Heart Tantrums and Brain Tumours: A Tale of Misogyny, Marriage and Muslim Feminism
By Aisha Sarwari
C. Hurst & Co Ltd
The memoir is a particularly powerful storytelling tool, especially when the pen is wielded by those whose stories are not widely told or read or known, either by device or omission. When it comes to women’s stories, it is often because of willful cultural oppression.
Memoirs written by women often tend to fall into neat demarcations of the ‘female’ experience: a traumatic tale of patriarchal hardship or the eventual triumph of finding one’s purpose and voice within a system rigged against ‘her’.
Aisha Sarwari’s Heart Tantrums and Brain Tumours: A Tale of Misogyny, Marriage and Muslim Feminism is distinctive and powerful because it is at once all those things and none of those things while subverting, well, all the notions of ‘womanhood’, ‘gender norms’, and ‘caretaking and loyalty.’
In complicating everything we know and feel about the ‘Pakistani woman stereotype’, which assumes certain privileges and hardships based solely on class, education and geography, Sarwari breaks down the monolith of women’s identity in Pakistan.
A memoir by a Pakistani woman is more than just about her juggling a career, marriage, abuse and her husband’s life-altering illness
The contradictory possibility, the grey usually only afforded to men in society, the author acknowledges within herself and others around her. In chronicling her boulder-paved road to the acceptance of the contradictory, we see a woman who is oscillating between self-imprisonment and setting herself free — ultimately, understanding that the relationships that can restrict, can also nourish.
Nothing in life is black or white. Either this or that.
Sarwari’s memoir is in equal parts a scathing critique of patriarchal Pakistani society and, frankly, a love letter to the perseverance and complexity of familial bonds that shape identity. It is a deeply honest, no-holds-barred retelling of a very unique and personal journey that doesn’t flow linearly, because the form matches the heart of the book: life and love are not straight lines but infuriatingly and heartbreakingly messy.
It is the first time the author interweaves the main relationships in her life that have shaped her identity but, in some ways, also how she has emerged as herself, despite the wreckage wrought by her most pivotal relationships. These relationships are predominantly with the two men in her life: her father and her husband.
However, the two main protagonists of the book are definitely the author herself and her mother. The author has even dedicated her book to her mother: “To my Ami and to the fear that what I write will be used against me.”
Sarwari both acknowledges and breaks intergenerational trauma, fear and insecurity in one fell swoop in the dedication. It sits starkly nestled between the negative space of the page, a reminder of the risk women take when they take their lives in their own hands, when they dare to tell their stories in their own words.
“Women like me, we have no one. We don’t even have ourselves, because we’re already giving so much to others, like our tormentors, our husbands, our children and our bosses. But I have never had anyone to say to me: Aisha, it’ll be okay.” — Excerpt from the book
While Sarwari has written about herself and her husband’s brain tumour previously in articles for Dawn and Scroll, the fulcrum of that storytelling was her husband. But in this memoir, Sarwari has reclaimed herself and become the protagonist of her own story.
Mother and daughter seem to have a fantastically intertwined fate. Both marry outside the safe community dynamics with built-in safeguards, both become mothers early, both remain wedded to the idea of marriage and both find their identities securely linked to two quintessentially Pakistani Muslim men.
Aisha loses her father to cancer of the gut at a young age and discovers, in the early years of her marriage, that her husband suffers from a rare brain tumour. Life is truly stranger than fiction and, with the scientific evidence supporting the clear connection between a healthy gut and brain/ mental health, a more apt metaphor for metastasising patriarchy could not be made up.
Through the microcosm of her mirrored plight to her mother, the author steadfastly employs an intersectional lens, and acknowledges her relative privilege and pain alike. While one woman becomes a widow, the other fears becoming one. While one woman did not have the education or income security to be free, the other does, but she cannot be free because she deeply loves her husband.
The book ruthlessly explores the burden of caretaking women in Pakistan across strata, time, space and circumstance. The swift shift of Aisha: new wife, daughter-in-law, mother, to Aisha: caregiver and primary breadwinner, is jolting. The most heart-wrenching realisation the reader is left with is that the burden of care is never absolved from women’s labour — whether your family-member has a rare and life-threatening disease or not.
While the first two parts of the book, “Aisha and Yasser” and “Ami and Abu” serve as mirror images to showcase the intergenerational and insidious nature of patriarchy and violence, they also do something far more interesting — they show the contradictory and confrontational bare bones of marriage within structural patriarchy.
The commonality of the cancer diagnosis is more complicated in many ways in Sarwari’s marriage than what her mother went through, because it challenges the notions of caregiving as a selfless task, and we see the journey of the main protagonist in caring for herself as she cares for her family as well.
Sarwari grapples with her husband, Yasser’s personality-altering tumour and all the changes are permeated within herself as well as the “osmosis” (as the writer calls it) of aggression enters her life as well. The biggest strength of this memoir is that the author is just as unabashedly critical and acerbic about her own behaviour under the pressure-cooker moments of life.
Women can behave badly, too. Women can react aggressively, too. Women can be wrong, too. This is liberating.
By embracing and even, at times, celebrating the confounding contradictions of people, relationships and the self, this memoir liberates itself from the shackles of ‘woulda coulda shoulda’ society and self-doubt, and allows the reader to feel encouraged to do the same, with empathy.
Recently, Mohsin Hamid chose Sarwari’s book as his ‘summer pick’ for The Guardian and said about the advance copy, “It is a searing non-fiction account of one woman’s journey in Pakistan through career, marriage, abuse and her husband’s life-shattering cancer.”
While it is certainly all of these things, what this daring memoir is also about is the all-encompassing power of certain bonds in life that, at times to our detriment, break and build us up. The book accepts, albeit kicking and screaming, the inherent shame and dejection in accepting love that is complex and contradictory.
It is about the courage it takes to find yourself and your strength in the midst of things. It celebrates ephemeral beauty and triumphs in hardship. It is fiercely human and hopeful.
The reviewer is a sociologist, writer and communications specialist working on the intersection of the climate crisis, social innovation and inclusion. X: @Mavra.Bari
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 10th, 2023