Moth by Melody Razak

Moth by Melody Razak

This novel devastated me. And in the most profound and satisfying way. I could not put this book down; despite being a hefty read at 368 pages I devoured it in a weekend. This novel is a serious contender for my Book of The Year.

Razak’s Moth is set in Partition era India and Pakistan, the former mostly. Its events unfold in the year leading up to India’s independence in 1947 and the year directly after it, a violent and terrible time when Muslim Indians and Hindu Indians violated each other’s homes, families, bodies, and holy places of worship. Moth does not shy away from the terror or the brutality of this history; its story is premised on gendered violence, sexual violence, the kind wrought on women and girls before and since Partition.

This is not a novel for the faint of heart. Readers should prepare to feel chilled to their marrows at the cruelty Razak lays bare.

At the same time, Moth is an empowering read. This is a feminist novel. Not only is it told from the perspective of a young girl desperate to become a woman, Alma, it revolves around the actions of the women in her life and in her community. Alma comes from a high caste Brahmin family, a pair of progressive-minded parents who are highly-educated and who view their India as a place of ethnic, class, and caste equality. But Alma is a victim of her own immaturity and her Brahmin, Hindu grandmother’s ambitions and traditionalism. The history of India at this junction of conflict between colonial rule and independence, Hindu and Muslim segregation or peace, traditionalism or modernity plays out in Alma’s family’s words and deeds. The story opens and hinges upon Alma’s wedding to a Brahmin man, much older than herself.

Here is the first of the gendered debates the reader will encounter in this novel. Marriage, in its traditional and modern forms, the domains of power which men and women occupy — according to their familial rank, their class, their caste, they religion — is one of the fascinating, golden threads of this novel. Alma’s mother is unique in her historical time and place: She is a lecturer at a university, she works. Her marriage to Alma’s father is a foil to to the other marriages in the novel where wives are beaten, raped, abused in other myriad ways.

Moth is also compelling for its frank discussions of caste and class. Ethnicity, religion, race, nativism and xenophobia also serve as the fabric on which the patterns of its stories are told. While Moth is a historical fiction, these threads are visible in India today; this is not merely a fiction of the past, but also a commentary on Indian politics and society right now. Moth is truly an intersectional novel, one which weaves history into the present, one whose characters are shaped by their age, their experiences, religion, gender, ethnicity, and caste.

The characters are complex and developed. Even Razak’s villains are soft and vulnerable. In this novel no one is who they seem, even to themselves. The primary cast consists of Alma’s immediate and servile family: Her father whom we meet mostly as Bappu, simply, “father” and her Ma, named Tanisi; her sister, fondly nicknamed, Roop; her paternal grandmother, a matriarch in their home and her dead husband, the ghost of her Alma’s grandfather, a silent but present and poignant character in the events of the novel; their servants, Dilchain, a Hindu woman and Fatima Begum, a Muslim woman.

Religion and culture shape these characters, give them their reasons for compliance and rebellion, motivate them in their actions. Community expectations and subjective desires come into conflict within these characters, in some cases these poles are reconciled or exist in uneasy harmony. Razak places the reader in the midst of palpable, relatable characters who walk us through their lives as if we were there in the room with them. In Razak’s prose we can taste India, envision the hot sun and the colors of its markets and streets, feel the moisture of sweat and floral fragrance on our skin. Razak brings the reader so close to the characters we might detect their bodily scent or feel their eyes on our skin. In the characters’ actions and thoughts we, the readers, can recognize universal needs and motivations: teenage longing, maternal affection, filial piety, desire for belonging and approval — even while we are treated to a view into a world that is not our own, one that is past and gone, an India of long-ago and far-away.

That said, Moth is brilliant in its nuanced portrayal of India and Indian life and culture. It rejects the exoticism that so often plagues Indian literature, colonial and postcolonial alike. Instead its honest portrayal of Indian people and their experiences connect them to others; we may not know anything of the first hand experience of war, but through Moth we get a real feel for what that might look like, feel like, smell like. Razak’s India is a terrible, beautiful place. Its people are inhuman and yet, all the more human for their cruelty. In these pages the reader will encounter suffering, but, also inspiration. I was awed by the strength of the women and men in Moth. I felt hope, even while I cried as a witness to their pain. They were transformed by their experiences, in good and bad ways.

Moth highlights the catalytic effect of history in the most bitter-sweet way. This is a book you will regret and never regret reading.

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