Stealing Nasreen

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    Book Synopsis

    Farzana Doctor’s highly anticipated novel about queer identities, immigrant life, secrets, and lost loves.

    Nasreen Bastawala is an Indo-Canadian lesbian and burnt-out psychologist who meets and becomes enmeshed in the lives of Shaffiq and Salma Paperwala, new immigrants from Mumbai. Both Shaffiq and Salma develop confusing attractions to Nasreen. For Shaffiq this causes him to bring home and hide things he “finds” in her office. Salma’s crush on Nasreen harkens back memories and regrets about a lesbian affair that ended badly years ago.

    Nasreen has troubles of her own. She recently broke up with her cheating girlfriend and is dealing with her father, who has become demanding and clingy ever since the death of her mother a couple of years before.

    Without knowing what is happening, Nasreen becomes the centre of Shaffiq and Salma’s lives. Each keeps a secret about Nasreen, and in so doing risks their marriage, while Nasreen struggles to come to terms with her mother’s death and her recent break-up. An impulsive kiss sets off a surprising course of events.

    Farzana Doctor is a Toronto-based writer whose work has been published in Siren Magazine, Trikone, Sightlines 7 Anthology, and Aurat Durbar. She has also co-written a manual for therapists and co-produced a documentary video. She is also a social worker, educator and consultant.

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    Book Review

    When I picked up Stealing Nasreen, I expected an abundance of lesbian experiences, from the first time exploration to dramatic break-ups. As I started reading it, I thought it was about immigration to Canada and adaptation in Canada. The lesbian theme did occur but more as a tangent, a tease. Then I thought this book was about relationships. After getting to know the characters, I concluded differently on the author's theme and purpose.

    The three main characters are very real, very credible, and very moralistic. Throughout the book, the characters grow, often fumbling and telling lies when attempting to avoid pain, grief, and loss. They finally understand that they must confront their fears and lies that created the problems in the first place.

    We are first introduced to Shaffiq, an Indian male immigrant. His lie is his continual optimism about being in Canada. He recognizes that he has faked this optimism after the "honeymoon" of being in Canada. Yet, he cannot reveal this lie to his wife, Salma. To spice up his mundane job, he searches for clues about the people around him, creating melodrama in his life. He focuses on Nasreen, a second-generation Indian woman. Nasreen does not represent romantic interest for Shaffiq, but Canadian success for an Indian person.

    Salma is the central character. Her lie is her efforts to make life successful in Canada. Starved for social stimulation, she turns to her religion. Dwelling on the past, on good things back in India, Salma returns to an unresolved thread in life and creates melodrama in her lonely life in Canada.

    Nasreen, a modern-day Canadian woman, finds herself in the middle of Salma and Shaffiq’s marriage, after unintentionally sparking off a crisis with these immigrants. Having lost her mother to cancer, Nasreen rejects the painful grieving process and her father, along with avoiding the grief from her break-up with her lover. She is the catalyst in the lives of Salma and Shaffiq.

    Farzana Doctor slowly introduces us to Salma's and Shaffiq's backgrounds and work histories. This purposeful direction enables us to see Salma and Shaffiq first as individuals, before our stereotyping can occur. In some ways, Shaffiq and Salma are very much like, practical in agreeing to an arranged marriage. Their cultural, ethnical, and economic backgrounds demanded practicality to ensure some individual control over their futures. Nasreen experiences no such restrictions. The demands in her life have been minimal which leaves her character development on a more superficial level than Shaffiq's and Salma's.

    Nasreen's life revolves around either or choices on simplistic matters, rather than seeing other alternatives. Doctor illustrates this symbolically. Nasreen goes to the grocery store, and hears her mother and her ex-girlfriend's voices in dispute over which cereal to buy. Rather than seeing other alternatives besides the two boxes of cereal, Nasreen takes both cereal boxes.

