I wanted to read An Extraordinary Destiny after hearing Shekhar Paleja read in May at a Read Local BC event. I guess Paleja’s theatre background shone through, as he did accents and voices for different characters, and delivered the subtle humour perfectly. The section he read opened with Anush greeting his cousin at the airport. Growing up, the boys were inseparable, until one family emigrated to Canada and the boys grew apart.
It’s 1947 in Lahore, and the Sharma family is forced to flee their home during the violence of the Partition of India. As the train tracks measure the ever-growing distance between Varoon and his mother, who vanished during the panic to escape, the boy is thrust towards an uncertain future.
Forty years later, Varoon’s grown son, Anush, desperately tries to disentangle himself from his father’s demands, which are mired in grief and whiskey. Compounding the pressure is an unusually auspicious kundali—a Vedic birth chart—which threatens to suffocate Anush with lofty expectations. But when he meets Nasreen, he feels he may finally be experiencing the incredible fate foretold. Until his father interferes and blocks his chance at true happiness.
Threading artfully through three generations of an Indian family, An Extraordinary Destiny crafts an intricate narrative that reveals, in layers, how decades-old grief rooted in the trauma of history, and couched in familial duty and custom, threaten to sever the sacred connection between ancestors and descendants.
From the publisher, Brindle & Glass
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I don’t know much detail about the Partition of India, as most of my history classes in school dealt with little outside Canada, some North American history, and general World History (e.g. wars). In fact, my high school history textbooks only went up to the Cold War (which ended in 1991). So, although I’m embarrassed about my lack of knowledge in world history, I also know there was a lot we didn’t learn—even in respect to Canadian history and our colonial history.
The novel itself weaves together three generations of the Sharma family, threading in the social and political issues of India. Although the historical events of the Partition take backstage to the family narrative, they deeply underline the entire novel. Paleja writes with an awareness toward a reader unfamiliar with India’s history and contemporary India beyond Hollywood stereotypes. I felt that Paleja wove the information into the story well, avoiding the dreaded ‘info-dump’.
The only thing that made me uncomfortable was the use of stereotypes. While it provides for some tongue-in-cheek moments with characters, usually the use of stereotypes in humour reinforces negative stereotypes and tends to border on racism. But at the same time, I think that was part of what Paleja was trying to depict—the still existent tensions between Muslim and Hindu peoples within the territory. So as a reader who is unfamiliar with the history of India, I did value the addition of information, and I am not in a position to question or confirm the accuracy of the sentiments or portrayal.
I appreciated Paleja’s ability to tell the story and depict the characters as complex people, not just stereotypes. For example, Varoon (as an adult) is an upper-middle-class Hindu businessman who just want to provide for his family. By all accounts, he is a respectable man and fair employer who just aspires to higher social status within his community. But part of the common sentiment among his community is a racist and superior attitude toward Muslims, which Varoon also freely expresses.
The story, following generations of a family after the violence of Partition makes me think about generational trauma. This concept is gaining more mainstream attention as issues of Indigenous and Aboriginal peoples are coming to the fore. The ideas around loss of heritage and cultural history are commonly discussed in terms of the Holocaust and other large decimations to populations. So the incident in An Extraordinary Destiny, as the novel opens, with a young Varoon hiding with his mother while witnessing the violence following Partition, and then being separated from his mother never to see her again… that would have a deep impact on a person.
I felt the story of the Sharma family, their hopes, dreams, and history, was very compelling. I felt less of a draw to Jyoti’s story, the young Hindu woman who leaves her village to go to the London School of Economics. Perhaps it was because we were introduced to her so much later than Varoon and Anush, but I had trouble connecting with her. I felt similarly about Perry, who was re-introduced mid-novel and felt a bit too autobiographical. Where Jyoti’s story just felt distanced from the Sharma family (even though the connection is later revealed). Or perhaps I was feeling overloaded by the number of characters and keeping track of the timelines. I feel like Perry’s journey, and even Jyoti’s story, would be interesting short stories or novellas in their own right and over-complicated the Sharma’s story.
The inconclusive ending frustrated me, but also felt fitting. The religious tensions are still present, there are always generational pressures within families, and there is no easy “happily ever after” solution for most characters. The characters in An Extraordinary Destiny were complex enough that a simple tying of up loose ends wouldn’t be sufficient. I enjoy historical fiction where I can learn (and usually Wiki-binge after to learn more) while enjoying the storytelling, and Paleja’s novel hit the spot.