On the eve of India’s independence, Rohini, a wealthy Hindu girl, and Hanif, a middle-class Muslim musician, meet at a Bombay college and fall in love. As the subcontinent is partitioned into two nations, India and Pakistan, based on religion, these two young lovers are doomed. On August 15, 1947, the couple — like the Indian nation — declare independence and elope with the help of a Parsi friend. Rohini’s family disowns her and performs a funeral to mark her symbolic death. Hanif’s family reluctantly embraces the new couple.
The plot of “Silk Fish Opium,” a debut novel by a literary critic turned novelist, ties the life of the couple to the fortunes of two emerging and politically challenged nations. (In case this seems familiar, Salman Rushdie intertwined the life of an individual and that of a nation with greater ingenuity in “Midnight’s Children” more than 30 years ago). The novel is successful when it forgets this political allegory and examines the difficulties of a young bride struggling to adapt to her husband’s religion and culture.
With courage and grace, Rohini becomes Rehana, adopts the salwar kameez traditional dress, studies the Koran and learns to eat meat. She also learns how to find happiness in a middle-class home with none of the luxurious trappings of her childhood. The couple has children and Hanif, unable to find economic stability as a musician, goes to America to get a master’s degree in business administration at Syracuse University. The novel then brings together Hanif and his brother-in-law Mahesh (now Max) to explore the difficulties of being South Asian in the U.S., where they experience cultural ignorance and racism. While Hanif develops his business skills, his brother-in-law embraces assimilation, even picking up an American girlfriend.
Both Hanif and Max return to India and Max, apparently changed by his experience of discrimination, reconnects with his sister and her family. Hanif and his family migrate to Karachi to build a textile business and Rohini/Rehana now transforms herself to accept Pakistani culture and to deal with the discrimination leveled at her because of her Hindu roots.
The novel picks up the political allegory and — in a hasty narration of large political events in one chapter (Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, independence of Bangladesh 1971) — it attempts to tie Rohini/Rehana’s life story back to the political vicissitudes of the subcontinent. The novel struggles with plotting and pacing and Rohini/Rehana, the most intriguing character of the novel, disappears into a hastily wrapped up narrative. Still, the novel is worth reading for the few characters — Rohini, Motilal and Hanif — who are drawn with empathy and finesse.