Sixteen-year-old Maria Sulaiman has a nasty shock when she wakes up one morning and finds her mother gone. There’s a brief note on the fridge: ‘Leaving you and the kids. Khudahafiz.’ And thus begins a tumultuous year in her life, when everything she knew, everything she took for granted, is turned topsy-turvy.
Life at home breaks down—with her brother Saud acting out and her father angry and withdrawn—and Maria decides enough is enough, she’s going to get to the bottom of where her mother has gone and why she left them. Their next door neighbour, the glamorous Sharmila, who was Ammi’s friend, seems a likely candidate to probe for information, but what Maria doesn’t realise is that she might not be ready for the answers she finds. Meanwhile, grappling with a new bunch of classmates at school, she finds herself increasingly attracted to K, the Basketball Guy. Add to that the fact that a nosy relative is adamant on getting Abbu remarried!
When She Went Away is a somewhat difficult book to discuss without giving away spoilers, so I shall attempt to be very generic. It is an unusual young adult story in that, though it is about a teenage girl, it talks about an aspect of the lives of our mothers that we never consider as adolescents. It eats into that comfort zone of what we imagine our mothers’ existences to be like, making us realize that in doing so we sometimes rob them of their individuality, kill their dreams. It is noteworthy that there is no inherent judgement in the story regarding the reason why Ammi left.
A few aspects of the novel were slightly movie-like, but overall a wholly satisfying afternoon’s read.
+ + +
- ‘I concentrated so hard my shoulders hurt.’ Fully identify with that!
- There was a point when the story had one foot firmly planted in the Bollywood universe, wearing the heavy-duty boots of the sacrificing mother-figure. However, it swiftly removed itself from there and more than redeemed itself.
- A young adult book in which a woman—in her 30s or 40s?—who has been a mother and wife for almost two decades, deciding to strike out after her unfulfilled dreams is fantastic. As a teenager, I never thought of my mother as an individual, never thought about what she felt about her circumstances.
- Maria’s anger and feeling of rejection and abandonment felt real; her internalised anger about her mother ‘daring’ to have her own dreams also comes out.
- The characters of Maria, her brother Saud and her father were very well done. They were all complex, sometimes bumbling, sometimes hateful, sometimes sweet—just like real people.
– – –
- ‘I let out a breath I hadn’t realised I was holding.’ If I had ten bucks for every time a YA protagonist did that…
- The ending seemed rushed.
- There was a bit about Sharmila, the Sulaimans’ neighbour, treating Maria like the hired help. However, in light of what followed, that part didn’t quite add up; nor was it adequately explained.
- Andaleeb Wajid is good at teenage drama, including romance, but this one felt unconvincing. There is no tension/chemistry between Maria and K, and no real sense of how their friendship developed. It was all very American high-school spectacle—protagonist falling for hottest guy in class, who’s going out with hottest girl in class; being accused of breaking them up; jilted girlfriend out to get protagonist; and so on. K was also rather annoying—like a know-it-all grandfather always ready to hand out advice and didn’t sound like a teenage boy at all.
? ? ?
- In our hyper-connected times, how easy is it for a person to just disappear? Just curious.
Families are complicated, especially mothers.