This summer, Safina Islam has been reading Hashim & Family by Shahnaz Ahsan (John Murray Press, 2 April 2020). She shared her thoughts as part of our contribution to South Asian Heritage Month.
Hashim & Family is essentially a story of family, friendship and belonging. It is set in Manchester and Bangladesh during the 1960s and 70s, when Bangladeshis began migrating to the UK in significant numbers. It follows the lives of the dutiful Hashim, his fiercely intelligent wife Munira, his cousin Rofikul – the adventurer – and Rofikul’s resilient girlfriend Helen.
The book is described as historical fiction, and a large section of the book focuses on the War of Independence of East Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh, as the decades pass in the story. This chapter of history is very seldom acknowledged as a consequence of British rule in the Indian sub-continent and Partition and is certainly not taught in schools. It was therefore a welcome, well researched and accurate history lesson.
Hashim & Family is a captivating story from the start. This was the first time that I, as a British Bangladeshi born and bred in Manchester, had seen my experience represented authentically in an English language book. Manchester is sketched for the reader in the same ways I heard my parents describe the city when they arrived in the early 1970s. And Shahnaz tackles the immigrant experience with such empathy that I felt at times I was actually reading a letter my mum might have sent her family back home in Bangladesh rather than a book. It felt for the first time my whole self was visible without my having to do the exhausting work of explaining the nuances and heterogeneity of South Asian culture.
The most enjoyable aspect of the book was watching the relationships between the four main characters grow and develop. The most important of these, for me, was the friendship and sisterhood that Munira and Helen found in each other. It brings back memories of the close friendships my mum had with women that she met at the school gates or who lived on our street, the white girlfriends of my Dad’s peers. Even though these women had completely different cultural backgrounds and didn’t even speak the same language (in the very early days at least), they would walk to the local shops together, cook and help each other with childcare and the school run, and always stopped for a cup of tea with each other. It made me think of how important these women’s friendships were, focusing on the things they had in common rather than their differences. This is such a strong counter narrative to the common idea that South Asian/Bangladeshi/Muslim women don’t integrate: they did, they had to and everyone was richer for it.
The book also doesn’t shy away from the casual racism and racist violence that our parents experienced in those early days and how much of this was accepted and normalised by society at the time. It also doesn’t sweep under the carpet the mass use of sexual violence and in particular rape of women and girls which was weaponised during the War of Independence. If there is any criticism of Hashim & Family (and it is minor), it is that there are huge consequences to these acts of violence both to the individuals involved and communities they are part of. I would have really liked the author to explore these in a little more depth, with some social context as to how this was received at the time and how people organised themselves in solidarity and support. There are certainly some more complex characters introduced later in the book and there is potential for a sequel where we may get to hear how they get on, whilst also revisiting the original characters that you can’t help but get attached to by the end of the novel.
If you’re looking for a summer read, I recommend this as a really good book, full of warmth and optimism. Particularly as we are celebrating South Asian Heritage Month for the first time this year, Hashim & Family is an opportunity to learn more about the Indian sub-continent’s largely ignored recent history and immerse yourself in Hashim’s family.