To Be With Her is the story of Rama, a young Pakistani man who comes to the United States in the 1950s for an education and finds himself in the process. Rama is a cinephile and film is a constant metaphor and theme, a lens through which Rama tries to understand his life. He's enamored with Leela, a young woman from his hometown, and wants to marry her, but her parents disapprove and he must get an education and show that he's worthy of her. But when he comes to the United States, he begins to question what it is he really wants.
He falls in with a duo of Pakistani students at his Oklahoma college, VJ and Latif, who between them represent two very different ways of thinking and living. VJ is religious and traditional; Latif maintains his cultural identity but tends to the more secular. Then, Rama falls in love with Sabina, who is Jewish and a hippy. He is flummoxed; truly in love now for the first time, he wants desperately to make her a permanent part of his life but he struggles with his duties and ties to his Muslim faith and family. Sabina is a basically good woman who fetishises South Asian cuisine and culture but has a hard time understanding what's holding Rama back from making a total commitment to her and their relationship. In the end, he has to make a decision and live with the consequences.
Rama's struggle is genuinely moving and suspenseful, and the book is effective as both a coming of age and fish-out-of-water story. There are some positively comic passages near the beginning, as Rama struggles onboard the ship taking him to America with food and customs. And there is a lot that's genuinely bittersweet; on the journey over, Rama clings to the belief that he'll return home for good one day. He doesn't know how much his life is about to change:
Sitting beside Hanif, I wonder how he knows that he won't be going back home. There is something about the way he spoke that I admire like a real hero in a cowboy movie, claiming his homestead. Maybe there is something about life he knows that I don't. I'm already counting the days to when I get back home.The story has subtle political undertones as well. Sabina's involvement and alignment with leftist hippy causes brings her into conflict with the more traditional Rama and the questions about the sixties are still relevant today. Book clubs could have an interesting time digesting their debates and talking about how they could be analogous to conversations taking place today.
At its heart though is the beautiful and realistic love story between Rama and Sabina, and lovely ending Haider gives it. I really enjoyed To Be With Her. I love how Haider balances Rama's external struggles and adjustments with those he makes internally. Rama is very likable character who changes gradually, believably; by the end of the novel he's a very different man than the boy who began his voyage with his eyes on America and his heart in Pakistan, but we believe him because we see how he gets there, step by step. There were times, particularly towards the beginning, when I felt like the language was a little rough but I love how this character develops emotionally and I think Haider has a great grasp on his character's maturation process. I would love to see more by this intriguing writer.
To Be With Her is not only the first novel by an accomplished short story writer, a Pakistan native now based in Chicago, but the inaugural title of Weavers Press. For more on Weavers Press see its website or the interview I conducted with publisher Moazzam Sheikh.
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Weavers Press.