Rarely does a novel, and that too a debut, paralyse with the sharpness of its prose and concreteness of its dialogues, as does Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed.
Its narrator, a newly born Ishraaq, begins the story with this sentence: “My life outside my mother’s womb has just begun.” Though the book draws inspiration from the Quran and John Keats’ poetry, it seems that Ishraaq is an Abhimanyu from the Mahabharata — an all-knowing superchild.
Ishraaq guides the reader through a politically charged atmosphere in San Francisco’s Bay Area where his mother Seema, a queer activist and political campaigner, has begun her life afresh after a brief heteronormative relationship with a Black man — Ishraaq’s father. As a lesbian who moved to a cis-het relationship, Seema had to inevitably brave puzzled responses from the queer community, but she handles them with grace, as she’s not new to this ostracisation.
Fifteen years ago, when she had come out, her decision severed relationships with her family, especially with her father and Tahera, her younger sibling — a devout, five-time praying Muslim, with whom she’s not on speaking terms. Tension and pent-up feelings between the siblings reach a crescendo when Seema meets Tahera and their mother after this gap — they come to be with Seema for she is going through a difficult pregnancy with Ishraaq.
In telling a sensitive and deeply invested portrayal of the time leading up to the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, Ahmed shows in the novel a world built on hope. But how long can hope contest with a numbing and chilling reality that foretells devastation? Or as his narrator puts it: “Death sings in ways Birth cannot. It takes a lifetime to perfect that purity of tone, the vibrato of lament.”
Documenting the everydayness of life — vulnerable moments, potent with meaning, which we (sometimes even deliberately) miss — Ahmed creates characters whose observations are so well thought out and soul-baring that it feels almost impossible to accept this book as fiction. These characters’ familial bonds explore emotional terrains often left untouched.
Through them, Ahmed examines an array of inquires — for example, is it appropriate to vehemently suggest to teenagers that they not practice Islam; or should one stop being bitter to a mother just because her end is near; is it okay, as a lesbian, to attend a pride parade now that you’ve slept with a straight man and are bearing his child; is it possible ever to stop being a lesbian?
However, will any such confrontation with religion or sexual orientation, both considered so sacrosanct, result in anything in a world characterised by hatred towards Muslims (post-9/11) and queers, and especially in a country that fashions itself as most developed, democratic, and ideal?
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Radiant Fugitives is exploring the limits of political willingness and correctness. Above all, it examines whether language is capable of encapsulating what remains said and unsaid between a daughter and a mother, between lovers, and even between a dying mother and a newly born son. It’s this onerous task that the novel takes upon itself — a task which, in my view, can never be finished — for despite a life ending in the book, another one embarks on a journey that will be haunted by its past.