The first Muslim chicklit will dispel daft ideas about Muslim women
We've read this before - a bright young woman pushing 30 is always late to work. In between being a book publicist, she tries not to worry about not being married. She is caught checking out a hot guy on Facebook by her boss. Blah. Blah. Blah.
That's the stuff most chicklit is made of. And that's the territory Sofia Khan is Not Obliged also treads. Yet there are no deja vu moments in the book; and the nearly 500 pages don't hurt at all. Because the protagonist - a hijab-wearing Muslim - gives the world a glimpse into the world of real Muslims.
Not the downtrodden among the Ummah, not the ones who kill their daughters for honour, not the ones who are overtly religious and often get mistaken for terrorists. The book looks beyond all Muslim stereotypes that have been done to death in print and film.
Sofia Khan lives in London with her parents and a "hijab situation". She has a mother who thinks she is too "wrapped up" and discourages her from wearing the hijab, throwing every conceivable excuse at her: "Hai hai, you want to die from heat?", "'Your hair's your one beauty - all covered up" or "Nargis's daughter, who put on a hijab had some gang follow her after work".
Since Sofia's parents are Pakistani immigrants they haven't yet gotten over their "hai hais". Or the angst of losing their culture and roots, cursing the day they immigrated to England. Or their fascination for old melancholy Bollywood songs. Her mother struggles with English "Acha, maybe put on some more makeup... Or you'll look like one of those Gontonomo Bay wives." The father fixes a kitchen light with a screwdriver transliterating the typical Asian line and mentality: "Girls, your mama has loose screws in her brain. I will fix it."
The politics of double standards
It's a bad idea to stereotype a hijabi. And certainly not Sofia. She likes to make time to pray five times a day and also for that occasional fag.
Of course, her father would have a heart-attack if he learnt about her smoking. So when she feels the urge to smoke, she spends quality time with her chain smoking father to be in the company of nicotine.
At such times, she reflects on her unmarried status. Her recent break off from her fiance because he wanted her to live with his parents, or, as she saw it, "a hole in the wall". Her sister's impending marriage. Her friend's decision to be a second wife to a somebody. Her parents' constant nagging to get her married and to end theirs at any given opportunity.
She wonders if there should be a marriage jar - where anyone who mentions the 'M word' has to put in a pound. The proceeds can go towards funding research into arthritis and obsession. That, Google tells her, could be a fallout of being celibate.
Her publicist job is at stake because she has no new ideas to offer. The fact that she is perpetually late for meetings hardly helps. On top of that she is fuming because she has just been called a "terrorist" on the tube. That she couldn't retort is one thing, but that someone thinks that she spends "time Googling chemical formulas" is something she can't get over.
It's her turn to talk about ideas - "I don't suppose anyone would like to read about my string of God-awful dates?" she announces absentmindedly.
It turns out her boss does. Because she cannot believe that her boyfriend asked her to live with his parents. That Muslims date too. That Muslims don't burn their daughters if they want to go to university. That not all Asians are a bunch of lunatics.
Sofia lands herself a book contract. A book on Muslim dating. Yes, she won't get stoned to death for writing this. No, there shall be no sex scenes.
The Geneva conference of Marriage
Sofia has no idea how she will generate dating stories for the book. She goes to shaadi.com - where the shady of the world unite. Where white skin matters. And a generous supply of Fair & Lovely.
Sofia's mother has just asked her uncle to replenish the stock of Fair & Lovely. Sofia cannot understand the double standards. The hypocrisy.
"Don't marry a white person but do try to look like one."
She gets down to writing the book. It's not easy. Mostly because she has family duties to tend to - such as distributing motichoor ladoos.
"Were the great writers in history also interrupted mid-writerly flow to visit people's houses and give out celebratory ladoos? My pen will have to wait because everyone needs yellow sugar balls the size of a fist to clog their already ghee-filled arteries."
There are bad interests being received on shaadi.com. 46 at last count. And hardly anyone who can write straight English. Her own fiance's cheesy messages, with whom she has briefly reunited, are nauseating - "nyt, nyt".
When she sees one in good English, she sees hope. He is also a "hottie".
"Hi. Thought I'd drop you a line. You seem like a pretty cool person. That and I have a thing for spiritual ladies who happen to look incredible in hijab. Is that corny?"
Sofia falls for that line. Hottie decides to ask her a trick question. "Should he grow a beard?"
"... if you go abroad a lot then you have to consider whether time spent at Immigration is going to be worth that added sense of spirituality."
Sofia wins the round.
The two meet up, and Hottie drops hints at a next time. Sofia cannot believe her luck. A week later she spots Hottie outside a gay bar. Caught red-handed he tells her that he likes to spend quality time with his parents at a mosque over weekends!
The other person Sofia decides to meet also writes good English. She meets him several times, waiting for him to pop the question - but he never does, always distracted at the sight of other women. And each time she would make up her mind to ignore him, he would try and woo her back.
"Typical. Every time I want to ignore him, he thaws my cold resolve. Bastard."
The good news is Sofia's search does end well. With somebody who speaks and writes good English. With somebody who truly loves her.
That's the stuff chicklits are made of - happy endings.
What makes this book by Ayisha Malik, and published by Bloomsbury, absolutely unputdownable is it takes potshots at the community without making fun of the religion. Its portrayal of Muslims - be it the urgency to pray five times, the disappointing dating scene, or the elaborate shaadi scenes - is as real as it gets. That's the way we Muslims know Muslims.
With Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, Malik has set the ball rolling. Wonder if others - who match her calibre and wit - will follow suit?