MADRAS ON RAINY DAYS
By Samina Ali
Despite the title, most of this debut novel takes place within the walls of the Old City of Hyderabad. Layla, the protagonist, has returned from college in the United States; her mother has chosen a husband for her. Layla had an affair with an American; she’s pregnant, not the condition called for in Islamic tradition. Her mother finds it fitting that Layla’s name means darkness.
It’s tempting to say this book is a glimpse behind the chador into the cloistered world of Islam. Samina Ali delivers far more than a glimpse; Layla’s return home echoes the theme of Thomas Wolfe. She’s smothered under the weight of her mother’s brittle expectations, her nanny’s superstitions, her father’s icy rage. The first section of the book is devoted to the preparations for the five day wedding feast. To address Layla’s bleeding, her mother and uncle arrange a visit to an amir, a holy man, who can expel the demon within her. His practical advice to go see a doctor infuriates Layla’s mother; she’s determined to see her daughter married.
Events unfold beyond Layla’s control. She’s dressed, oiled, bejeweled and combed into bridal perfection. The boundary walls of the Old City are a minor obstacle; in Hyderabad, Layla has duties to her parents, to her new husband Sameer and his family, to the community she was born into. Memories of her time in the US are fractured by the fear that her terrible secret, her demon, will make her an outcast, a wife expelled by her husband. She faces an exile more profound and dark than she can imagine.
As the story progresses her secret leaches into the lives of everyone around her, everyone she loves.In the eventful final third of the novel Layla discovers she has no monopoly on secrets; in one of the best scenes a young amir comes to her hotel room to perform ritual exorcism. A pantomime of lovemaking accompanies the somber ceremony; Layla sees into his heart, and together they experience the freedom to speak of things without inhibition. The amir’s daughter is gravely ill; his wife hates him, blaming him for the disease that threatens her life.
Madras is her honeymoon city, a cosmopolitan place where she and Sameer can begin their new lives. After they visit the American Consulate another revelation tears them apart, driving Layla back to the home that no longer wants her.
MADRAS ON RAINY DAYS demands some commitment from the reader. The deliberate pace of the novel is entwined in the setting and the overall feeling of helplessness Layla projects from the opening page. To empathize with her, you have to understand her. That no one can escape who they are is woven into the narrative with artistry, precision and humor. Layla’s is a powerful story; this is a haunting novel with a voice as unique as the world it depicts.