But if you’re brave enough to find out just WHY this book might possibly give you a permanent eye-roll, then read on.
This story features Meher, our heroine, who is not exactly the smartest chip on the block. Meher goes on a trip to Pakistan’s Northern areas with her friends, gets separated from them and ends up falling for the guy (our ‘terrorist’ hero Sarmad) she spends the rest of her trip with. Does this plot sound familiar? Well then, congratulations to you have for having seen Dilwale Dulhania La Jayenge, only the most famous Bollywood movie of all time. But unlike DDLJ, beloved by many and a classic for the ages, the only test this book will pass is the test of ‘how many clichés can one story hold?’
If you don’t believe me, if you think there’s a limit to how many formulaic scenes one measly story can indulge in, feast your eyes on the following:
Cliché number 7: Heroine trips and falls into hero’s arms:
She suddenly tripped—her arms tightly wrapped around my shoulders and neck. This little accident brought colour to her already pink cheeks. I could smell her fragrance and hear the loud thudding of her heartbeat. For an instant, our eyes locked.
Number 17: Hero stares broodingly out the window (to give the cliché extra oomph, an unlit cigarette):
He was leaning against the window pane staring outside. An unlit cigarette dangled from his lips.
Number 35: Hero uses sports/art/other random activity as an excuse to put his arms around the heroine:
Sarmad stood behind me and made me hold the origami in my hands. Both of us released it into the air together and watched it float.
Number 57: Heroine drops cup in dramatic shock:
As I overheard their conversation, the tray fell out of my hands, spilling the coffee all over the marble floor. I froze on the spot.
Number 64: Hero and heroine’s hands almost touch:
He looked at me for a long time but I kept my eyes down. Our fingers touched for a brief moment when he took the suit from my hands.
I’m going to stop now. It was hard enough reading it without having to relive the whole experience. I’m sure you get the point. Basically, if you’ve seen enough Bollywood movies, you don’t need to read this book. And you especially don’t need to read it if you have the slightest appreciation of an actual, sensible plot, because you certainly won’t find it here.
Sarmad, the ‘terrorist’, is going to the northern areas to blow some place up. (The terrorists, in this case, being the very-originally-named ‘Mullah and his gang’. That’s the name of an actual terrorist organization, I literally couldn’t make this up if I tried. It’s like the least amount of brain cells were involved in actually being creative in this book, or trying to move past stereotypes.) On his way the bus next to him gets into an accident. He saves a girl because, apparently:
No face had caught my attention the way this girl’s did. I had never felt attracted to any woman in my life before. Her aura was bewitching. There were old memories attached to her presence. It felt as if I had some strong connection with her. A lost bond.
So, you know, insta-love. Then after jumping down a ditch after her, he, world-weary traveler who has explored the dark, deep corners of the world, gets promptly lost two minutes away from the main road. He roams the ditches, bumps into an excessively generous family (no time to talk about this frankly weird-as-hell family because this review will be taken up by the special snowflakes that are our two protagonists), and then pretends to be this random girl’s husband in order to stay at said family’s house. Cue lots and LOTS of clichés, barf-worthy cheesiness, and unnecessary drama which frankly could have ended a lot sooner. The end.
Now I would compare this to fanfiction since fanfiction is famous for being written by amateurs, except I’ve read fan fiction better than this. It would actually be insulting to fan fiction to compare it to this utter shitfest. And it’s not only because the plot is senseless or the writing is amateurish (more on that later). The basic problem is that our protagonists are both insufferable idiots. I cannot stress on this enough. Meher is a moody, spoiled brat while Sarmad is volatile, indecisive, and frankly too much of a misogynist pig to be the hero of this story. They have no redeeming qualities, and not even the saving grace of good writing to fall back on.
But don’t take my word for it. I could point out the numerous irritating things Meher she does, but I’ll let you come to this conclusion yourself. Here is Day Two of her having known Sarmad, a guy who has proven himself to be a consummate liar in how easily he pretends to be her husband:
‘It’s okay if you don’t want to share anything with me. But I don’t know why I don’t feel awkward sharing everything with you,’ she said, looking into my eyes.
Girl, what you need are some lessons in basic security and what stranger danger is.
Somehow, I no longer felt scared in his presence; I felt comfortable. He was my saviour after all. He couldn’t be dangerous.
Let me just repeat: this is on day two of the guy who has so far lied to her, refused to give her his cell phone, snapped at her, ignored her, and been both rude and standoffish. It does not compute.
Here is Day 6 of their meeting. Literally the sixth day since they’ve met:
I sat still on the bed, tears rolling down my cheeks. I started weeping. I’d never missed him so much till now. It was like a part of me had gone missing.\
It just gets worse and worse. I mean, when you lose someone you were particularly close to, what do you miss? Surely their conversation, their particular way of being, their very personality, yes? And yet, here’s Meher when she thinks she’s left Sarmad - the one true love of her life - forever:
My heart lunged in my chest as I realized that I had been separated from him forever. I would never see his beautiful face, never look into his deep eyes and never touch his skin again.
