Muslim women are much spoken of, seldom heard from, unless in the almost obligatory television scenes of bereaved Palestinian mothers or veiled Afghani daughters. Perhaps no other group is so misunderstood. But this is changing. Witness the timely Madras on Rainy Days, by Indian-American Muslim author Samina Ali.
Despite its title, the novel is set mostly in Hyderabad, an Indian bastion of Islam. Layla, an Indian-American woman, has come to India in order to marry Sameer. Unfortunately, Layla has already become pregnant by an American. Following a sloppy and incomplete abortion, she awaits the wrath of a community expecting wives to be "pure" before marriage.
Layla and Sameer represent two common types: the American nostalgic about an imaginary India, and the Indian bedazzled by an equally imaginary America. After her arrival in India, Layla becomes more religious, learning Arabic and reciting the Koran. But both eventually perceive the flaws in their philosophies: she realizes that religion is often a cause of violence, while Sameer discovers that prejudice exists in America as well.
For Ali, Islam appears to be in disarray. Sameer describes himself as "lapsed"; Layla's father, rather than taking the permitted second wife, instead divorces his first. And then there is Layla herself, who has been changed irrevocably by her youth in America. Brought to the country by the sword, Islam in India is now threatened by a brazenly pro-Hindu government. Layla's Muslim family is constantly vigilant, especially in the book's closing scenes, when the Hindu festival of Ganpati falls in the Muslim month of Muhar'ram, during which the faithful stage processions involving self-flagellation. Obviously nothing good can from this convergence of fervent and mutually hateful mobs. Although like many contemporary American novelists Ali is given to long-windedness, she successfully pinpoints the critical issues facing her characters as they attempt to reconcile Islam with modernity. The book's outcome suggests, however, that such a reconciliation is increasingly unlikely. Kenneth Champeon writes from Thailand.