After her debut The Quintessential Fat Girl, Hina Shamsi’s second novel, Love Knot, is a story about lost love, abandonment and grief and highlights issues commonly prevailing in relationships and, particularly, matrimony.
In the book’s opening pages, readers are introduced to middle-aged Pakistani architect Aaira and her Turkish friend, Mehmet Erdem. After an early morning walk and a cup of coffee sipped at a corner cafe, he asks her just one question: “Will I ever see you again?”
The author then takes us through a series of chapters that intersperse the present with flashbacks. In 1994, Aaira is 18 years old and a typical Karachi teenager who lives with her parents Raheela and Muzaffar, little brother Waleed, loves drinking tea and dreams of getting married to Prince Charming.
Enter Saafel, the proverbial prince. Sixteen years older than Aaira and a cardiologist living in England, he is the son of Raheela’s much older, only sister, Bina. When the marriage proposal is made, Muzaffar states there is no hurry, and Aaira should complete her education first. Raheela, of course, is disappointed, but then Bina offers the exciting suggestion that Aaira can get her degree after marriage, and that too from a British university.
Swept away by her cousin’s handsome bearing, maturity, self-possession and charm, and the appeal of the future he promises, a starry-eyed Aaira agrees. However, Saafel turns out to be not quite what dreams are made of, and the ugly side of his personality — that Bina hid from her sister — surfaces soon after the wedding, when he begins to verbally and physically abuse Aaira.
A sophomore novel explores the relationships individuals have with others and the mental disturbances and emotional baggage women are forced to carry when their marriages dissolve
Bina is guilty not just of concealment, but also of perpetration. Every time Saafel launches into an episode of rage, which often includes humiliating and insulting his wife over petty issues, Bina paints Aaira as the culprit who instigated Saafel’s anger. Raheela, beholden to the sister who effectively raised her when their parents died, turns out to be an ineffective ally to her own daughter.
Saafel goes back to England, leaving Aaira more or less a caretaker for his parents. Years pass and Aaira’s son, Merab, is now 25. He wants to marry his classmate, Haniya, and Aaira is greatly perturbed at the thought of explaining to Haniya’s parents the complicated situation with Saafel. What happened to Saafel that led him to be permanently removed from Aaira’s life is for readers to find out; suffice it to say that it was a situation grave enough that Aaira could no longer live with her in-laws.
In the present times, as she struggles with figuring out how to handle the meeting with Merab’s potential in-laws, Aaira is an architect working at an architecture and interior design firm. When a client requests for his offices to be upgraded in a very particular style, Aaira reluctantly takes a plane to Turkey, where she meets Mehmet at a cafe.
Mehmet is a photographer and the author uses his career — as well as Aaira’s own quest to find authentic Ottoman furnishings for her client’s office — as a useful opportunity to describe the landscape of Turkey in great detail. She takes readers down lanes and alleys, from the Topkapi Palace to the Hagia Sophia, and from the Blue Mosque (which she mistakenly writes as Sultan Omar Mosque instead of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) to the colourful markets of Istanbul and Izmir.
There is also plenty of mention of local delicacies, from the seafood and rice mash-up Midye Dolma, to baklava and, of course, the famous theatrics of Turkish ice cream sellers. There are people to meet, celebrations to attend, and experiencing — on her own — the life most women in Pakistan are allowed to experience only if there’s a husband to lead.
In exploring the relationships individuals have with others — parents, spouses, siblings and friends — Shamsi explores the mental disturbances and emotional baggage women are forced to carry when their marriages dissolve. She highlights the struggle single women endure for the sake of their children and the social stigma of being divorced which, in our society, never stops haunting no matter how long ago the marriage broke down. Aaira is a strong-willed woman, but how can she hold up against a collective culture that is far stronger?
Love Knot depicts not only the kaleidoscope of emotions that surface in an abusive marriage — the tearing down of a spouse’s self-esteem, gaslighting and manipulation — but also the difficulties of trying to ‘move on’. Interestingly, the problem is that those who advise ‘moving on’ want it to be done on their terms, not on the affected individual’s terms.
When Aaira ventures to talk about remarrying, those closest to her are scandalised the most, because isn’t living with her parents, having a well-paying job and the near prospect of becoming a grandmother enough for a 40-something woman to feel happy and fulfilled? What does she need a partner for? More importantly, where will she find one at this ‘elderly’ age?
It leads one to wonder what the takeaway would be if the tables were turned, if Aaira were the one abusing Saafel and the latter demanding to end the marriage because he couldn’t take the toxicity anymore. What would ‘moving on’ entail in that scenario?
Shamsi’s storytelling skills should be commended for creating a tale that relates to the South Asian mind, but her choice to include a therapist — who Aaira sees at the behest of her male boss, no less, because “I’m glad I took her advice. She is fantastic.” — is refreshing in a world where we are not supposed to talk about domestic trauma with anyone, let alone a stranger.
Admittedly, the presence of a plethora of characters may make it difficult for the readers to keep track of each. Apart from Aaira, Saafel, Merab, Haniya, Mehmet, Aaira’s parents and her in-laws, there are Haniya’s parents, Mehmet’s step-sister and brother, Aaira’s brother Waleed, her friend Maria Karim, Maria’s friend Sameer and a few others. The roles many characters play are small, but important, so perhaps their narratives could have been condensed into each other.
Nevertheless, Shamsi does a good job at crafting a decent novel. Aaira undergoes a profound change in her attempts to overcome her past life and takes realistic steps on the road to recovery. In one therapy session, her counsellor Zofeen says, “Many women stay in abusive relationships because of financial stability. Some stay for children, while some fear the judgement and the stigma of divorce in our culture. Others are so broken, they feel they deserve the abuse.”
But Aaira has been there and she has done it all. Now only one question remains: will Mehmet ever see her again?
The reviewer is a columnist, currently working at a business management institute in Karachi and author of the novel Divided Species. He tweets @omariftikhar
By Hina Shamsi
Liberty Publishing, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 10th, 2021