Thursday, April 10, 2014

Butterfly Season by Natasha Ahmed

This is going to be long, because this book has really made me think; which is saying something, because it was barely a hundred pages long. I'll sum up my review, for those of you who don't wish to scroll all the way down for the conclusion: it's a good book, if you're South Asian, you will find it inspiring, strong and relatable. If not, it will provide a frank and non-exoticized look at a culture that is subjected to all kinds of stereotyping. Not to mention, it's quirky, cute and you'll have fun reading it. Not convinced yet? Well, you might have to read the whole review, after all.

Summary (from Goodreads:) On her first holiday in six years, Rumi is expecting to relax and unwind. But when she is set up by her long-time friend, she doesn’t shy away from the possibilities. Ahad, a charming, independent, self-made man, captures her imagination, drawing her away from her disapproving sister, Juveria. Faced with sizzling chemistry and a meeting of the minds, Ahad and Rumi find themselves deep in a relationship that moves forward with growing intensity. But as her desire for the self-assured Ahad grows, Rumi struggles with a decision that will impact the rest of her life.

Confronted by her scandalized sister, a forbidding uncle and a society that frowns on pre-marital intimacy, Rumi has to decide whether to shed her middle-class sensibilities, turning her back on her family, or return to her secluded existence as an unmarried woman in Pakistan. We follow Rumi from rainy London to a sweltering Karachi, as she tries to take control of her own destiny.

My thoughts: All right, grievances first: I'd call this an illustration of the don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover motto, I have to say, for a book with some truly mesmerizing moments, the cover could have been better. I thought the book was too short, I would have liked more development of the characters, I'd have given them a little more time to fall for each other, and even more time to stay 'fallen' until the conflicts arose. Here’s hoping Ahmed's next book is longer. At the risk of sounding nit-picky, the book could have been edited better: spelling mistakes, a few awkward constructions, words like wry, languorous, elegant repeated far too often for my taste.

Now to the goods, and there were so many. It's common knowledge that I don't like the kind of formulaic romance that is churned out with astonishing regularity today. Anyway, I have read at least a few love stories and the one thing that's consistently bothered me about a typical read of the genre is that there's little else but sizzling romance. That is not the case with Natasha Ahmed's Butterfly Season. The story is honest, and while you can predict the way it’ll turn, you’re still invested in the journey.

The conflict of the book is well tackled. Sex before marriage being a taboo, letting your family decide whom you end up with, having kids being your sole focus, not getting a choice in the most basic decisions of your life – these are not uncommon even today here in India and I have no doubt the prejudice exists in the rest of South Asia, Pakistan, the Middle East. But the book does something I didn't expect from the author’s initial e-mail, it never sounds preachy, nor like a rebellious angst filled complaint. Hell, you find Rumi passionately defending Karachi till the very end, if that doesn't sound fair, I don’t know what will.

The author gives a scenario, an example: a typical desi Pakistani girl from a fairly conservative family falls for a considerably open minded and experienced Pakistani man settled in London. After dating for a while, she has to decide whether she would sleep with him, and she surprises herself with her choice. When the time comes to define the relationship, she finds herself parroting everything that’s been hammered into her growing up, lessons of right and wrong. These are philosophies which sound reasonable enough until actually put to test. Is she orthodox and irrational, or does he really not have good ‘values’ only because he wants to take their relationship a step further than she’s used to? You’d be surprised by how many people I know would side with Rumi's family, and there’d be a considerable lot that’d say, “It is wrong that it’s a taboo, but why do something you know society is not going to like!?” The people who care about you would never adjust for you. That is just out of the question.

Then, surprisingly, the book delves even deeper into the issue. Rumi doesn't want to sever ties with her family; she loves her kid sister, even though Juveria's is being unfair. She tries to make it work until circumstances turn to the very worst and making a choice becomes inevitable, no matter the consequences. And while the premise of this may sound ridiculous to the westerners or the more liberal people here, a “So what? Big deal!” kind of issue, the story isn't only about these taboos. It’s about finding yourself, learning to love yourself and accepting people for what they are. It’s about not meddling in others' lives or considering it your right, about being less skeptical of change and finding the strength to be different, and if need be, facing the challenges it might bring up. Geography only changes the type of problem, not the crux.

The book has character. It's about two people who get along really well and fall in love. And we read about more than just her fluttering heart and his firm hands or something. Ahmed plays out Ahad and Rumi's conversations for you, from their families and jobs to their tastes in music, books. They feel like real people instead of stock characters. And they feel modern, not in the sense of unorthodox (that would kind of beat the purpose of the book) but in that there is little melodrama. A fight feels like a fight, not a whole production.

But the thing I love the most about this book is the atmosphere. The writing feels alive with a love for the characters' roots. I have a thing for Urdu, having always been fascinated by my father's self taught fluency in it. I like the little mentions of culture in the book, the bits of Urdu and even the very English English - like when Ahad says his Cockney accent and the inevitable dropping of h’s and t’s made his mother teach him Urdu. I like all the pop culture references - be it the Junoon-Vital Signs debate or the bad Corleone impression. And I love the song that Ahmed has, for the most part, based the title on. As far as I understand, it is about dealing with separation from your mother and I suppose, your motherland. The butterfly motifs and the fluttering butterflies in Rumi's stomach as she fell in love fit wonderfully together as the title of the book. I found a set of lyrics translated here, but the author has provided a compact glossary at the end of the book, anyway. I can't say I'd heard the song before, but it's beautiful. You should listen to it too, just to get in the mood, before you go buy the book!

Butterfly Season by Natasha Ahmed has been published by Indireads, as part of a wide range of romance novellas for South Asian readers everywhere. Natasha Ahmed is a pen name. In real life, Natasha is a graphic designer, a businesswoman and occasionally writes art and book reviews for publications within Pakistan. Butterfly Season is her debut book and for a first effort, it is lovely. You can visit the author's website for more about the book.


Unknown said...

Good review. Must get to this soon :)

Priya said...

Sumeetha - Thanks, I do hope you do. Glad you stopped by!

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