On Love Then and Now: 2 States and One Day

Note: this sinfully indulgent and long post fails every test of being spoiler-free. If you were planning on reading either or both of these books, it would probably be a good idea to hold off reading this until you’re done. 

I had the fortune of reading two highly engaging love stories in one go. And I’m going to do something different and slightly bizarre in this post: I’m going to do two reviews in one go and attempt a comparative review of these stories.

Some readers may look at me askance, thinking that one book is anything but in the league of the other, but my comparison isn’t based on literary worthiness or geographic proximity. It’s based on what makes them uniquely literary worthy to me and the way I read them and saw them as a testament to the state of love in strange times.

The premise of this comparative review is the following quote from Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him:

It used to be that lovers knew they wanted to be together but couldn’t. Now it’s that lovers can be together but aren’t sure they want to.

This line is something that needs to be unraveled, that needs to be meditated on through several more dimensions outside of this piece. But for now, I will explore it in terms of these books. Because you see, Bhagat’s story is a funny and delightful interlude into the good old times when people were actually sure they wanted to get married. Nicholl’s beautiful work, on the other hand, is a study of two friends who make the choice of getting together an exquisitely drawn-out work of art that spans a decade.

So let us begin.

2 States–apparently a a fictionalized memoir of how the author met his wife–is a throwback to the former good old times of lovers whose struggles lay in external obstacles rather than internal ones. But it’s a throwback with a clever, modern, twist, a climax that makes a literature major want to shoot herself in the head, and the eventual warm, fuzzy feeling of a happy end.

The protagonist, Krish, is a smart alecky but strangely endearing Punjabi fellow from Delhi. His girlfriend, Ananya (who, notably, I did not find as endearing) is a South Indian Brahmin Tamil girl from Chennai. They’re both in what appears to be a healthy, loving, mature relationship, but alas, come the Romeo-and-Julietesque wrist-to-forehead conflict: their families don’t want to marry outside their states and resent each each other. Through arduous struggle that included accepting a job placement in Chennai (which might as well have been China), Krish jumps hoop after hoop in a series of hilarious and heart-warming endeavours with his eye always on the prize: the hand of his beloved Ananya with their respective families’ love, support, and approval.

As the numerical use of the word “two” in the title demonstrates, this book seemed to have gone through next to no publishing process. (I wouldn’t be surprised if it went straight from Bhagat’s laptop to the press. Yeah. That bad.) There are gaping holes that put it at the very bottom rung of notable literary endeavours: the settings are poorly described, characterizations–including that of Ananya’s–play heavily on stereotypes, and the climax of the book was quintessentially Bollywoodesque: predictable, hackneyed, groan-worthy, and, well, unbelievable to the point of being laughable.

With that out of the way, I will now go on to what makes this book wonderful. 2 States isn’t just a love story. It’s an examination of how two extremely disparate cultures can exist within a single nation. It’s not just about overcoming odds to gain approval, it’s about why that validation is important and how it ties in to living in societies whose culture fabric consists of closely-knit family and community ties.

And, dear me, the book is funny. For someone getting into the flow of grad school and needing a break from mind-numbingly dry reading material, it was a relief to have this book’s company on the subway, to have bits of respite before moving on to the real world. It’s entertaining, charming, amusing, and clever, and I was sad when it ended.

That said, it’s time to turn the tables again: I wonder how relevant this story is to the condition of lovers in today’s age. It’s hard to grapple with the idea that a couple managed to live together and spent all their hours–asleep and awake–together, without apparently having any friends, and not having killed each other. And as someone of my generation it is difficult to not be cynical about this book, about the ability for people to put up with anything to be together. We’re living in a time where people look for excuses to bolt rather than fight external obstacles to say.

People like Emma and Dexter in One Day.

These two are self-absorbed and confused. They may mean well, but the luxury of choice, of being able to wait before settling, plays out in its full form in the way they fumble about in their lives.

If someone would ask me what One Day is about, I’d find myself paralyzed with emotion, yet finding that I have nothing to say. Nothing happens in this book, in the story per say. But life happens. Two lives, to be specific. Two people have a relationship that in some way or another touches upon every possible way a man and a woman can relate to one another. This happens while they grow up, while they suffer their respective crises, while they’re there or not there for each other. No longer was I in a world where there was some solid reassurance to base everything else on, which, in the case of 2 States, was the desire to get married. This is a story that pulled the ground out from under me, that had me think of what happens when there are no absolutes, when two people develop as they wish and how the process is not nearly as liberating as it might seen.

