FICTION: OPPOSITES ATTRACT

27 Sep 2020

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In a tale that exhibits the familiar trope of love between a middle-class girl and an upper-class boy, Sara Naveed’s The World Between Us follows a storyline that unravels the eerie twists of events wedged in the battered lives of Amal and Qais, two individuals voyaging through the broken corridors of their harrowing pasts in search of love.

Lahore-based Naveed is a huge fan of the Bollywood take on romance and her new novel succeeds in adapting the filmi style in print, leaving readers mesmerised by a whirlpool of emotions. Although not a unique representative of the said type, Naveed delivers an immersive read that proves classic for souls in search of a misty-eyed romance.

A prologue from eight years earlier sets the stage for the two protagonists’ consequent fixations surrounding the idea of love and marriage. Amal Baig, a modest, gentle and tender-hearted 20-something, exuberates at the sight of her family celebrating her rukhsati festivities a year after her nikkah. She pegs herself amongst the girls “who yearn to get married and start a family as soon as possible.” She equates the prospect of marriage to “every girl’s dream, and a reality that almost every girl had to face someday.” Enwrapped with the day she will finally embark on a new life with the man she wholeheartedly admires, Amal is clad in joy. Then she witnesses her aspirations vaporise upon a phone call from the United States, from where her husband is yet to arrive. A man from a hospital claims that he has died.

What follows is Amal’s life after her husband’s tragic death. Disillusionment with love and marriage, and the dispiriting fear of losing a loved one, causes her to impulsively cling to the safer options in life and stay away from unwarranted affairs. The loss of her husband leads her to reminisce about her father’s abandonment of her family, which instilled in her the need to work tirelessly to support her mother and younger brother.

Fast forward to the present day. Amal is a graphic designer working at a reputable information technology firm. Her friends Sabeeka and Rohina nudge her time and again to hope for a fresh start to life, find a possible companionship that will finally allow her to break free from the loss of her husband. Her conversations with the plainspoken Sabeeka, particularly, invite a more prudent assessment of Amal’s unlucky love life, usually causing Amal to think twice after instantly rejecting the prospect of marrying again.

Qais Ahmed harbours a bitter past in the form of his mother’s death when he was a child. He blames the negligence of his father — a workaholic business tycoon — for his loss, causing their relationship to strain. A prodigy since the age of five, an unstable Qais begins habitually using drugs to treat the bouts of depression and insomnia brought about by his mother’s death. His exceptional brains land him at Harvard University, from where he graduates and joins Microsoft, where he experiences a mind-numbing incident that traumatises him, forcing him to resign. Qais attempts to fend off the memories with medication and Ecstasy and shuts himself off from the world. His only confidante is his caretaker, Ghulam Chacha.

Although intelligent and hardworking, Qais is arrogant, narcissistic and possesses little ambition, often taking to life frivolously. In an attempt to break Qais away from a life of perpetual pleasure, his father impels him to join an IT firm as a web developer — an area in which Qais is well-versed. Despite initial protests, he interviews at Sky Tech.

Uniquely similar to each other, Amal and Qais are tied to their pasts with an enveloping darkness. It is interesting to see how their worlds collide as the chapters take turn voicing the two’s points-of-view linearly as they navigate their fates. Upon coercion by their friends to try their luck in love via a dating app, Amal and Qais find themselves striking a match on Tinder. The encounter turns ugly as Qais, who strikes up a conversation with Amal for mere ‘amusement’, ends up in her bad books.

In a comical turn of events, Qais joins the firm as lead web developer and ends up becoming Amal’s boss. This kick-starts a charming yet poignant series of moments between the two’s jarring personalities, against the bustling backdrop of an office set in Lahore, as they discover the vitality of love as both a remedy and a detriment to their conditions.

Much like romantic serial dramas utilising supporting characters to drive an otherwise gradual plot, Sky Tech also houses an assortment of characters which make for interesting diversions, such as a fellow workmate harbouring a crush on Amal.

On another note, the commonplace stigmas attached to a girl’s eligibility for marriage and the factors that feed into it are briefly, but fortunately , touched upon, exposing society as the monster lurking beneath. However, the heartening atmosphere within the office repels that of the outside, contending with gender stereotypes when Amal’s boss stands up for her after learning she was molested at the hands of a client. The plotline is replete with twists that might feel jaded, but which culminate in a staggering conclusion.

While the language is lucid at best and vapid and repetitive at worst, the book’s charming plot is capable of keeping readers engrossed till the very end. Naveed’s writing is vivid, achieving a depth in her characters’ hackneyed sentiments — even if the all-too-predictable storyline will have readers knowing that the hero will eventually rescue the damsel in distress while coming to terms with his inner demons. Notwithstanding how wholesome these sort of love stories turn out to be, the reader pines for the prospect of the Pakistani audience consuming a fresher variation in the Pakistani romance genre — one that doesn’t pin the girl to a life of smothering simplicity, only to have her world turned upside down by a man completely unlike her.

Naveed’s previous works have also centred on the joys of discovering love, employing the roles of fate and destiny eminent in the nucleus of romance stories popular in Pakistan. The World Between Us provides the reassurance of the romantic crescendo that Pakistani fans of the genre heartily enjoy, which is why this novel perfectly fulfils the longing for a saccharine, melodramatic, yet comforting, romance to snuggle up with.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist

The World Between Us
By Sara Naveed
Liberty Publishing, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9698729226
288pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 27th, 2020