Every immigrant to the western world knows, or knows of, a cabdriver who was a brain surgeon or fiscal economist in his homeland. The narrative of the underemployed migrant goes something like this: lured by promise of fluid upward mobility and unfettered capitalism, professionals move west, only to find that their prior work experience doesn’t count. The educational qualifications earned in their homelands via sweat and blood (and sometimes an organ donation) aren’t recognized. Their alien accents and unfamiliar cultural codes further solidify entry barriers into the workforce.
Toronto-based writer and therapist Farzana Doctor takes a long hard look at this depressing phenomenon in her debut novel Stealing Nasreen. And yet, I was chuckling as I read, for Doctor’s clear-headed, witty narrative is never overpowered by the weight of the issues tackled. The novel’s other running theme-the (non-)acceptance of LGBT South Asians by this community-is again a profound topic treated in a knowing, humorous manner.
Shaffiq Paperwala and his wife Salma have moved from Mumbai to Canada in search of the proverbial better life–Shaffiq, an accountant, felt his (Muslim) religion clouded his career prospects in India. Salma, a school teacher, was more sanguine, but was eventually persuaded to emigrate. The only employment Shaffiq finds in Toronto, however, is a janitor’s post in a hospital. Salma meanwhile works at a dry-cleaning outlet, and teaches Gujarati on the side.
In moving countries, Shaffiq has moved down the social ladder; as a janitor and a new immigrant of color, he is invisible to most eyes. Attempts to assert his former class or position are met with indifference or suspicion. In one scene, Shaffiq, while taking out the recycling, finds a budget sheet with an accounting error. When he points out the error, the administrator informs him that the documents are confidential.
“…I’m not sure that cleaning staff should be scrutinizing them.”
“You see I am not really a janitor. Well I am here, but back in Bombay I did this kind of thing in my job-”
“Oh, well, I suppose I should thank you for noticing my mistake. But please, for future reference, you really shouldn’t be-” She frowns, not able to hide her irritation.
“You see I am an accountant,” Shaffiq adds, wanting her to understand. “That’s what I really am. I guess my eyes were just drawn to what used to be so familiar to me.”
“I see,” she says, with a frozen smile that tells Shaffiq that she doesn’t…”
Canada looked far better from far away; now, Shaffiq longs to crowd into “a city bus with a hundred Indian men” again. But just as he’s questioning his move to Canada, he encounters Toronto-born Nasreen Bastawala, a therapist in the same hospital. As a contemporary of Shaffiq’s ethnicity and a successful Canadian professional, Nasreen appears to be the Canadian migrant’s dream gone right. Shaffiq develops a fascination with Nasreen, and starts purloining small objects–a dropped earring, a discarded travel itinerary-from her workplace.
Nasreen is initially too preoccupied with her troubles to notice Shaffiq. She’s just lost her mother to cancer, her father seems increasingly needy, and her girlfriend (now her ex) cheated on her. But when Nasreen enrolls for Gujarati classes with Salma, her intersection with the couple takes on a unforeseen dimension. Salma is attracted to Nasreen, and the discovery that Nasreen is lesbian opens up a world of sexual possibility inconceivable in conservative India. All kinds of complications-all touching, all believable, mostly hilarious-ensue when Salma impulsively acts upon her feelings.
Doctor’s book is driven by the issues of the day, and such books, by their very nature are perishable. But Stealing Nasreen is first a novel, and only then a social manifesto. The book is energized by its characters, and Doctor has a real gift for crawling into her protagonists’ heads and recording their emotions. I was nodding in recognition as I read, finding echoes of myself and people I know in almost every character– Nasreen’s dietary habits, for instance, uncannily matched my own weakness for Jalapeno kettle chips followed by Nutella followed by more chips… The book thus engages the reader in a very personal way even as it indicts some of Canada’s (and immigrant communities’) failings. The story’s denouement, while featuring a too-long exposition by a secondary character, is as farcical and delirious as a Noel Coward play. And as in these plays, comedy is the leavening force for exploring serious issues such as marital discord, the repression of homosexuality in “polite” society, and class conflict.
Stealing Nasreen is published by Inanna Publications, a small Canadian non-profit feminist press. (Inanna, by the way, is the Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility, and warfare.) Stealing Nasreen reminded me anew why I love small presses so much. These folks are willing, even eager, to address the issues nice people don’t talk about.
This review appears in the current issue of Montreal Serai magazine. Do check it out–the theme is “Why Literature Still Matters”, and contributors include Jaspreet Singh and Rawi Hage.