What is the sound of language? To Raihana, it’s bees. When she hears Danish, it’s like the buzzing of swarms of bees, confusing her and leaving her unsure in her new country. A refugee from Afghanistan, Raihana settles in Denmark with extended family and tries to build a new life for herself by attending Danish classes and immersing herself in Danish culture. To accomplish this, she spends time with Gunnar, an old Danish man who has recently lost his wife. He finds himself at a loss for taking care of his late wife’s bees, so Raihana helps him. Together, they recover from their wounds and build a friendship. The Sound of Language by Amulya Malladi follows the personal journey of Raihana as she struggles to build a new life for herself as a refugee in Denmark while coming to terms with the horrors of her past in Afghanistan.
Raihana doesn’t have an easy time of it. Everyone seems to disapprove of her friendship with Gunnar, from the Muslim woman in her class who insists Raihana is a “fallen woman” for associating with an unmarried man (however innocent the relationship may be) to Gunnar’s daughter-in-law, who is convinced that she is a lazy immigrant who refuses to work and will steal anything in sight. Malladi tackles these prejudices head on; she tries to show these delicate issues from multiple points of view and succeeds in giving the reader different opinions, some very controversial, on these matters.
The Sound of Language is Malladi’s first book about the Middle East rather than about India, but that fact isn’t obvious. She writes about the cultural conflicts of Afghanis and Muslims living in Western society with a certain grace and fluidity, taking ideas that are foreign to Westerners (for example, Raihana’s proposed marriage to a man with a wife and family in Pakistan) and, without defending these practices, stating them as fact. This is how it is in other cultures – accept it. This straightforward, unapologetic approach is refreshing. There is no need to make excuses for or justify these unique cultural practices, and Malladi doesn’t stoop to this level.
The most remarkable feature of Malladi’s book is how beautifully it is written. It flows seamlessly – there are no jarring transitions, no sentences or words out of place. It is simply a delight to read. The characters are also well developed, each with his or her own reasoning and personal prejudices, and Malladi makes their points of view clear and easily understood without resorting to unnecessary explanation. She understands each character well and has fleshed them out thoroughly. The book in itself conveys pure joy – while the story is not always happy, that delight is still there, lurking under the complexity of modern-day life.
The magic of The Sound of Language lies in its simplicity. It’s a rather short, simple book that is easy to read. Unlike many other books that tackle the subject of Afghanistan under the Taliban, it is not difficult or painful. It deals with important and tricky issues such as race and prejudice but manages to maintain its innate sweetness - not sappy or roll-your-eyes-in-disgust sweet, but truly, genuinely sweet – like honey. Delightful, pure, golden honey. Simple and sweet.