    Doctor describes believable incidents that help readers to identify and sympathize with her characters, like Nasreen's father. He curses the broken automatic garage door-opener, which he always talks about fixing. After opening the door, he buckles up to drive the last three meters into the garage. I like the details that demonstrate character traits. Nasreen's father seems like so many other urbanites. Doctor describes Nasreen standing before the open fridge door for too long, and about how she hurriedly cleans her whole apartment before a guest imminent arrival.

    Doctor uses parallel constructions with skill. As an example, Shaffiq wonders whether his thinking has become more melodramatic. "Carrying on with his cleaning, he imagines love affairs as he scrubs toilets, conflicts and ruined lives while mopping floors, and heartbreaking betrayals when emptying garbage cans."

    Is melodrama a condition of a recent immigrant, of a humdrum job, or of a humdrum life? Does melodrama sprout when leisure time is available? Shaffiq wonders at all the Canadian people with such problems. Back home in India, he had never heard of depression, anxieties, shoplifting, and excessive drinking. Salma feels the loneliness from Shaffiq working the night shift. In her loneliness and solitude, Salma reaches out to Nasreen, creating her own melodrama. Nasreen builds her melodrama from her inability to release her former lover, and to deal with the loss of her mother. Do we create our melodrama when we are unsatisfied with our lives, lying to our close intimates and ourselves? Doctor implies that without honesty we will be melodramatic, as happens to the main characters in this book. Once internal dissatisfaction solidifies and peaks in melodramatic reality, then circumstances force the characters to admit and to choose.

    We are introduced to the lesbian world with a history of Nasreen's entrance into her own sexual orientation. Exploring Nasreen's lesbian lifestyle reveals the character of a lesbian relationship, the similarity to heterosexual relationships. The author dissolves the unfamiliarity for mainstream readers by showing the familiarity of relationships between two lovers, no matter what the sexual orientation.

    I wondered about Salma's lesbian crushes in India. People crave intimacy. With the cultural restrictions around non-familial relationships of the opposite sex, it is no wonder that Salma develops deep feelings for someone of the same sex. In Canada, Salma finds Nasreen who provides intellectual stimulation, sympathy, and a chance to resolve her badly ended lesbian relationship in India. In turn, Nasreen understands what it is like to be the person who is desired, and pursued. This is one example where Doctor contrasts and layers a relationship allowing us to see situations from different viewpoints, using past events and other relationships.

    The engagements of a therapist or a psychologist reveal lies or avoidance in the patients' lives. All the characters including the two whom were in therapy resolve their problems outside of the therapist office. However, other people play the therapist role informally, demonstrating the importance of communication. Doctor beautifully writes, "…Salma and Shaffiq sit awake thinking about all the clues that tell them, they need to mind their marriage." They become mindful of other people and their surroundings that supply clues. Both Salma and Shaffiq have wonderful insightful dreams that hint at resolutions to their marriage problem.

    Is this book about relationships? Doctor portrays many types, with contrasting viewpoints: inter-racial romance vs. same-race romance, Indian-grown romance vs. Canadian-born romance, mother vs. daughter, father vs. daughter, sister vs. brother, young lovers vs. long-time marriage, lesbian vs. heterosexual, therapist vs. patient. Interestingly, readers can see the similarities and solutions, but the characters seem blinded. For example, Nasreen, a psychologist, goes to see a therapist herself. The therapy sessions demonstrate restricted intercourse with her therapist, and Nasreen avoiding her own grief. She repeats the dialogue with one of her own clients who lost her mother, making Nasreen a questionable psychologist in her current state.

    I loved this book for its varied themes, layers, meanings, and symbolism. In the end, I believe Stealing Nasreen is about "life", a fresh look at living life through the eyes of recent immigrants to Canada.


    Farzana Doctor would be happy to participate in book club meetings either in person in the Toronto area, or by speaker phone. To arrange this, please call Doctor at 647-899-8974.

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