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The Book of Fate

By Parinoush Saniee,

House of Anansi Press, 464 pages, $16.95

It is often felt that the title of any written work is a glimpse into the life the author has spun between the pages and in some cases it is indicative of the fate bestowed by the writer on the protagonist. “The Book of Fate” embodies this in a nutshell. Even before starting to read the book, a reader is kept guessing whether the protagonist, the touchingly innocent Massoumeh, would succumb to what has been ordained for her not just by fate but by her family, or she would be able to shape her own life. But the question is if “fate” is something we can do anything about.

The narrative itself is simple, clean and articulate, and the characters, very real. As a reader one is caught taking sides, chiding, sharing the heartache and pangs of childish love, of the loss of innocence and of the unfairness of society, especially towards women, whether it is at the hands of their brothers, parents, husbands, lovers or even children.

While the story traces the life of Massoumeh who travels to Tehran with her family from Qum in pre-revolution Iran and allows us to trace the contours of social life in those days, it more importantly balances the evolution of Massoumeh along with the political events that led to the fall of the Shah’s regime, the revolution itself and the post-revolution scenario. But the beauty of the narrative is that Parinoush Saniee does not allow the political narrative to eclipse the story of a resilient woman, who emerges as the strongest character among the many others we are introduced to.

It is a book that girls even today, especially in conservative cultures, can identify and empathise with. But the important lesson the author wants to impart and what comes across clearly, on every page, is the strength of character and will Massoumeh has in making the best of her circumstances. One thing Massoumeh is not is a defeatist. On the contrary it is her mother and brothers who are more of victims as they fall in the eyes of the reader, whether it is because of habit, tradition, culture, greed or unkindness.

Massoumeh’s story is brought to us intricately woven into a myriad of colours, with each pattern delicately embroidered and revealing other sub-patterns subsumed into the layers of complexity. As it envelops it also reveals hidden depths, laying bare the limitations of character, narrowness of mind and the greatness of love and courage. Other women, whether it is Massoumeh’s best friend Parvaneh or her kind but wanton neighbour Mrs Feroze and her daughter Shirin, are but different facets of one woman the author has brought before us. What is particularly endearing are the rites of innocent love captured in the quickened heartbeats, demure looks and innocent exchange of letters between Massoumeh and her one and only love, the pharmacist Saiid.

The author’s depiction of her husband, Hamid Soltani, a communist activist and his dedication to his cause and naivety about bringing about a change of system does not endear him to the reader. Despite the hardships he undergoes, one fails to sympathise with him. What is heartbreaking is Massoumeh’s acceptance of her situation and conformity to a way of life that comes at a great sacrifice to herself and her children. But it does increase the reader’s admiration of her and also lends a greater depth of character.

One is caught up in the turmoil in Massoumeh’s life as she struggles bravely to carve out her life and raise her children while also completing her education. The beauty of the narrative is that her personal turmoil reflects the turmoil of Iranian society, especially of women, the confusion, the struggle against one system and the personal struggle to reconcile with a fall of ideals and breaking of illusions. Whether it is the comrades meeting secretly to overthrow the Shah or the religious zealots, each set is depicted through characters that bring to life the dichotomy within what they represent.

The time spent at her sister-in-law’s villa at the Caspian coast is symbolic of transient happiness and the simple pleasures of carefree life Massoumeh has craved all her life that she turns to in her memories for solace amid her most intense challenges.

More poignant than her personal tribulations, when as a young girl she is bullied by her brothers and is later married off to a man whose commitment to his cause supersedes his family, is Massoumeh’s trial at the hands of her children. Even when she has broken free of what seemed her most binding ties, she is called to give her greatest sacrifice from the most unexpected quarter.

Seemingly her decision is one based on free will but in reality her circumstances leave her with no choice. Whether Massoumeh is able to live her life finally as she desires or gives in once again to circumstances is what the reader breathlessly waits for, hoping against hope that she for once does what is right for her.

“The Book of Fate” is a gentle reminder to all of us that selflessness and loyalty to family are important as are moral values and goodness of heart. Sad as it is, it imparts lessons of gratitude for what is taken for granted and for appreciating the goodness that helps one steer through life’s darkest periods. It is more an ode to women, not just of Iran but of societies all over the world, who have had to struggle to get their basic rights.