Nicholls does something cruel, terribly cruel, in his killing of Emma that took me a long time to recover from. When I finally emerged on the other end, blinking in what felt like a blindingly bright light after the darkness of the deep abyss I was thrown into, I found myself not hating Nicholls for pulling what one heartbroken reader calls a Nicholas Sparkesque stunt, but realizing this: this book is godless.

Apart from pondering over how God has created people to be so incredibly complex that they need to grow, that circumstances need to gain a fine balance in order to finally be able to execute something they have wanted all along, there is nothing in this book that made me think of divinity. There’s occasional brushes of what seem like hopeful possibilities, but for the most part, things go wrong. For the most part, it’s chaos. And the fact that Dexter and Emma finally get together for what seems like too short a while is not a cause for a celebration for how life leads us to the right things as much as a kind of grand coincidence that for a brief amount of time everything intersected to make this work.

I loved experiencing the tragedy, the vicissitudes and different shades of longing and resentment, and the complexity of the barely-platonic relationship Emma and Dexter have for most of the book. I didn’t need some grand, blissful ending like a white wedding with confetti and lace. I thought the way they finally got together—which was almost a kind of resignation—was incredibly romantic in its own way. For the realist side of my being, it was blissful to see the complexities that unfolded during the course of their relationship, to see them grow older and imperfect and irritable.

But Emma dying still makes no sense. Given where this book was coming from, I was happy to go through her pain of not having Dexter, of Dexter’s pain of losing his mother. I was happy to wait until they got together. I wouldn’t have minded so much if they broke things off at the end. What I resented, however, was going through was Dexter’s state of being on the first anniversary of Emma’s death. It has no meaning. It’s needlessly tragic. Hence: a godless book.

There’s an interesting inverse comparison that emerges between the two stories. 2 States was terribly written, but as the memory of the bad writing fades, the memory of the overall story becomes warmer. One Day was the opposite. The writing, especially in terms of dialogues, character descriptions, and settings, was blissful to read. But when I think back to the literal story in terms of plot, I find myself wondering what all the fuss is about. It’s of little surprise that–at least according to what I’ve heard–the film adaptation was so unsuccessful. The story is about the journey rather than the destination. It’s about the process of growing in love, while Bhagat’s story is about how love triumphs over everything.

What does all this mean? Does it mean that divine stories inherently lend themselves to happy endings, giving us the reassurance that all of this means something, that there is a God after all? Do bumblingly tragic stories that deliberately push all conventions of human existence have no hope of offering a faith-based reading? I can’t say. I’d be curious to see whether other stories of this nature give me the same experience that these ones did.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking about books I have incredibly strong feelings about, but I also have trouble fully loving or fully hating. For books that didn’t have any particular lessons to teach me that I didn’t know before, I probably devoted more space to them than they warranted.

For several Muslims, such stories cannot be related to firsthand, only lived through vicariously. And I feel that by reading these two books, that’s what I’ve done. I’m strangely grateful to have been able to be a part of these worlds, to step out of my context and laugh and cry over these lovers’ stupidities, obstacles, triumphs, and failings. Perhaps Allah, in His infinite Wisdom, has some reason in keeping me from having to go through it myself. But He is gracious enough to give me a glimpse of this dimension of existence in the form of these books.


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All I Know About Blogging I Learned From Here

Several friends ask me what got me to start blogging, and some who have been considering starting one themselves have asked me for advice. This post is a consolidated response to both queries.

Until very recently  I was anti-blogging for several reasons:

  • I didn’t think I had enough to talk about.
  • Even if I did, blogging seemed to require a considerable degree of self-absorption, and the thought of being a person capable of that has always been repulsive to me.
  • I’ll admit it: I was vain enough to worry about other people stealing my content and putting it out as their own.
  • I was wary of criticism, especially criticism founded on some assumption on what I am.

Nonetheless, I tried my hand at blogging a few times, but it didn’t seemed right. Every time I hit ‘Publish,’ I had this feeling that the world was doing me a favor by letting me have my say. Blogging is the thing that all aspiring writers seemed to do, were supposed to do, yet although I was going through the motions, I had no desire to share my work with others. I then stopped and paid it no more heed.

