Quietly questioning the place of women in Islam, Samina Ali’s debut novel is impressive for its restrained look at one woman’s place in a world where she never quite fits in. Yes, Layla, the protagonist of Madras on Rainy Days is Muslim, but she is also American, a child of divorce, a survivor of child abuse, and an exile who divides her time between Hyderabad in India and America, never quite belonging in either place. With the odds heavily stacked against her, Layla agrees to an arranged marriage to a handsome engineer, Sameer.
“Here you are, an American, with an American passport, an American education, so why did you come back and get married in such a way? You know what I mean, arranged. This is so backward,” says a character in the book to Layla. The answers to that question might not arrange themselves for easy telling, yet Ali tries hard to piece together Layla’s circumstances and her intense isolation. Layla’s tortured childhood forces her to look for some peace in a simple home. The irony of course lies in the fact that Layla dreams of an ideal life in India, while her husband Sameer spends his time dreaming of America.
Layla, we learn, has not come to this marriage without any doubts. She has even hastily tested the waters of premarital sex with an American lover, Nate. Days before her wedding, she is still bleeding from a botched pregnancy, a fact she is desperate to hide from her family. Quite implausibly, she is “cured” of the bleeding by a hastily conducted magic spell that somehow involves the use of fresh rooster’s blood. Ali’s use of tantric spells and alims (Muslim holy men) to move the story along might indeed be real in the India she knows, but she really pushes the believability envelope here.
Eventually, the marriage to Sameer does indeed take place. As Layla adjusts to her new home, and to a new husband, she is tested quite often by a husband who vanishes at odd hours of the day and night. Sameer forgives Layla her past and in turn extracts a promise from her to never “bring up the past.” It turns out our man is quite the unconventional Muslim in more ways than one. There are layers of secrets buried here, and Ali does an expert job mapping out the relationship between husband and wife. The novel is even suspenseful in some places, and Ali portrays the strained, awkward relationship between the newly wedded couple with ease. When Sameer and Layla travel to Madras to apply for an American visa for Sameer, their relationship is tested to its breaking point.
As Layla eventually confronts the past, she also matures in many ways. The isolation that held her in good stead for a while, and that “protected” her, is no longer a ready crutch. The gradual maturing of Layla is set amidst the background of Hindu-Muslim tensions in India. Again, this part of the novel seems forced. It almost looks as if Ali wanted to increase the heft of her debut by placing it against a larger political backdrop. As it turns out, the clashes (even if they do involve a tragic death) do little to move the story forward.
Ali, who herself spent a childhood between Hyderabad and America, is at her best when mapping out the small complexities of human relationships. Madras on Rainy Days stumbles in a few places, but it is a promising debut.
At one point in the novel, Layla gripes: “Growing up, it was always so confusing to be in both places. I would go to school there and all the kids would point and say, ‘Hey, look, the Indian girl is back.’ Then I’d suddenly be dropped into school here, and the girls would say, ‘The American is back.’ I never fit in.” This complaint might be standard issue immigrant angst, but Ali’s prose does a good job of detailing lives that are bent over by many societal expectations. It is to Ali’s credit that by novel’s end, we can see that Layla and her husband Sameer are products of their unique, individual circumstances. One begins to feel sorry for both of them.