Samina Ali's impressive first novel, Madras on Rainy Days, was interesting reading for me as a mother. It took me back to the time of life before the onslaught of babies, before big commitments like marriage, and before even the first appearance of life-changing love. It reminded me how treacherous that passage can be.
The main character, Layla, spends half of every year in her native India and half in America. On her last trip to America, she is initiated into the pleasures of sex and romantic love by a student named Nate. Their liaison is risky, as he slips in by dark of night to the room she was staying in at her uncle's house, and now she realizes that she is pregnant. Meanwhile, her mother has arranged her marriage to a young Indian engineer named Sameer, a marriage in which Layla has no interest, and which could be perilous for her if her lost virginity -- much less her pregnancy -- were revealed. She desperately needs to apply the brakes.
This is the situation that Layla is facing as we meet her in the prologue, lying flat on a bed, holed up in a guest room in her aunt's house in Hyderabad. She is virtually paralyzed, out of time. The prologue is in present tense, although the rest of the novel is in past tense. One would like to think of love, sex, marriage, and pregnancy as fertile and life-giving, if volatile, elements. But for this Indian girl, caught between cultures, their untimely convergence makes for a closing down, rather than an opening up, of possibilities. Indeed, throughout this novel motherhood is dangerous or endangered at every turn. Layla's unwanted pregnancy endangers her own life, both literally and in terms of her possibilities for self-actuation. Later in the novel, her dear friend becomes pregnant with a very much wanted child, and we watch as she and her husband encounter unthinkable obstacles. In this novel, lives have a hard time getting safely launched.
Layla listens as her mother throws herself at the other side of the door, begging her, cursing her. Time ticks on as she remains perfectly still, a simple image from which Ali skillfully renders the book's central themes:
The narrow strip of sunlight falls across my lips, and as I feel them growing warmer, I think this is what red lipstick should feel like. Wedding red. Soon, though, I am uncomfortable, my neck and back sweaty, moistening the cotton sheet beneath me so that I am leaving an imprint.
Somehow in this novel, things never look or feel the way they are supposed to. The imprint on the sheet shows us Layla's uncomfortable stasis. Layla's voice continues:
But I don't move. In fact, I don't move for the rest of the day. As the sun crosses the closed-off sky, the band of light descends my body. It leaves my lips to slip across my throat, then slices my breasts, my stomach, my pelvis and thighs, and, finally too weak, it retreats, crawling to the turquoise wall. With no other means, this is how I have clocked the passage of time. In the end, the dust particles in the air are no longer visible. Nor are the outlines of my own skin. Everything becomes blurry and enmeshed so that the curve of my arm might really be the folds of my shirt, and where I once clearly saw my big toe sticking straight up might now actually be the doorknob from across the room.
I find it chilling how in this passage, even as we feel the weight of her immobility, the sun slices and dismembers her part by part, and dusk leaves her disembodied. I can doubly appreciate Ali's harrowing description here, having accompanied Layla to the novel's end. Despite the high stakes drama, with all of the promised (and delivered) twists and turns, the novel's true focus is on identity. Where are the true boundaries of this young woman's body and soul? After the forces of culture slice her apart, how will she put herself back together?
Ali presents America like clear blue sky seen through a window, perhaps more complicated than it appears, but inviting the protagonist to soar. If American culture, far from her mother's eye, is remote but freeing, Ali presents Indian culture as much more in focus and claustrophobic. It is part prison, part home-sweet-home, and the conflict between love and confinement is profound.
The mother who is in agony on the other side of Layla's door is in the position that so many mothers have been in across culture and time: having seen the dangers of breaking out of the mold that oppression places on women, she's trying to cram her daughter into that mold if it kills her. Layla's mother knows all too well the terror of finding oneself without the protection of a benevolent husband. When her abusive husband had an affair and wished to leave the family, she stoically refused divorce, remaining in the role of his disgraced wife while he invested everything in his second wife. In the passages where we see her welcoming her "husband," Layla's father, to her home, we sense the soul-price she pays to hold on to the cultural lifeline her sham marriage provides for her. From her perspective, individual voice and romantic passion are luxuries that Indian womanhood simply cannot afford, and it is with love and a kind of maternal desperation that she attempts to cut these qualities from her daughter. Layla's mother is executioner and savior, and at some level she knows this.