Face, eyes, skin. Talk about priorities.
Now here’s Meher after her engagement to her cousin. She’s found Sarmad again through a mixture of unicorn magic and more stupidity than usual. Her thought process:
He slowly took my hand and interlaced our fingers together, without saying a word. I didn’t stop him. Why would I? How could I?
BECAUSE YOU ARE ENGAGED. For God’s sake.
If I am not able to find him, I’ll die.
The funny thing is that Sarmad must be her one true soulmate since he’s almost as idiotic as her. I, of course, have twelve gazillion examples of his fine personality, but here are some of his particularly shining moments:
‘No . . . I’m fine, thanks,’ she muttered. ‘I don’t need your help.’
‘Don’t overreact and just hold my hand,’ I said, getting irritated at her childish behaviour.
She shot me a nervous glance.
‘Step down!’ I told her. This time it sounded more like an order.
Ooh my uterus is all a-quiver with this rude-as-hell behavior. Who wouldn’t fall in love with such an asshole? Not me! Sign me up for the I-have-low-self-esteem train on its way to I’m-eternally-doomed-and-don’t-know-it platform.
Misogynistic douche is just one part of his winning charm though. This man is a world-weary traveler, who’s been everywhere and seen everything. And how does he react to attending one simple wedding?
Everything was new for me. I had never seen a proper family gathering or a religious festivity, let alone a wedding.
Even his basic maths sucks! At one point in the story we are forced to suffer through flashbacks (once again, another stupid plot point that will not feature in this review because of the utter magnitude of all the other bakwas). In this flashback, his mother had eloped when he was three, and his father has been a single parent for six years. How old does he think he is? Eight.
The problem is that this feels like it was written by someone who’s read too many romance novels and nothing else. All those descriptions, trite and overused, that usually go into describing the hero and heroine are present here. ‘Brooding’ for the guy, ‘dainty’ for the girl. Flawless and perfect and ‘washed hair’ (once again, I kid you not) and soft lips and on and on for both of them. At least Twilight went all the way out there with its claims of Edward Cullen’s perfection. At least that novel had the decency to provide a cover in the ‘he’s beautiful because he’s a vampire!’ plot line. This book has no excuses for its stereotypical descriptions, which also extend into the setting. You know how you read an essay by a seven-year-old and they talk about the cool air and warm sunlight and green trees and fast river, and there’s literally no descriptive synonyms anywhere?
The beautiful sight of the gigantic mountains, roaring rivers and fascinating waterfalls brought a smile to my face. I seemed lost in its endless magnificence.
This lacking in the language is so unfair to the beauty that is Pakistan’s northern areas. I mean, just LOOK at this:
|Kundol Lake-Swat Valley|
Nafisa cooked shorwa for us, and everyone sat on the floor cross-legged and ate it with nan—unleavened, flat bread.
But fine, so this book panders to a non-desi, western audience. Bigger, better authors like Kamila Shamsie have fallen prey to this pandering, and it’s part of a bigger problem about whom we write for. That’s all fine and well, but then the story continues with the following text and no explanations:
May Allah be your nigehbaan.’
Now how is a non-desi reader supposed to understand that? Or for that matter words like ‘acha’, ‘ji’, ‘baqerkhani’, ‘parathas’, etc. Even common Urdu sayings are used in English, without any actual explanation for the context, or why they’re being used in the first place.
‘There he is. He has a long life!’ Rukhsana smiled.
For the uninitiated, when you’ve been talking about someone and they suddenly appear, it implies that the person has a long life ahead of them. Sort of a desi version of ‘talk of the devil’ except, you know, a bit nicer. So how the hell do you use an Urdu proverb without providing any context and expect your reader, to whom you so gently provided a nan definition, to understand this? Just who was the editor for this text is what I want to know at this point. Even if you ignore this inconsistency in describing Urdu terms, consider the following sentence:
I talked to Amma and told her about my tour. I made up a long story, but also felt bad for lying to her. I couldn’t do anything else. I promised to return soon. After talking to her, I felt relieved and pleased.
That, right there, is what you call an unholy mess of a paragraph. This book is also FILLED with adverbs. No one will ever just speak or say or nod. They will ‘say sarcastically’, ‘laugh happily’, ‘snap angrily’, and my personal favourite:
Haider said in a low voice, to which I nodded affirmatively.
He nodded affirmatively. As opposed to, you know, nodding to show negation, which is a particularly famous expression in the land of NOWHERE.
I found his personality peculiar; something weird but indescribable.
It’s basically just bad writing. Someone with even the simplest idea of editing could have fixed this. Conclusion: writing overall -> so much of the fail.
But even WITH ALL OF THAT, I was willing to give this book a chance if the romance was passionate and intense and kept me hooked. I mean, in a romance novel, surely that’s the most important aspect, right? And yet, it was the romance that was the biggest fail. Not only is it a case of insta-lust, but also suffers from a more-beautiful-than-the-sun- syndrome. Meher is, according to Sarmad, the most beautiful, perfect specimen in the history of the universe. And he uses that to his advantage by staring at her like a creep every time he’s asleep.
