Friday 18 August 2017 News Updated at 03:08 AM IST
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Of twists & turns - Deccan Herald
Of twists & turns
Parvathi Ramkumar,
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The Other Half of Happiness by British-Pakistani author Ayisha Malik is a sequel to Sofia Khan is Not Obliged and has the same protagonist and cast of characters.

Both books follow Sofia, only, in The Other Half of Happiness, she's married to an Irish Catholic-turned-Muslim. Since The Other Half of Happiness picks up directly after Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, it may be easier to follow the second book if you've read the first.

When The Other Half of Happiness opens (with a sentence reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre), Sofia is at a mosque with the newly converted Conall, waiting to get married. From there on, it's something of a strange tale as they find themselves in the chaos of Karachi, Pakistan, living in a squalid flat with fears of bombs falling on them any minute. And then, disagreements follow, and Sofia is back in London on her own.

The Other Half of Happiness is a little disjointed as it wades through Sofia's thoughts. Given that the book is in the first-person narrative, there's a lot of dialogue, a lot of bantering, and a lot of exclamations, and some Urdu interjections. Confusion awaits Sofia at home when her mother decides to arrange a wedding party for her, as Sofia had eloped in the first place and rumours have to be crushed.

As far as these characters go, Sofia is a bit of a rebel, London-born and-bred, devout and loyal to her faith, and yet finds time to sneak off with a cigarette. The book's from her perspective, the challenges she faces, especially with both her work and her marriage stressing her out. She's also got to deal with her husband's antics and strange behaviour that may or may not be linked to his conversion. Added to that are her mother's antics and shocking announcements. And to top it all, there is pressure on her to write a book based on her marriage.

Conall appears distracted, has a dark secret from his past that catches up with him, and sinks deeper and deeper into his new religion that leads his family to think he's beginning to take to extremism. As for Sofia's mother, she has all sorts of ideas concerning her daughter's wedding party and arranging a ceremony for herself.

Sofia's editor, Sakib, a Muslim of Indian descent, is obsessed with his work and creating a niche publishing house, and constantly texts Sofia about editing work at the most inopportune moments. There is a slew of other minor and not-so-minor characters as well, from Sofia's sister Maars to Conall's brother Sean, aunts, uncles, and friends.

The book reads like a diary, with daily and hourly interjections. And maybe like a diary, the story's disjointed. There are skips and hops as Sofia traverses a landmine of emotions and events - trying to juggle her work with her marriage, keeping her inquisitive family from prying too much, and meeting Conall's Catholic parents. Religion plays a major role in this book, with conversions, suspicions of radicalisation, interviewers who ask odd questions, and Sofia's candid observation that she would not have married Conall if he hadn't converted.

It's a little difficult telling the characters in The Other Half of Happiness apart. Nearly all of Sofia's friends sound the same - and all of them sound breathless, a little giddy, and a little too taken up with Sofia's 'otherness'. Sofia comes across as wanting to be, or being, the centre of attention all the time, judgemental and erratic, and always seeming to get her way as the world around her changes for her. She revels in her differences, and then there are times when she's frustrated at the lack of understanding of those around her. An interesting dichotomy, to be sure.

There's some attempt at social commentary and it doesn't do as well as it should. There were good reasons for Conall's family to suspect radicalisation considering how strangely Conall was behaving throughout the book. Except that Sofia knew better, but why she knew better isn't convincingly explained. Maybe because the narrative tries too hard with the social commentary and less with the story itself.

That there's 'reverse racism' among Sofia's family is convincing enough, though, and Conall has to go through a series of snide remarks regarding the colour of his skin. The 'dark secret' seems a bit unnecessary considering how much drama there is already in The Other Half of Happiness.

It was sudden, and it was a bit clichéd, not entirely predictable, and not unpredictable either. As it is, the plot chugs along slowly. Much too slowly, and this book is hefty at 433 pages. Which it shouldn't have been. The Other Half of Happiness could have used less chaos and more structure, and better handling of the plot.

The Other Half of Happiness
Ayisha Malik
Zaffre
2017, pp 433, Rs 399


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