The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali
The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali
“Your mom told me that they are looking for a husband for you.”
I nodded, wondering how my life had taken such a ridiculous turn.
“Are you happy with this decision? I thought you were excited to go to university in September.”
“I’m not happy with it at all. Mom and Dad are being completely unreasonable.”
“Rukhsana, go to my cupboard and get me my wedding veil. Do you remember where it is?”
I nodded as I stood up and opened the large teak armoire that stood against the wall across form her bed. On the bottom shelf, wrapped in velvet, was my grandmother’s wedding veil. It was a deep maroon chiffon shot through with gold thread. As a child I used to play dress up with it whenever I visited Nani. She would put makeup on my face and then draw little decorative dots from my forehead, above my brows, and all the way down to my cheeks with sandalwood paste. Afterward, she’d place the veil on my head and tell me I looked like a real Bengali bride. Then she would dream out loud about dancing at my wedding and all the sweets she would eat.
Now as I handed the veil to her, I felt a pang of guilt because I knew that day would never come. She unwrapped it, motioning for me to move closer to her, and placed it gently on my head. As she leaned back to take a better look, she picked up a silver-framed hand mirror from the small table beside her and turned it toward me so that I could see my reflection.
Dark curls peeked out from under the veil framing my face. For a fleeting moment, I pictured myself as a traditional bride, marrying someone my parents had chosen. But I knew I could never go through with it.
I decided that I would tell Nani everything. I wanted her to know that I was planning to leave and why.
“Rukhsana,” she said before I could open my mouth. “There is something I have never told you. But now you are old enough to understand.” She took the veil off my head.
“Do you know why I have kept this veil all these years?” she said.
“Because you wore it at your wedding.”
She shook her head. “No, ammu. I kept it as a reminder to never let anyone force me into a life I didn’t want.”
Just finished secondary school, involved in a serious relationship, and with a scholarship to Caltech secured, 17-year-old Rukhsana Ali seems to have her life neatly organized. However, her relationship with Ariana shocks her conservative Muslim parents, and their way of coping with their daughter is to immediately take her on a trip to Bangladesh. Once there, the planning begins to find a suitable husband and get Rukhsana married as quickly as possible.
Rukhsana is a strong main character who represents the convergence of a Bengali nationality, a lesbian relationship and the Muslim faith. The author never allows her to become a stereotype, however, but portrays her as a young woman who has to deal with family issues and relationship problems just as many other young adults must. Rukhsana is torn between the love and loyalty she feels toward her family and her culture and the anger and betrayal she feels when no one seems to care about her feelings or tries to understand her. Her parents are strict and have conservative views and simply cannot accept the fact that their daughter is a lesbian. However, Rukhsana’s partner Ariana and other girlfriends cannot grasp how controlling Rukhsana’s parents are and why she feels a strong loyalty to them even as she is both angry and rebellious. Their advice to “just walk away” is something she cannot easily do.
Rukhsana grows and changes during this coming-of-age novel, but those around her seem to grow and change as much or more than she does. Her relatives and friends begin to understand and accept Rukhsana’s point of view more than she does theirs. Eventually her parents also try to change and love Rukhsana just as she is. The author uses an unfortunate incident or catalyst in the plot to achieve this change on the part of the parents, and the hate crime described seems to go against the prevailing themes of the novel, themes such as acceptance and tolerance.
Khan provides her readers with a firsthand look at Bengali culture, and readers will almost be able to smell and taste the food mentioned throughout the novel. The minutiae of arranged marriages and Bengali weddings and the many preparations for them are also interesting and add verisimilitude to the story. While readers enjoy this look at a different culture, Khan does not allow readers to see stereotypes. She makes it clear that, while some Bengalis may be homophobic, this is not generally true any more than saying that all North Americans are homophobic. There are always differences within the large social group. Khan also points out that queer youth exist in all cultures and all religions.
There are dark moments in the story which deal with child molesting and hate crimes, but there are also moments of happiness and humour. One of my favourite characters is Nani, Rukhsana’s grandmother. She is open, accepting and loving and eventually readers learn the surprising truth about her background which has helped form this very strong personality.
There are some inconsistencies in the writing, and Rukhsana occasionally experiences abrupt emotional changes within a very short time. Some events seem more melodramatic than realistic, but Khan proves her point that emotional reactions are often irresponsible and ‘over the top’. Despite these few shortcomings, The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali is a solid novel which highlights issues not only for Bengalis or queer youth or Muslims, but for many young adults. It will encourage understanding and acceptance and should be available for a wide audience to enjoy.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired high school teacher-librarian and classroom teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, Ontario.