Author Nell Freudenberger takes on the challenging task of telling a story primarily from the perspective of “the other.” The story is centered on Amina, a Bangladeshi woman, who marries a white American man named George and immigrates with him to Rochester, New York.
This premise was both disconcerting and intriguing. After being introduced to Amina, it soon becomes apparent that her decision to meet someone the way she meets George is an intentional, practical and well-thought-out one that she arrived at together with her parents. And so, I tried, ungrudgingly and un-judgingly, to take the ride along with Amina into a marriage that seemed both unlikely and sensible at the same time.
Amina and her parents have spent much of their lives trying to make ends meet. As a result, Amina has managed to use her limited resources to pass college-level entrance exams with just home-study and is able to earn an income by tutoring the children of wealthy parents. Her desire to go abroad is practical, thoughtful and, perhaps, necessary for her parents’ safety and well-being. And so she does what any modern, educated woman who wants to immigrate to America would do, right? She joins an online chat room where she can meet American men.
Her parents are excited by the prospects and wait patiently as one materialises. Enter George, a middle-class engineer from Rochester who is looking to meet someone “different” from the American women he has unsuccessfully dated in the past. Despite their obvious differences, they both share a desire to settle down and start a family. Amina’s arrival in Rochester is accompanied with the transitional awkwardness that is expected of any such migration. George’s mother tries her level best to welcome Amina, while Cathy, George’s conservative, religious aunt provides a good dose of comical inappropriateness. However, it is the arrival of Kim, George’s cousin, and the estranged, adopted daughter of Cathy, that really shakes things up.
Kim has spent time living in India, working as a Bollywood film extra and then shacking up with a wealthy Indian. She tends to exaggerate or outright lie about her experiences. Back in Rochester, after her failed marriage, she spends her time in Indian tunics, teaching yoga and pursuing a friendship with Amina. The relationship seems contrived at first, but intentionally so. One wonders what Kim’s real motives are, though it’s apparent that they are not necessarily cruel or malicious. Amina’s eventual discovery of George and Kim’s past, as well as her own feelings about her migration, culminate when she returns home to Bangladesh to bring her parents to America. It is here she once again sees Nasir, the son of her father’s friend, who has been tending to her parents during her absence. He has returned from London, swayed towards Islamic conservatism during his stint there, but has since “recovered.”
One can’t help but see that the real love story is between Amina and Nasir. George appears more like a caricature of an “all-American” husband in contrast to Nasir, who is not only Amina’s childhood crush but also forces her to look within herself.
My desire to keep Amina and her parents in Bangladesh became stronger as the story drew towards its end. These were the relationships that were concrete and lasting and the one she has with George falters in the shadows.
As with most stories of migration, this one is also bittersweet. There are reasons for which people are sometimes left with no choice but to displace themselves and give in. But the question that always lingers is: at what cost?
Though I was at first critical of Freudenberger’s ability to write from Amina’s perspective with authenticity, my ill judgment was quelled upon reading the first few chapters. The writer’s descriptions of Bangladesh and Amina’s family life maintain a certain authenticity and don’t come off as clichéd fictional accounts of “exotic lands in South Asia”. The varying levels of religiosity and moral complexity of the characters are also nuanced and believable, something else I wasn’t expecting the author to be capable of.
As Mohsin Hamid aptly states in his review for The New York Times, “…The Newlyweds” is at heart a tale of never-ending migrations. Its world is full of mirrors, the refracted similarities conjured up by globalisation.” It leaves you with nostalgia for things lost and a hesitant openness to what may lie ahead.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 17th, 2012.