A Deconstructed Heart – A Review.

A Deconstructed Heart by Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed. Available on Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K.

“…when you have little time left, you understand how to sift every action, every word, weighing it against that little store of time. Not one grain is wasted.”

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), an Arabic-speaking Jew from Algeria, father of Deconstruction, would love this book. He taught that to begin Deconstruction, we must strive for “peaceful coexistence” of opposing concepts, which in Western thought, are usually in “violent hierarchical” relation to each other.

First, we have to break the link between the two concepts. Second, we have to keep the old concepts apart so they don’t re-establish their former hierarchy. Third, we have to create some new ways to understand the old concepts; develop unique new languages which do not fit in either of the prior oppositional corners. But there can be no “synthesis.” We must understand and interpret the differences.

I note that ‘A Deconstructed Heart’ is on a list of “Desi Chick Lit.” I don’t want to disparage “Chick Lit,” but this book is an existential triumph – much deeper and dimensional than what we usually associate with the genre.

This wonderful book by Ashraf-Ahmed shows us first hand, the opposing concepts of Western and Eastern ways of speaking, living, being, and what happens during that painful period of adjustment when the new language is still forming. Not incidentally, her language to describe the coexistence is wise and careful. She handles her characters gently with love and compassion.

Of Amal, she tells us:
“Occasionally, she would join friends at parties, but she did not drink, and she took a taxi back home alone when the music gave her a headache, returning to a house that had settled into a perpetual twilight, with its orange-brown sofas and their embroidered antimacassars and the cream wallpaper with pink roses, yellowing in the corners. Every weekend, she called her parents’ home in India, and asked a nephew or cousin who had dropped by to pass the phone to them.”

Amal, the niece, was raised traditionally, but now lives in England. She must understand her own past in her new context and decide if she will become a part of the Western world, or return to India with her parents.
Mirza Uncle and Naida Aunty, in this novella, are the first casualties of East meets West, Traditional meets Modern, Architect counters Artist, Extended Family shifts to Nuclear Family.

Naida is the first to understand the opposition and acts upon it: she leaves to pursue her artistic future in the West. Naida is frustrated with her life and her traditional, absent-minded, introverted husband.

After ten years of trying to have a family, their house is still barren.
“…the neighbors were always attentive to their gardens, and [the Chaudry’s] couldn’t look “as if we came from the gao,” said Naida. “We’re always the last to mow our lawns, it’s such a cliché, the Indian fam–,” she paused, and then began again, “The Indian couple with the run-down garden. It’s embarrassing. We might as well just bring in a couple of goats to complete the look.”

“Soon, she began smashing the empty bottles, using the broken glass to make mosaic-decorated flowerpots and paving slabs, spending hours arranging and re-arranging the shards to create swirls of colored glass that winked and sparkled in the garden. She took an art class and made oceans of blues and greens, caught in place by grout. Crystal forests of green bloomed icily on side tables and picture frames.” That was Naida Aunty’s deconstruction.

As an unintended consequence, young Amal becomes caretaker for her father’s brother who is very much rooted in the past, to the extent that he experiences visitations from his long-dead neighbor and chess opponent, Khan. Khan gives Mirza comfort while he mourns the loss of Naida. They look together at photographs from the distant past and reminisce about times gone by.

Of Mirza Uncle, the narrator tells us:
“Then he grabbed handfuls of different colored glass pebbles from the sacks, throwing them like seeds for the birds, blood red, royal blue and turquoise against the fading day until the patio gleamed with refracted light, like a cold river under the moon.”

The garden, a place of growing and rose bushes, becomes a central factor in Mirza Uncle’s return to life, and in an important way, a metaphor for the embryonic new language, growing where nothing grew before.

Amal experiences some happy moments in that garden with Rehan, but he retreats to his loneliness and she is forced to retreat to hers. Ultimately, she learns to make her decision and live with it, to keep Urdu in her heart and the new language in her head.

Unabashedly, I can say I loved this book.

Leila Smith, for the Kindle Book Review.

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