot believe that this actually saw the light of the day. Did no one at all read this book before it was published? The author’s family members? Editors? What about the publishers who claim to stand for women’s independence, confidence and strength? A publisher which has this description really doesn’t run its books through gender specialists? I had actually found the publishers very promising (an interesting take on originality) but this book makes me question their intent. And what about them who have purchased rights to make it into. Amotion picture? No one sees the problem here? The book has a Goodreads rating of 4.3 based on seven reviews. Did no one find this problematic? Not one person?

I sincerely hope that both Khurshid and Bamzai have in fact NOT read the whole book and have only read parts before participating in the launch, as otherwise it paints a very bleak picture of this country in terms of gender sensitivity.

This book is beyond belief and not in a good way. Claiming to talk all about “women being empowered through education” ( a trope which made me click that picture with the “ilm” bookmark, BEFORE I finished the book), the book only tries to cash in on the subject of equality. In one place the author referring to the twins life in a documentary summarises it herself..that it has all elements: beautiful damsels in distress, villain, mountains etc etc.. That’s precisely what the author has done. Written a masala movie.

And that makes me rate this book in the minus. If five stars is the highest, I’d rate it a minus five. Something I have never said about any book. There are bad books and then there are wrong books. This is a wrong book.  I leave you with a sentence from the novel… And I quote…

“She doesn’t care if he’s raped her a thousand million times. She wants him back in her life, please Allah”.

Daughters of Char Chinar by Almas Hussain

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