In her debut novel, Karuna Ezara Parikh asks some pertinent questions about faith and the politics of identity.
Photograph by Upahar Biswas . Clothes Eka by Rina Singh
It seems fitting to listen to Michael Nyman’s eponymous and haunting piano score as one reads Karuna Ezara Parikh’s debut novel The Heart Asks Pleasure First. The theme of star-crossed lovers is one that is beloved of the Indian subcontinent but gains new life in Cardiff, Wales, in 2001 where this story unfolds. For the popular social media influencer, model and former TV presenter, this book was a labour of love that took 13 years in the telling. “When I began writing this at 21, my experience of love had been so limited, and I had no understanding of geopolitics. Over the past 13 years, the biggest change though is a global shift towards authoritarianism, which made telling the story more imperative and urgent,” says Parikh.
The doomed love between two Indian and Pakistani students, Daya and Aaftab, becomes the canvas on which Parikh paints the questions that absorb the novel: the indictment of borders, the tyranny of religion and the power of language, concepts that are universal but also uniquely South Asian. Their love blossoms in the wake of the 9/ 11 attacks, making religious identity the central narrative arc. The novel is marked by the wave of Islamophobia that follows and its effects on the immigrant Muslim community in Britain. Parikh sketches the micro-tensions within the community and traces the changing dynamics between faith and extremism that insidiously affect Aaftab’s life. As he navigates his love for the graceful Daya amid the opprobrium of his family and community, his brooding personality finds a foil in Wasim, his roommate, who is more provincial and religious but a true “yaar”.
The novel is as much about language as it is about love. Metaphors segue into the text with ease. Faiz rubs shoulders with Farida Khanum; poetry and wordplay render the prose fluid and melodious. When asked about her inventive use of language, Parikh says: “Essentially, I wanted to examine language in terms of ‘belonging’. I also wanted to explore the links between different languages, for example, Hindi and Urdu, or the way English is a different language in the mouths of the colonisers and those of the colonised.” Her characters walk in a haze of grace that would be unconvincing were they not balanced by the text’s self-criticality and the hint of doom that pervades it. Even the charmed life of Daya’s cosmopolitan parents Gyan and Asha is not exempt. We see the warning signs.
Parikh uses the principle of Chekhov’s gun to good effect. A letter in Gyan’s pocket, its contents are revealed later, alerts us to an impending rupture. But the book pushes a larger point, of the incorporeality of love and the buoyancy of healing. The story maintains its pace and remains poignant and riveting till the end. Wasim emerges as a character that is both flawed and human. Untouched by luck or romantic love, his presence lends the novel a soft gravitas. Parikh’s writing also contains an element of the fantastical, a revelling in the possibilities of fiction that gives us a dirge layered with pain and ecstasy, and a memorable reminder of how life is made of deep, enduring human connections, asking painfully pertinent questions of politics, identity and the nature of love.