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Moth by Melody Razak

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction

By Swirl and Thread

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Moth by Melody Razak is published with Weidenfeld & Nicolson (W&N Books) with The Observer describing it as ‘powerful and heartbreaking’. I finished reading Moth with a lump in my throat and my mind in turmoil.

Melody Razak felt inspired to write Moth after listening to a Radio 4 programme called ‘Partition Voices’. The emotion of the speakers caught her unexpectedly and she felt very much compelled to do further research. She explored in more depth the history of India’s partition and the scale of the brutality inflicted on all sides, focussing in particular on the women. Melody Razak took her research very seriously travelling to India and living there for a year while writing Moth.

“Everything I experienced – from the architecture, people, landscape, colour (the food!), the places of worship and daily religious rituals – is filtered into the novel’s minutiae.”

Immersing herself in the culture resulted in a very credible story as Melody Razak brings the characters of Moth very much alive for the reader. This is the tale of a family that is torn asunder by the unexpected atrocities inflicted during Partition, a family that had a standing in society, two intellectual parents and their young daughters Alma and Roop.

Alma: the beating heart of the novel. We meet her as a precocious 14-year old who becomes entangled with the chaos of Partition with devastating consequences

Roop: Alma’s younger sister. Obsessed with death, she is a fierce, funny and rather wild child trying to make sense of the destruction that has befallen her family

Ma and Bappu: their dream of an independent India collapses under the weight of History. Ma’s experience mirrors that of the many Indian women who were hoping for new freedom under an independent India – and had to face more harassment and insecurity instead

And many more: the Muslim nanny, forced to hide in a water tank; the widowed house-keeper whose mission is to keep the family together; the old grandmother, obsessed with the family’s honour and determined to preserve it no matter the cost… 
(From the Publisher)

Alma, 14-years of age, is a young girl on the cusp of marriage. The impending wedding was swiftly arranged for her safety, with young women becoming targets of extremely violent attacks. Her parents are not particularly happy about her being married at such a young age but, with the newspapers and the media so full of stories of the terrifying acts of violence against women, they believe that marriage will keep Alma safe. Alma is a child with colourful clips in her hair. Still in school, she is dreaming about the lovely new shoes she will wear on her wedding day. Her suitor is a young man training to be a doctor.

Her younger sister Roop is a free spirited individual with a very quirky personality. Roop sees the world very differently from others in her family. She fears nothing, has a peculiar relationship with death and, as the story progresses, she becomes very important to the family’s survival.

Ma and Bappu had a modern approach to marriage that was outside the norm for many. Ma worked in the university and Bappu was accepting of this. They were very much equals in their marriage and, also, very tolerant of others, no matter religious differences. As the impending Independence and Partition loomed, they became concerned for their country. The radio and the papers were full of the horror stories of women being subjected to the most unimaginable suffering on all sides. Rape, abduction and mutilation was inflicted on what is thought to be approximately 75,000 women and young girls. With mass migration across borders, it is estimated that approximately 14 million people abandoned their homes in the summer and autumn of 1947, (Hindu-majority to India and Muslim-majority to Pakistan). Women were violently attacked, leaving their death and devastation exposed as a warning to others. The sheer scale is really difficult to grasp, but Melody Razak offers a unique insight by bringing the reader into the home of Ma, Bappu, Alma and Roop.

Ma & Bappu do their best to shield Roop and Alma from the horrors beyond their walls, but the sounds infiltrate their every thought. As the days pass their freedom becomes more curtailed and their future takes on a very different hue. To protect their family they take a few different measures but, with the city and the country in complete turmoil, the family is ultimately affected in the most unimaginable way and their peaceful life is destroyed forever.

Melody Razak has brought the terror of many during Partition so completely alive. The treatment & abuse of women on both sides is incomprehensible. When she began writing Moth the concept of freedom was very important to her story

“The concept of ‘freedom’ – crucial to India’s Independence and one that lies at the heart of Moth – was to my mind a concept that was not only denied but perhaps even mocked by Partition. The borders created by religious intolerance and the ties of hate and violence cut so much deeper than those created by geography or politics: these were the lines that would scar far beyond the arbitrarily drawn borders.”

Moth is a story of resilience & courage. It is a very forceful read, one that is both heart-breaking and fascinating. I was, and am, very ignorant of those years in India’s history. The brutality and inhumanity of man against man is unimaginable to my mind. In creating this close-knit family with all their eccentricities and foibles, Melody Razak gives the reader a snapshot into a time when there was so much dread, so much pain, yet the domestic rituals were maintained where possible to instil a sense of normality and to help cope with the intense fear that lingered in the mind of all.

Moth is at times a very challenging read posing many questions to the reader and offering insights into a world that is far beyond the comprehension of many of us. There is strength and a beauty in Melody Razak’s narrative. It really is quite difficult to believe that this is a debut novel. Her attention to detail, the dialogue, the sense of time and place is really quite remarkable.

Moth is a book that needs to be read, that should be read. An important book Moth highlights the bitter rivalries that developed as friend turned on friend and neighbour on neighbour. An extraordinary tale written with a stunning pen Moth is a debut that I highly recommend to all. I am looking forward to more exceptional writing from Melody Razak and I am very intrigued as to where she will take us next….

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.

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