Shaukat Ajmeri

Book

Excerpt

For the wedding Shabbir flew down to India on a two-week vacation and met Rukhsana twice before they tied the knot. His family had been invited to Rukhsana’s house for the “threshold climbing” ceremony – when the boy formally enters the girl’s house for the first time. He came with a battalion of friends all dressed in community attire. He was a tall, baby-faced young man with a ready smile and serious eyes. He wore his cap slightly pushed back and the widow’s peak peeked through. He carried himself with poise and there was something about him that seemed to declare that he had figured it all out. Rukhsana found him cute but for his beard, which was black and lustrous and untamed. She tried to imagine him without it. That day they hardly got to talk; they only managed to exchange a few glances amid the general chatter and the fawning the guests received. It was incumbent upon the girl’s side to pamper the boy’s family, and especially his friends. Qamar, wanting to do the best, had catered food from the most expensive chef, sweets were ordered from Bombay, and Shabbir was given a gift package neatly wrapped in cellophane and tied with a crimson ribbon that finished with a dainty bow. 

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The package contained Japanese cloth for a three-piece suit, a flashy wristwatch, a bespoke skullcap with elaborate golden threadwork, a pair of merino wool socks, a muslin handkerchief, a tasbih with sandalwood beads, and a framed photograph of Mowlana. The “American” boy, scion of a wealthy man loaded with Kuwaiti petro-dollars, deserved nothing less. Rehana had spent hours neatly packing the gift, making sure that all the items were not only visible but also secure and the package sturdy enough to survive the scrutiny it would receive from everybody present. Since it contained Mowlana’s photo, it would be kissed reverentially and passed respectfully from hand to hand as though it were the Holy Book itself.

The guests left in the late afternoon, satiated and dulled by the rich and plentiful food they had consumed. When Zubaida found a moment alone with Rukhsana, she asked her what she thought of Shabbir. Rukhsana said nothing. As long as she lived under her father’s roof and authority, she had told herself, she would accept everything without complaining. Shabbir did not seem a bad sort. But who could tell what was inside a man’s heart? And mind? What demons animated his life? When she knew him better, perhaps she’d be able to negotiate her freedom and space. Thinking about this prospect filled her with a mellow dread. So much unfamiliar territory, so much emotional effort required to map out one’s place in it. With Akbar everything was familiar, charted out. Her heart ached in anguish.  Back in her room to rest, she sat down at the dresser and regarded her reflection pensively in the mirror. She was wearing lehnga and odhni specially tailored for the occasion. The odhni slipped from her head as she leaned forward to examine a zit on her chin. The gold jewellery — the classical jhumka earrings and matching necklace and ring — were family heirlooms. The sun peeking through the parting in the curtains picked up a facet of the garnet in her necklace. Her beauty shone in that transient scintilla of light. Her long black hair was done in a rope braid, held with a fancy hairpin at the nape.

“You look lovely, aapa,” Rehana said, coming in. “What has that guy done to deserve you?” Rukhsana looked at her sister and smiled the saddest smile.

Praise for Keepers of the Faith

Keepers of the Faith is an inspiring and provocative novel. In this ambitious work, Shaukat Ajmeri masterfully presents bewildering events with subtlety and nuance. In his lucid style he paints a vivid picture of a people caught between faith and dissent.

— Ismail K. Poonawala, Professor Emeritus of Arabic and Islamic Studies, University of California, Los Angeles.

Ajmeri’s Keepers of the Faith is a breathtaking and brave story about the tyranny of religion, a community at odds with itself and the bonds of love that endure despite oppression. This book is complex, beautiful, and essential reading for our times.

— Farzana Doctor, author of Seven

Shaukat Ajmeri’s soaring debut illuminates in exacting, elegant language how over time even the sustaining powers of faith can corrode the human spirit. Ultimately a profound meditation on family, love and the cost of accepting fate, this memorable novel will linger long in the reader’s mind.

— Arif Anwar, author of The Storm

Keepers of the Faith is a beautifully written novel that situates a moving personal story against the backdrop of inter- and intra-communal tensions in modern India. The novel is at once a poignant love story as well as a trenchant exploration of the interplay between orthodoxy and Islamophobia at home and abroad.

In relating the coming of age of Akbar in a small city in India, Ajmeri wonderfully evokes the culture and social bonds of a Muslim Indian community, which is ultimately rent by divisions resulting from doctrinal and ritual disagreements that in turn affect the love between Akbar and his childhood sweetheart Rukhsana. Propelled by these tensions Akbar departs for the wider horizons of Mumbai, and a sojourn in the U.S., where he achieves professional fulfillment but continuing personal disappointment. Ajmeri deftly weaves explanations into his explorations of Akbar's story that bring alive, with an intimacy born of the author's own experiences, the challenges confronting Muslims in India today.

Written in a style that is at once accessible and often lyrical, redolent of memories and observations keenly made, Keepers of the Faith will prove a read that is both immersive and insightful of the corrosive effect of dogmas — religious, political and social.

— Associate Professor of History, George Mason University

Ajmeri writes with a deep sympathy for his characters and an intimate knowledge of their world. The complication of the plot synchronizes with the characters' development, with the latter subtly growing and maturing in its resolution.

— Musharraf Ali Farooqui, author of Between Clay and Dust

In today’s India, when rationalists have been brutally murdered for their positions, and those who speak for reforms and critique entrenched belief are vilified and abused, the message in the novel has an almost immediate relevance.

— Farhat Hasan, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern South Asian History, Department of History, University of Delhi.