Moth by Melody Razak review – the end of innocence in India | fiction

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Senveloped in the night, with warm rain falling and blooming red hibiscus, a teenage girl crouched over a baby under a mango tree. She grabs a steel paring knife, her arm hesitating as the rain seems to spur her: “This is how you create a nation,” he told her.

The nation in question is the Republic of India, and as anyone familiar with the history of the score knows, the heartbreaking violence suggested by the opening paragraphs of Melody Razak’s first novel, Butterfly, is appropriate. This scene frames with horror and mystery – lush poetry too – an atmospheric dramatization of the troubled beginnings of India and the creation of Pakistan, told through the fate of a Brahmin family in Delhi.

Its backdrop is a lovely old house on Dry-Biscuit Alley. Named Pushp Vihar, or the House of Flowers, it has been passed down from generation to generation to Brahma’s family. He is a shy dreamer, enamored of his wife, Tanisi, an orphan who grew up on a barge in Kashmir and who has pale blue eyes “drowned in a lake”. They both teach at the University of Delhi and, in defiance of a society in which marriage and honor are essential, they are raising their daughters, Alma, 14, and Roop, five, to be free and fearless.

And yet it is the 1940s, and with the news of atrocities coming from the Punjab, where religious violence against women in particular is escalating day by day, they have left Brahma’s mother – an indiscreet hater and haunted – organize a match for Alma. Alma parries their anxieties with her own enthusiasm for the wedding with the 22-year-old stranger, but even as preparations for the wedding accelerate, it’s hard to shake off the terror instilled by the first dreamlike – nightmarish, really – moments. Of the novel.

Before becoming a writer, Razak was a pastry chef and owner of a pastry shop, and the culinary riches of India perfume her prose. Dilchain the cook, for example – a woman who carries her own trauma and keeps a jar of unrequited love – spoils the family with kulfi and jelabis. “Knead until your face is pink and warm,” she said to Alma, teaching her how to make paratha dough. “When you can’t breathe then you know it’s ready.”

Other characters are just as alive. Little Roop is an aspiring psychopath, killing mice and crickets. muslim sound Yeah, Fatima Begum, is made of cake, she believed. And then there’s the “Cookie Auntie,” sipping a cocktail and wearing nail polish, who comes from Bombay.

The sounds of the muezzin floating through the city are soothing, the air is sweet with the scent of jasmine and rose, and the conversations are peppered with quotes from Tagore. At least that’s how the first half of Butterfly bed. However, it is as much a story of naivety rivalry as it is a loss of innocence, and the agonies of partition suddenly shift from a political tragedy, discussed over dinner, to a source of intense personal anguish. Meanwhile, a “devastated” Delhi fills with displaced souls.

The end, when it comes, is swift, but readers will be grateful for the hope that floats in Razak’s final pages. With her unwavering focus on violence against women, her strong and compelling debut tells a story that is both firmly rooted in a time and place and yet of urgent relevance to the here and now.

Butterfly by Melody Razak is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£ 14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


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