Review #1: The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali

By Sabina Khan

The review claims that this book “will break your heart and then piece it back together”. Right. Let’s see whether it will break mine. I was looking for a BIPOC author and Sabina Khan definitely is one, hailing from Bangladesh ethnically and presently living in the US. This book is categorized as Young Adult, so I imagined it was probably about a Muslim teen dating and hiding it from her strict parents.

Well, I was sort of right. I stifled a yawn at first, hoping it was not going to go down the well-trodden dating-is-better-than-matchmaking road. Very quickly, however, the readers find out that Rukhsana is actually gay. OMG! I mentally scanned all the Bengladeshi families I personally know and realized this was a bomb waiting to explode. My yawn was gone. I felt like kicking Rukhsana’s friend/lover who is Caucasian and cannot understand why she won’t just tell her parents about them.

The plot takes us through the typical teen-sneaks-behind-parents escapades but I am now on edge, knowing what thunder and lightning are threatening behind the clouds. Then, it happens. All hell breaks loose. Till now, everything seems predictable, and I am wondering how the author plans to wind up the story, when I realize the book is barely reaching the midway point.

Spoiler Alert!

Stop right here if you plan to read the book.

It turns out that this is just the turning point leading to the meat of the plot. There’s a lot to unpack here. The parents whisk Rukhsana home to Bangladesh under the pretense that her grandmother is dying and wishes to see her favorite granddaughter one last time. Rukhsana is American-born and bred and cannot understand how her parents could “kidnap” her thus.

I have to give it to Sabina Khan who manages a tour de force. It is very difficult to present the parents’ actions as loving and protective to an audience of American teens who, like Rukhsana, will only view the ensuing plot as manipulative, evil, and hateful. The protagonist is “introduced” to a slew of potential suitors –reminding me of a similar circumstance happening to my own sister almost forty years ago — whom she starts by rejecting. Then, (this is FICTION, so unrealistic coincidences are OK!) the one suitor who seems adequate turns out to be gay too!

The two happily realize that agreeing to the marriage would solve both their problems. But of course, Sabina Khan needs to turn up the suspense factor by making Rukhsana plan an escape back to California during the wedding.

At this point, we are given the grandmother’s journal. Sorry, but this is the only point that seems a bit contrived. Nicely selected passages inserted at intervals into the storytelling. Sometimes, one wonders why the protagonist would suddenly flip through the journal at this point instead of moving on with the plot. But I agree that the journal is a good tool that opens a window on the background of women’s status in Bangladesh and the baggage Rukhsana’s mother came with. The grandmother’s experience is rather extreme, to say the least. I would venture to guess it was not the norm. Yet, though Rukhsana’s mother managed to move to the US and leave the social traps behind, as expressed by Amy Tan, she still wasn’t able to shield her own daughter from them. In fact, she herself was the main actor, re-enacting the old traditional expectations. In a way, this was a grandmother-mother-daughter cycle à la Joy Luck Club.

It took nothing less than a murder to stun Rukhsana’s parents back to sanity. A bit extreme? Maybe. I guess extreme plot twists are needed to break through extreme constraints. But the reader is given the smooth landing after the roller coaster.

Kudos to Sabina Khan for juggling the thorny issues of gender identity and religion, further mixed together with cultural traditions. I guess it takes courage to cut through such a messy Gordian knot.

So did the book “break my heart and piece it back together”? Truth be told, my tears did flow. You want to read it? Get a box of tissues ready.

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