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Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin: Book Review

When Uzma Jalaluddin’s debut novel ‘Ayesha At Last’ was first published, it was hailed as a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’  which has become somewhat of a trend as South Asian adaptations of the book have become quite popular recently . Ayesha is a modern-day Elizabeth Bennet, while Khalid is her Mr. Darcy. Both are from Indian-background Muslim families in Canada, and both have experienced loss and tragedy. Their Muslim community faces challenges, and they try to help, though their ideas don’t always match.

Khalid finds his identity in wearing a long white robe, a white skullcap, and a bushy beard. He doesn’t shake women’s hands (sign of a strict Muslim), and tends to judge others, though he treats them with respect. He works hard and does well in his company. But a new boss arrives who is prejudiced against him for his religion and appearance. She looks for excuses to fire him.

Set in the Scarborough suburb of Toronto with an outspoken and opinionated substitute teacher female with dreams of being a performance poet in Ayesha Shamsi, and a “bearded fundy” (in the words of Ayesha), conservative e-commerce manager and unlikely hero in twenty-six-year-old, Khalid Mirza, who’s is content with allowing his controlling mother to run his life and arrange his marriage because “love comes after marriage.” At twenty-seven, Ayesha Shamsi is carving out a career in teaching in order to repay her debts to the generous uncle whom not only paid for her tuition but financed her family’s emigration from India to Canada two decades previously. Despite pressure from her family and the gossipy “Aunty Brigade” interfering, the last thing Ayesha wants is an arranged marriage but as proposals flock in for her beautiful and much younger twenty-year-old cousin, Hafsa, she cannot help feeling somewhat lonely.

When Ayesha’s best friend, Clara, sees as opportunity to introduce a little romance into Ayesha’s life and loosen up her new colleague, Khalid, before his robes, skullcap and strict adherence to his faith make an enemy of his racist and spiteful new boss, Sheila Watts, she takes them both on a night out to a lounge bar. But when an initial meeting at a poetry slam event gets off on a wrong note and starts a cycle of misunderstanding and much tongue-tied frustration, it establishes both protagonists as the very antithesis of their ideal partner and perfect marriage material.

When they’re forced to work on a conference together at their mosque, judgmental glares and biting remarks give way to a burgeoning attraction that leaves Khalid confused; after all, his mother has always warned him about the dangers of pre-marital love. “These Western ideas of romantic love are utter nonsense. Just look at the American divorce rate,” his Ammi says.

Their encounters overflow with tension — which reaches a peak when Khalid’s mother sets him up with Ayesha’s younger (and wealthier) cousin Hafsa, thereby forcing them to admit their feelings and look past their differences, or lose each other for good.

Despite the similarities in the premises, Ayesha at Last is more than just a Muslim retelling of Austen’s work; Jalaluddin constructs a timely and enlightening narrative that validates the experiences of many South Asians and Muslims today, while weaving in universal themes of identity, class, and discrimination. Though the topic of arranged marriage is prominent in the story, it acts more as a conduit to start lively debates about tradition and change among the different generations. And by highlighting ideological differences between many of the Muslim characters, particularly Ayesha and Khalid, Jalaluddin helps dismantle the misconception that all Muslims are alike.

Despite the interesting premise, it is almost impossible to connect with Ayesha At Last, the characters are rather cliched, almost like cartoon characters. Not only was Khalid’s mother a cardboard villain, but the Wickham equivalent had none of his Regency counterpart’s charisma. And Ayesha’s cousin Hafsa was so absurd with no depth that the reader will struggle to take her plot line seriously. In particular, the whole mistaken-identity portion of the novel to be unnecessary and a very weak attempt at reconstructing one of Shakespeare’s comedy.

The book explores the challenges of navigating one’s cultural identity and the societal expectations placed on individuals from different backgrounds and touches upon various social issues such as racism, discrimination, and xenophobia. Also a central theme in Ayesha at Last is the struggle to balance tradition and modernity in a rapidly changing world. The characters grapple with their cultural heritage while also embracing the possibilities of a more inclusive and progressive society. Although such important themes and issues were explored but they were done so in a very simplistic manner that the reader did not feel engaged or moved by anything that the book had to offer.

Ayesha at Last is classified as adult fiction but it is probably better suited to teenagers. We have given it 3/10.

Ayesha at Last is Published by Atlantic Books

QUOTES:

I was so afraid of losing Ayesha I didn’t think things through. It’s not enough to find someone you love. You have to be ready for that love, and ready to make changes to welcome it into your life.

“I don’t want you to be disappointed in love. Men are selfish, Ayesha. They will not put you first. A woman should always have a backup plan, for when things fall apart. You must know how to support yourself when they leave.

“Just remember to pack light. Dreams tend to shatter if you’re carrying other people’s hopes around with you.”

Part of both worlds, yet part of neither, she thought.

Because while it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single Muslim man must be in want of a wife, there’s an even greater truth: To his Indian mother, his own inclinations are of secondary importance.

Love is a game, my dear boy. And if you are afraid to play, then you can never win.

Sometimes the heart makes choices that the mind cannot comprehend.

It takes courage to follow your own path, even if others will never understand.

The greatest battles are always fought within ourselves.

In the chaos of life, love is the one constant that keeps us sane.

Sometimes, the greatest love stories are the ones that surprise us the most.

To find true happiness, we must learn to let go of the past and embrace the future with open hearts.

It’s not about where you come from, but who you choose to be.

Never underestimate the power of a few kind words to heal a wounded soul.

Love is not about finding someone perfect, but about accepting each other’s imperfections.

The greatest love stories are the ones that defy expectations and break down barriers.

Sometimes, the hardest thing in life is not knowing the right choice to make.

Love does not discriminate, it sees beyond the surface to the beauty within.

We are all flawed creatures, but in our flaws, we find our uniqueness and our worth.

Do not let fear guide your decisions, but let love be your compass.

In the end, it is not about who we are born as, but who we choose to become.

Sometimes, the things we fear the most are the things that can set us free.

Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves, freeing us from the chains of anger and resentment.

Love is not about finding someone who completes you, but about finding someone who accepts you completely.

 

 

 

 

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