It must be said that the main characters in this novel are three: Layla, Sameer, and Ali's ritual-filled Indian culture. Ali portrays this culture in such quirky and personal detail that it takes on a personality -- and an agenda -- of its own.
The wedding date is set, and for days the ritualistic celebrations mark the count-down to the moment of truth. In one event a bevy of women surround Layla, one by one crouching before her, rubbing her skin with oil and perfumes, feeding her sweet delights, and rolling flower bracelets over her hands. And giving sex advice. On the wedding night, we are told, the bride will be placed on the wedding bed by the women, who lovingly take their leave of her, setting her up to be alone with the groom for the first time. Her bottom rests squarely centered on a 2 X 2 white sheet, which will be checked for blood by her mother-in-law the next morning. This is the final proof that the marriage has gone through. If not, she will be "returned." A disgrace. Possibly killed by her father.
Little does Layla know, Sameer, her intended husband, has a huge secret of his own, one that puts him in as much peril as she. As the developments of the novel churn mercilessly on, we see Layla and Sameer working sometimes together, sometimes against each other, desperately trying to wrest some human connection or even identity out of the cultural and familial system that would suffocate them. How much are Layla and Sameer willing to risk for wholeness?
The emotional texture of this book is rich and lavish, the moods contagious. Even though the novel is written in the past tense, it reads almost like a diary; events are written in their minutia as the narrator plumbs them for meaning and a sense of what she should do next. At one point, imprisoned again (although this time not by her own choice), Layla ponders her escape and notices that her clothes are getting tight from her weeks of inactivity. In this way the reader is taken along on the journey, experiencing the anguish and confusion as she does.
Given her ambitious reach, Ali can be forgiven the rare misstep. Here Sameer points out how split Layla's identity is, comparing her to twins:
". . . Twins, like you."
"Yes, like you. You, the American, you, the Indian. Same face, two people. So where is your home?"
I gazed out toward the farthest end of the Sagar, then along its edge toward Secunderabad. Somewhere out there was the airport I arrived at twice a year.
"I was supposed to inhabit America without being inhabited by it -- that was what my parents wanted."
It is strange to have the characters hit us over the head with the subtext, when Ali has already made amply clear the tear in Layla's soul, her struggle for survival and identity. But the one or two moments like this stand out so much because of the astonishing luminosity of all the rest. Ali's use of language is intoxicating. As I dip back into the pages now to write this review I find myself getting sucked back into her prose again and again. I still don't want to put it down.
The sexual mystery that Ali weaves around Sameer and Layla's intersecting lives is cleverly told; many clues that seem to point to one thing are later revealed to mean the exact opposite. But ultimately the subplot becomes overburdened and distracting. The life of this book resides in the fascinating inner life of the characters, the intriguing details of the culture and the evocative moments that Ali presents to us like pearls. The personal human element -- and the deftness with which the writer explores it -- provides ample reason to keep turning the pages.
Madras on Rainy Days is about the freedom to create one's own destiny. Reading it, we are compelled to take note of the ways we stifle our true possibilities in order to survive in a hostile world. To one degree or another, all cultures are hostile to the raw individual. One cannot emerge into adulthood without confronting forces that threaten our creative -- and fertile -- potential.
As I holed myself away in the bedroom with my new baby each day this spring, Madras on Rainy Days made an exciting escape -- and an insightful companion as I tried to create anew my own identity in the seismic aftermath of my third child's birth. Samina Ali's is a warm, riveting and wise voice. Madras came out in 2004. I hope Samina Ali is already working on her next novel, because I'm ready for it.