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When truth is stranger than fiction

  • Published at 05:53 pm August 14th, 2016
  • Last updated at 05:24 pm August 16th, 2016
When truth is stranger than fiction

Abdul Qayyum was not the sort of young man you would expect to be a breaker of tradition. A decorated army officer with a Gold Medal and a Sword of Honour, he lived a life of discipline and service.

A deeply pious Muslim, he said his prayers regularly, was well-versed in the Qur’an and authored the book On striving to be a Muslim. His warm demeanour and personal integrity aroused the respect of all those within his orbit, from heads of state, to his commanding officer, to the servants and cooks in his house.

And yet, more than half a century ago, in staunchly conservative 1950s Pakistan, this man was ready to give everything up for love. When his superiors told him he was being crazy, naïve, that what he was planning to do was in no way realistic, he said he would give up his uniform, his career, his reputation, and never look back. And he meant it.

The late Mr Qayyum’s daughter, Naila Q Parveen, has finally penned her father's story. Under the Magnolia Tree is the true story of how her father had met her mother, Parveen, a Pakistani married woman nearly two decades his senior, and how against all odds, their love overcame all obstacles. Qayyum and Parveen’s love story has that almost Marquezian quality of a love that refuses to die, but it is all the more fascinating because every word of Naila’s book is true.

And although Naila’s story is simply a telling of her own life experience and memories handed down to her by her parents, it held my attention like a good thriller. At 279 pages, it is a fast, zippy read written with a kind of emotional authenticity that is impossible to find in mass-produced fiction.

Sometime in the 1920s, Naila’s mother Parveen, then a 15-year-old, was forced into marriage with a much older man, who had previously been married to Parveen’s older sister. That marriage resulted in more than 20 years of abuse. Her husband, upper-class and hypocritically obsessed with family honour, raped her repeatedly, beat her, and kept her captive.

When Qayyum first entered their house, he was a good-looking young lieutenant, a 21-year-old bachelor with everything going for him. She was a bruised and dispirited woman of 39 with a dangerous husband; a woman whose life had been taken away from her before she was old enough to understand what was happening.

In the end, none of it mattered. Not tradition, not the gossip of the whole community who labelled Parveen a prostitute, not the physical threats or the fact the goons were even sent to Qayyum’s quarters to beat him up (the recipient of that beating was an unlucky fellow who was at the wrong place at the wrong time), not the fact that Parveen’s abusive husband refused to grant her a divorce even after she ran away, or that Parveen and Qayyum were not allowed to marry under Islamic rules and therefore ignited the judgment of neighbours for “living in sin.”

Naila recounts all of this with complete and utter frankness. And while it is no small feat to be able to do this, to dig in to such personal memories and share them for the reader, the book is not without its faults -- but the faults are minor. Some passages are a bit clunky and digressive, and some of the descriptions of the love between her parents may be a bit too cloyingly earnest for some readers.

And yet, that is also the charm of the book -- the discursiveness and non-linearity of the way Naila tells her story is in line with how our memories operate when reflecting on our lives and on our parents, fluidly moving from present to past, back to present again.

Although her parents are the stars of this love story, that tale is inextricably connected to Naila’s own life story, which contains more than its share of hardship. Two failed marriages, a botched operation that left her unable to have children biologically, financial ups and downs, geographical and emotional displacement, and a breast cancer diagnosis leading to breast-removal surgery -- all these experiences forged her into the person she is today. The strength and courage behind the writing of this memoir is palpable in every page.

In the end, reading Under the Magnolia Tree feels like having a good, long conversation late into the night with a person who has had an extremely eventful life. It has the effect of making us reflect upon life in general, on what our parents lived through, on what, as a result, we have had to live through, and why we are the way we are.

Abak Hussain is Editor, Op-ed, Dhaka Tribune.

Under the Magnolia Tree: A True Love Story is available on Amazon.