Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Stealing Nasreen

by Farzana Doctor

The process of leaving one’s country and finding a sense of belonging in another is often rife with uncertainty and turmoil. What makes Stealing Nasreen such a riveting read is the way it takes this uncertainty and makes it even more complex by adding sex and desire to the angst-filled immigrant experience.

The novel centres on a married couple, Shaffiq and Salma Paperwala, who have recently moved to Toronto from Mumbai, India, and who are desperately trying to cope with the reality of their situation. Trained as an accountant, Shaffiq now works as a janitor in a hospital, where he collects staff detritus to show to his lonely wife in their cramped apartment. The couple acts out their thwarted yearnings through Nasreen Batawala, the Indo-Canadian lesbian psychologist who represents the social and sexual freedom that the Paperwalas lack.

Farzana Doctor builds convincing tension as Shaffiq and Salma find themselves painfully drawn to Nasreen. Shaffiq is both repulsed by and attracted to the Western assimilation he sees in Nasreen. At the same time, his wife must revisit her same-sex romantic past when she unexpectedly kisses Nasreen during a private language lesson. As the couple hide their growing obsessions from one another, the fragile bonds that have kept them together begin to unravel.

Stealing Nasreen reveals the intricacies of human relationships, but more importantly, it is an eye-opening critique of the multicultural dream. The Paperwalas exist apart from a mainstream society that sees them as anonymous Indian immigrants. These characters challenge that anonymity as they work through their own unique needs and wants. A fellow janitor, Ravi, provides a glimmer of hope for cross-cultural exchange in his secret relationship with his Italian girlfriend. Meanwhile, Nasreen brings sexuality and second-generation anxieties to the forefront, as she deals with a break-up and an impending trip to India.

While the book’s shifts in perspective are sometimes awkward, it finds its strength in the fascinating kaleidoscope of characters that it creates. In the end, these characters discover that belonging is a continuous and maddening act of reaching for the elusive.