But then a series of things happened that completely transformed my approach to blogging. These things were:

1. Reviving the Islamic Spirit

When some of the most outstanding scholars and speakers are pleading with you to take charge of the ummahs future, it’s difficult not to take that to heart. I attended the RIS convention in Toronto the first and so far only time last winter, which was December 2010.

I went in a feeling a little lost, plagued by the feeling of purposelessness that pins one down when life isn’t dealing them any card of any kind. I didn’t have any grand aspirations. I went because I had never been. I went because it had been a long, long time since I had felt like I was part of a greater community of faith.

But everything those world-renowned scholars said struck a deep chord in me. That 9/11, tragic as it was, gave us an opportunity to show the world what we were really about. That it’s a time for change. That we need to garner courage and define a new, vibrant identity for ourselves.

A lot of people tell me that this enormous uplifting sense of inspiration goes away within days of attending a RIS. For me, by the grace of Allah, that inspiration stayed. It nestled and planted a seed in my brain that shone and started to grow. I knew I had to do something with my weird, idiosyncratic Muslim self. It was just a matter of finding out what that something should be.

2. Gary Vaynerchuck’s Crush It!

As that seed grew, something else happened. Having just found out that I was to be kick starting the ebook program at the small press I was interning in, I looked for ways to learn about digital promotion of the authors we represented. And so I came across and started reading Crush It!

Just a few chapters in, I had forgotten whom I was reading for. The book wasn’t speaking to me as a digital product marketer. The book was speaking to me.

This book lays out the steps to identifying your passion and building a platform based on your contribution to the conversation about it. It’s a guide to utilizing what the digital world has to offer.

I’ve always known the importance of going digital generally. What I realized upon reading this book was that I owed it to myself and the world to start blogging. And, more importantly, my blog couldn’t be arbitrary. I had to find something I was passionate about, something I could spend eons writing and conversing and reading about.

Not too soon after, I realized what it was I wanted to focus on. I had to write about books and faith. Religion and the writerly mode of being. Reading this book made me realize that I owed it to myself to make the most of this passion, and I finally set up my blog and started to publish all the drafts I had been writing. I could no longer be the quiet hijabi who happens to be a publishing intern, or a publishing intern who is a quirky and intriguing supplement to a book-lined office. I was tired of being an exception, of straddling two worlds I loved. I had to make them fuse, even if it was only through my thoughts.

The confidence that stemmed from this realization was staggering, and I was no longer afraid of sharing what I wrote in the vein of this passion. That, and realizing that sharing was just as important as creating, led me to finally set up my blog and publicize it through social media. Am I, as Vaynerchuck would put it, crushing it? Perhaps not. But I now am understanding what it takes.

If you don’t get around to reading this book, know its most important lessons are that you need to:

  • Find something you are very, very passionate about
  • Figure out what you can bring to the table in terms of current conversation regarding that passion
  • Find your form (blog, podcast, and/or video) and start churning out your content
  • Reach out. Join every conversation out there about your subject of passion.

3. Steve Pavlina’s post, How to Build a High-Traffic Web Site (or Blog)

My father forwarded this post to me not long after I started blogging, and I devoured it. Although Crush It! was an excellent guide in its own way, it keeps purporting the idea that the blog should be a means to an end, an end where some publisher comes knocking at your door, where you are called for speaking engagements, where you are officiated as a product reviewer for whatever it is that you love. Much as I respect the entrepreneurial spirit and the ethic of hard work, I’m not the sort of person who is driven by those kind of goals. I needed to be driven by something grander, especially since my area of interest was not quite monetarily lucrative.

Personal development guru Pavlina, like Vaynerchuck, also became successful by virtue of having highly lucrative online content. The meaning he gives to how this process happened, however, is something that greatly resonated with me. I needed to be told that the length of my posts, their frequency, this whole keyword and SEO nonsense, makes no difference in the long run. If content is good enough, if you are passionate, if you have something startlingly unique and timeless to offer, the word of mouth is more than enough.

And a genuine desire to help, to be a source of inspiration and insight, is what really makes one’s authenticity shine through. So does engaging with those who enjoy your content. I love pointing Muslims in new directions and making them think in different ways, but I’m too wary of the messiah complex to think that it all ends there. I have to keep seeking to learn from others. Conversation and meaningful engagement–including highly critical responses to my pieces–add to the process, not take away from it.

Plus, a genuine desire to help is not something that Muslims should have to learn. It’s something that should be driving them anyway. It’s not terribly hard, therefore, to do an Islamic reading of Pavlina’s post and apply it to help beget a spirit of generous honesty and bounty by means of collaboration.

4. Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk on Nurturing Creativity

Every sentence Gilbert enunciates in this marvelous talk is a polished gem of wisdom. I’m not a big fan of Eat, Pray, Love, but after watching Gilbert speak about the writing process and the terrifyingly high bar she allegedly has set for herself, I found myself gaining a respectful reverence towards her humility, honesty, and sense of humor about her writerly self. I also loved the way she talks about her acceptance of the fact that she may never write anything as good. But most of all, I was struck by the beauty and incredible relevance of her proposal: that we look at the pitifully rare but much-needed depth of creative insight as a kind of miracle, a blessing from some grand, external dispenser of all creativity.

For me, the insights from this talk have become the antidote to the powerlessness I feel when the words don’t come. If they don’t, it’s up to Allah to do what He wills and I strive wait patiently, just as a person of taqwa is to endure with patience any kind of trial from Him.

I may not be a blazing genius or a writer with enough stamina to sustain a novel, but that could not matter less when the writing process is an end in itself. That such a thing was possible has in itself become a source of contentment. Just like one should be humble and simple in the clothes they wear and the food they eat, it really shouldn’t take much for a writerly Muslimah to find her grounding and to savour this process for what it is.

That’s why it’s more than enough to be living in a time where I have an unprecedented ability to be heard, to have even a handful of people read something I have written and have it resonate with them. I have a long way to go, and there are, I admit, things I want with this. But blogging is very much of a process as opposed to a means to a destination. It is a matter of finding bliss in the moment as well as the drive to excel further.

On Muslim Ethnography

Jenna Hartel, a guest lecturer for one of my classes, talked about the ethnographic method and its implications on the study of information and people. Her expertise is in information phenomena in the hobby of gourmet cooking, and she talked about the experience of sitting with her interviewees and hearing them talk about their passion, their recipe collections, and how they organized them. She brought in the importance of keeping “In my head, I’m hearing ‘Organization systems! Classification schemes!’” she said. But she had to hold that part of herself back and not impose that perspective on that respondent. She listened, absorbed, collected a huge, huge amount of data, and then went on to recreate a picture of the information structures that were created and cemented in the course of pursuing this hobby.

In discussing her lecture with other students, I found that a lot of people saw this kind of work as a self-defeating process that seeks to speak for the “other,” or at best being nothing more than journalism with a bit of academic flair. I could not disagree more, and my reasons can be traced back to my own experiences with the ethnographic method.

I have done ethnographic research as a part of a research assistantship that I did in the aftermath of completing my undergraduate studies. My work included both observer and participant observation as well as in-depth, hours-long unstructured interviews with women who talked about their lives, their hopes, and their dreams.

Hartel’s talk reminded me of what I love most about the ethnographic method. It’s a deliberate practice, a full fruition of the ethic of respect. Absurd as it may seem to spell it out, I feel that I need to do so because this is an ethic that does not always get practiced: respect is, quite simply, the genuine understanding that others don’t see the world as you do. And I feel that ethnography is the closest you can get to seeing how others within a specific context see and experience things.

The way Hartel spoke about listening to her respondents made me think of the way Muslims’ minds work when they are exposed to matters in a certain way. I’ve been nursing a growing interest in personal development, and when I read a blog talk about oneness and unity in one’s purpose and living, my mind, of course, screamed “Tawhid!” Although my mind is in ecstasy over the delight of having formed this connection, I put it aside to continue and understand what is being said in its original context, from the person’s original perspective. I don’t always succeed. But I strive to accord respect to the greatest of my ability.

The Muslim ethnographer may be the odd Muslim anthropology student who uses their familiarity with religious organizations to gain access to a field and be a participant observer in religious practices like sermons and prayers. Important and wonderful as such an endeavor is, ethnography isn’t meant to be relegated to obscure academic publications, journals, and conferences. What I’m wondering is how ethnography can teach Muslims to develop a sensitivity to and awareness of experiences in a manner that makes them more conscientious, Godly people who see these experiences as ways of knowing.

We should all be ethnographers. We should all be participatory observers to what we think is outside of us. Does being able to do so make one less of a Muslim? That’s for our spiritual counselor and therapist (i.e. God) to decide. But perhaps our intentions will avail us. If we seek to embody respect, understanding, and a healthy willingness to embrace others as they are as a means to becoming better people of faith, perhaps there can be baraka in opening our minds and hearts to the human experience.