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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Review of Belief by Veena Gokhale in Montreal Serai

This is a novel, hot off the headlines, opening with Rafiq, a young, second-generation, Indo-Canadian Muslim being implicated in a plot to bomb public places in Toronto. His family, consisting of his father Abdul, a secular liberal and former labour leader from Bombay, mother Ruksana, a moderate Muslim who once ran a women’s centre in Bombay, and sister Ziram, who works for a settlement centre in Malton (Mississauga) and is preoccupied with her husband’s promotion and her own pregnancy, are all but shattered when Rafiq ends up in prison due to the incriminating evidence found on his computer. The scenes describing Rafiq’s incarceration are compelling.

Although it starts out as an action novel with an element of mystery – is Rafiq an innocent who refused to be drawn into a terrorist plot after a flirtation with extremism, or is he lying about his continued involvement – the main goal of the book is to plumb the psyches and motives of its main characters and reveal the tangled web of family relations with its loves, hates, loyalties and resentments, sharpened by the exigencies of immigration and the complexities of being a Muslim in the West (or for that matter anywhere).

Don’t expect literary lyricism. Bhatt writes in a no-nonsense, journalistic style (he is indeed a former journalist from Bombay) that works well for a lot of the narrative, though he could have done more “show” and less “tell” at times. Bhatt also follows an unnecessary prescription to describe in detail the physical features of each and every character, however minor.

But these are petty quibbles. The power of Belief lies in the way it penetrates Abdul and Ruksana’s family and their world, making the reader intimate with the horribly shaken lives of four multi-dimensional human beings. We see them, warts and all, and feel for them. Rafiq’s portrayal is particularly masterful: from a feckless young man to someone who reflects deeply on his actions and responsibilities.

Outside the immediate family circle is Nagma Khala who runs a daycare centre that Rafiq attended as a child. Nagma is another kind of devout Muslim, and clearly a great influence on Rafiq whom she loves as her own son. Bhatt exposes the diverse ways of being Muslim – a reality that mainstream society does not care to comprehend – another reason for the novel’s relevance and strength.

This book is an indictment of the marginalization of minorities both in India and Canada. Abdul and Ruksana leave India and come to Toronto in the wake of the terrible 1992 wave of communal violence in Bombay. But these urban, English-speaking, professionally skilled immigrants can’t “fit in” here, nor can they find work that recognizes their experience. Their working life remains a perennial struggle, and they become marginalized, living in ethnic ghettos outside the mainstream. Worse, the children born to such parents – children who have been through the Canadian education system – can’t always find their rightful place here either.

The very “dream” that drives people here – “a better future for their children” – may thus remain unfulfilled. In fact, studies have shown that systemic racism affects second generation Canadians as well.

Read this book not only to know the realities of immigrant experience from inside out, but also to understand what drives some of the headlines we read. I can truthfully say that Belief helped me better understand the phenomenon of the radicalization of young, Muslim, second-generation, immigrants of colour.

The idea that injustice must be opposed, confronted, and a better world shaped as a consequence, runs through Belief. But what means are fair, what foul? And what if one is simply thwarted from taking action, one way or another? Challenging questions with no ready answers: questions that literature is so well equipped to take on.


Veena Gokhale’s short story collection, Bombay Wali and Other Stories, was published by Guernica Editions in 2013. Her first novel, Land for Fatimah, written with a Québec Government literary grant, will be published by Guernica in 2018. She lives in Montréal.

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