This is a book of many treasures, but ultimately a book about love. Love of many kinds, let me add, besides the romantic, which is also beautifully depicted here. It is not an easy book to describe, since it deals with a multiplicity of events and contexts, all adding up to a richly detailed narrative.
Noreen and her mother Ruby are exceptionally close. Her father has walked out on the marriage even before Noreen was born. Ruby's older sister, Noreen's beloved Sonia Khala, has died a year ago, and Noreen is still trying to come to terms with her loss. Grief and loss are described with great empathy. Ruby's own relationship with her elderly parents, especially her mother, can be turbulent. When Ruby's employers want her to go to India for a year, our brand new high school graduate Noreen decides to take a gap year and accompany her mother. Sonia Khala, besides being a pathologist and a bass guitarist, was also very devout, and was fascinated by India, sharing with Noreen stories about Delhi that her own grandmother had told her. Visiting some of the places she had wanted to visit, like the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi, would be a kind of pilgrimage for Noreen.
When Ruby and Noreen reach New Delhi, they discover a city with air so polluted that breathing itself is hazardous. Their very first purchase is of three air purifiers for the apartment they have rented. Noreen is pleasantly surprised to find that they have a cook cum cleaner coming in six days a week, a luxury unimaginable at home.
While Ruby gets busy with her work, Noreen finds a friend in Kabir, the son of a friend of a friend of her godfather, Adi Uncle, Ruby's best friend, and, perhaps, a surrogate father figure. (Noreen's actual encounter with her father and his second wife, some years earlier, is beyond surreal). The author, throughout the book, explores familial relationships with great sensitivity and deep insights, including the particular issues faced by migrants to the West and their often inevitable clashes with their offspring.
Kabir takes Noreen to a Delhi that is perhaps unfamiliar to many of its denizens. They first visit the ruins of Ferozeshah Kotla, where, motivated by Kabir, Noreen leaves a letter for the jinn, in which she actually manages to write, for the first time since losing her aunt, and expresses her feelings for her aunt, her grieving family, and herself. She is deeply affected by the place and its particular atmosphere of longing, grief, and unfulfilled dreams. There are subsequent visits to Nizamuddin, Tughlaqabad, and Jahanpanah, and other places, all beautifully described, all part of Noreen's personal growth, her budding romance with Kabir, and her personal pilgrimage. Some of it is so deeply spiritual that you cannot help but be intensely moved.
Owing to visa issues, the mother and daughter only have three months in India, which scuttles many of their travel plans. However, they do make a little social niche for themselves, exploring the world of art and artists, and making friends. The topical Me Too movement features, along with its impact on the families of the "Me Too-ed."
The mood of the city is captured in all its beauty and ugliness. The rising communal tensions and the awareness of gender violence are harsh realities that Noreen has to contend with.
Although the book is fast paced and written with a light touch, and some delightful humour, I found myself often floored by the sheer wisdom I encountered.
Yes, Noreen is an outsider to Delhi, and her perspective is definitely very Western. Her eye is critical , yet not unkind. In her own words, I read somewhere that for each thing that is true about India, the opposite is also true. I'd add that for each thing you may not like about India, you will find something to like as much. or more.....When you return to America, your lungs may be grateful, but your heart will be incredibly sad.