Had recently reviewed 'Alternate Realities: Love in the lives of Muslim Women' for Time Out. Sharing the text below, with some personal additions.
A brief anecdote first: I had wandered into a tiny bookstore in Lokhandwala where I frequently drop in, just to browse. I had no intention of buying anything that day. I was picking up books at random and reading the first couple of pages before putting them back on the shelves.
And then I found a book that I didn't want to put back. I was fifteen pages in. The staff was starting to give off cold vibes. So, I did put the book back in its place and moved off to another section. Half an hour later, I had returned to the book and opened it somewhere in the middle of another chapter. I still wanted to go on reading. So I bought the book. Only to realize that I already had a review copy of the same book waiting to be read at home.
I ought, therefore, ought to state upfront that 'Alternate Realities: Love in the lives of Muslim Women' is a good read. The publisher's description of the book – 'a travelogue, a memoir, a satire and a feminist critique of Muslim women's lives, interwoven with the author's own ongoing struggles as a Muslim woman' – proves to be correct. It is indeed all of that, but it is not weighed down by the sort of presumptuous rhetoric one might expect.
Critiques of Muslim women's lives, however honest, can get tiresome. What helps this book is the fact that the author is poised to speak from a position of complexity and nuance. She begins by laying bare this complexity – the overwhelming love of a happy childhood, the power of the memory of such love, modern education, changing ideologies, political upheaval, power games over pizza. Oppression is never a simple process, and freedom never an obvious choice.
Allowing the reader to look at this intimate portrait of her own life and the force that led her to break with convention, Gandhi turn to her subject – love. She sets out to examine the ways in which Muslim women seek love, demonstrate love, or resign themselves to living without love. She populates the book with a cast of characters from Bangladesh and Pakistan, both nations she used to live in, and India where she now lives.
These stories are 'alternate' in the sense that Gandhi has chosen to write about Muslim women who do not quite fit into the stereotype. Ghazala is an educated, independent Christian woman in Pakistan who has converted to marry an already married man. Laila is training to be the first Lady Health Visitor in her village in the NorthWest Frontier Province. Firdaus is a writer and Reiki healer, in her seventies. Nahid is a teenaged telemarketer in Allahabad. Tara is single at thirty, hoping for a better job in Dhaka. Ayesha is a journalist-activist-poet, still single in her late thirties, and living by herself in Ahmedabad.
Almost none of the women interviewed seem to be wholly, passionately in love with their current partners (except Nusrat and QT, who are a lesbian couple). Gandhi approaches romantic love from the fringes of society. Marriage and motherhood are not at the heart of these women's lives. This allows a wider range of ideas about love. One of the most straightforward lines comes from Nisho, a transgender dancer in Hyderabad (Pakistan). She says, “Love is like cream in milk. Love always rises to the top.”
The author constantly reflects upon politics, sufism, language. She describes a mugging in Karachi (her chain was robbed by two men on a bike, one wearing a burqa. There was apparently a ban on two men riding bikes after a bomb attack). She describes railway stations, dargahs, her own impatience with certain people. These diversions from the core theme are not uninteresting, but they do leave lesser room for a wider, more inclusive cast of characters.
The title suggests that the book speaks of Muslim women in general, althought it is limited to Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Muslim women are culturally as different from each other as women from other religions, so one cannot help but wonder how their lives and loves are different from that of a Chinese or Indonesian or French Muslim woman. A greater emphasis on geographical or cultural representation might have been useful. Alternately, the title could have mentioned that the book is limited to the subcontinent.
The main triumph of the book, however, is that it allows a range of Muslim women to speak of emotional hunger, of disappointment, of politics and money. Religious identity is neither irrelevant nor all-important. Gandhi has done well to neither ignore it nor be intimidated by it.