All in the Family
US-based author Nafisa Haji’s The Writing on My Forehead is a compelling read that takes one through the life of Saira, a Pakistani American, as she moves out of adolescence into womanhood. It is a fast-paced, easy-read novel that absorbs the reader from the start.
In the early part of the book, Saira and the reader are filled in on the family history. Saira, who lives in the US, travels without her parents to Karachi for a cousin’s wedding where elder relatives take the time to talk indiscriminately about the past. As Saira listens wide-eyed to the scandalous tales of her maternal grandfather’s second marriage, the reader cannot help but be drawn into the world of a young girl drinking in the details of a life her mother has withheld from her. The storytellers’ effectively weave together tales about themselves with references to Saira’s grandfather. These elders have a profound influence on her, especially her mother’s aunt, Big Nanima.
On her way back to America, Saira stops in London where a paternal cousin shows her a diary kept by their grandfather, a follower of Gandhi. This forces Saira to evaluate her perception of her father’s family too. All the characters she meets on this trip are somewhat unconventional and quite different to the conventional family members she has grown up with, in America.
On her return to the US, Saira is greeted by the news of her sister Ameena’s wedding. In the novel, as Ameena becomes more and more traditional and conservative, Saira becomes more and more rebellious. Her independent spirit and fire is surprising given her parents’ expectations of her: marriage and children. Within the context of her family history, however, it comes as no surprise, since Big Nanima had studied and worked and remained single, with the support and understanding of her parents, in the days of the British Raj when such an action was considered rare, if not unheard of.
A break from tradition, however, comes with consequences and as Saira tries to run from herself, the narrative changes. Things are no longer spelt out and the reader is left to imagine and guess what is going on in Saira’s head as a series of tragedies force her to confront her own pain and needs.
The Writing on My Forehead is ultimately a story of family, forgiveness and acceptance. The presence of the extended family is felt throughout the novel – the comfort of having family across the globe that flit in and out of each other’s lives, and who are a continuous source of support. A lot of unpopular choices are made through the course of the novel, which the extended family has to deal with. People are flawed and do not always live up to their parents’ and children’s expectations. Saira’s mother, Shabana, never forgave her father for hurting her own mother. Her anger continues to rage even after his death. Eventually, it is through Saira that she learns to put the past behind her and open herself up to other members of the family who she had earlier rejected as a result of her father’s actions.
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