Every single feature of her face took my breath away. I surely hadn’t seen a more beautiful living creature than her. I stared at her face for a few more minutes.
Someone needs to tell this guy (whom she’s known for all of two days) that the Twilight-esque ‘I watch you while you sleep’ is less likely to induce affection and more likely to trigger stalker alerts. Here is another fine example of their budding affection:
As soon as her fresh scent hit my nostrils, I felt mesmerized. She let out a silent gasp when my shoulder touched hers.
And if the brilliant word play doesn’t do it for you, consider the following ‘twu wuv’ connection (ten points to you if you got this reference):
The entire night, with our minds, with our hearts and with our bodies, we made love. Pure love.
Pure love? Did that sentence just end with ‘pure love’? What are we, thirteen? GOOD LORD.
I have a love-pain relationship with her. Love that caused more pain and pain that changed me.
It’s not just the romance that makes you want to throw the book out of the window. It’s that Meher and Sarmad don’t have any sense of a connection: Consider the deep, heartfelt, understanding conversations between these two that occur throughout the book:
‘Wait.’ I stopped midway.
He turned to look at me.
‘What now?’ he asked, shrugging.
‘I’m hungry,’ I said, a little embarrassed.
He heaved a sigh and then looked away.
Fascinating. The lives of the young and in love are truly sparkling with joy and energy. In another scene, they’ve just had an awkward conversation, and she finds him later smoking in the room. Behold:
I came up with an idea to lighten the atmosphere and cheer him up.
‘Do you know a cigarette a day reduces your life by eleven minutes?’
Maybe the poor girl doesn’t know what the words ‘lighten the atmosphere’ mean? But fine, maybe they’re both awkward individuals forced to live with a stranger, and these are beginning days, so maybe I could forgive this. But once these two are spilling their life’s secrets to each other, their conversations must get better, right?
‘How could the army help me when they were the ones who killed my father?’ he asked.
I shook my head. ‘That’s not true, Sarmad. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding. Your father was killed in an encounter. The army would never take an innocent person’s life.’
What? WHAT? I get patriotism and supporting your armed forces, but to think that those in the army don’t take innocent lives is bordering on delusional. Here are three links I found within a 2-second google search about soldiers killing innocent civilians but anyway. So our hero and heroine have found something to disagree about. Do they fight and yell and have a passionate falling out because of their divergent opinions? Do they vainly try to convince the other person why they’re wrong? Do they respect the other’s opinion and let it be?
‘Whatever, Mehru. You shouldn’t worry about it. It’s not your headache. Just forget it.’
I mean. Why was I even expecting smartness, you know? You’d think that many pages into the story, I should just know better. Even the characters themselves give us reasons, again and again, to believe that they’re dumb idiots. Here’s Meher after finding out that Sarmad might have been involved in killing her brother:
‘Stop reminding me of what you’ve done! Stop telling me you’re nothing but a monster!’
Here’s Meher two seconds later, when Sarmad tells her he will drop her at her parents’ place, where she’ll be safe.
‘Do you think I’m safe with you? With a monster?’
These people have got issues with their issues is all I’m saying. They constantly doubt, accuse, indulge in pointless angst, and the questions, oh my god the questions. Half the book is like an episode of Twenty Questions, except it most definitely isn’t fun. For our lovely protagonists, self-doubt is the way to a content life. Don’t believe me, read it for yourself, in one example out of many:
Sarmad: Despite not being allowed to have feelings for someone, I had lost my heart to her. What should I do about it? How should I get back my heart from her? How would I stop thinking about her? How would I live with the fact that she would hate me for the rest of her life?
Meher: Why was I crying? What made those tears flow out? Why did I have feelings for a person who did not belong to me?
Because you are an idiot. That’s the only explanation.
Finally, I could go into a long rant about the ridiculous sexism this book is dripping in, but I will just quote one final, slightly longer scene, and leave it at that. Meher, freshly showered, is adjusting her dupatta in front of the mirror. She puts it on her shoulder, the way some Pakistani women wear it, only to be interrupted by our hero.
She nodded as she stared at me. I took her dupatta in my hands and began to unfold it. She watched me with amazement. I spread out the dupatta and put it across her head, covering her hair. ‘It looks good here,’ I whispered, observing her.
Oh the smacks this boy deserves. This reeks of men protecting women’s honour by making sure they are fully covered. I’m all for women covering themselves from head to toe if they want, but that’s the crux of the argument. IF THEY WANT. And what was our heroine’s reaction to this patriarchal bullshit?
Mehar blushed at her reflection in the mirror.
I can't take anymore. I'm out.
This book is one long list of what-the-hell and eye rolls and this-is-too-lame-to-swallow bakwas. If you are really in the mood for some desi bollymood-movie-stylez cheesiness, I recommend Karachi You’re Killing Me by Saba Imtiaz. But whatever you do, avoid this like you would avoid being roped into tea-making duty on Eid day. You’ve been warned.