Humbert Humbert must be having the last laugh. His decadent dalliance with Lolita, the teen temptress of Nabokovian invention, has been upstaged by the hijab as a weapon of male destruction.
It hovers over the text of Sonora Jha’s brilliantly honed novel of lust and retribution in the corridors of American academia like a disembodied fragment of fabric that defines the narrative with unsettling consequences. It is both a flag and a banner of selfhood that seduces and repels in equal measure. It sends unsettling ripples in the hitherto calm environs of Seattle that is being assailed by changing demographic patterns. It creates an almost unbearable tension in the mind of the charmingly literate but lonely middle-aged professor named Oliver Harding.
Call him Professor, or Doctor, or Ollie to his peers at the Department of English, presumably the University of Seattle, where Jha herself, we are told from the author profile, is a professor of journalism. Let us add in the same breath that she’s earned her spurs both as a fiction writer and an investigative journalist. Her debut novel Foreign (2013) was a finalist for The Hindu Prize for Fiction. Jha worked at the news desk of well-known publications in India and Singapore before moving to the U.S. to earn a Ph.D in media and public affairs.
The Pakistani Scheherazade
Compared to his creator, Professor Harding’s achievements tend to be modest. He teaches the English author G.K. Chesterton, whom he summons every now and then at the flick of an aphorism, and likes to calm himself by knitting sweaters. He immerses himself in a flotation tank of tepid salty water and dreams of lobsters.
This happens routinely when he cannot control his interest in the lace-fringed hijabs worn by Ruhaba, a young colleague who teaches law at the same faculty. Nor recognise the dangers when Ruhaba enlists his help in re-orienting a young nephew, Alim, who arrives on her doorstep. The portrait of the troubled teenager from Toulouse has to be Jha’s best creation. He has been summarily ejected over a matter of a hijab worn by his mother in a public place.
Harding is also husband to Emily, his estranged wife, and father to his equally distant daughter Kathryn. He is the Minotaur of suburbia whose sexual excesses were once upon a time chronicled by American authors such as John Updike when neighbourhoods were integrated by well-heeled neighbours nursing singular passions. The women could be expected to turn out a proper pie-crust like Emily does at Halloween in the early parts of the book. Maybe Updike’s neighbourhoods were already falling apart like some of Emily’s pies.
They did not need the ethnic disruptions that Ruhaba, a Pakistani Scheherazade, creates in Harding’s unremarkable life. The very act of imagining Ruhaba removing her hijab in his study induces in him a state of ecstasy. It borders on the victories of the early feminist era when women tossed their bras and claimed their freedom.
In the post-Obama era
Harding’s trials take place in the background of the post-Obama era and the tussle between the pants-suited candidate (as Hillary Clinton is referred to) and Donald Trump. Do we add here a detail that is beyond the limits of the novel: that Seattle recently became the first city in the United States to recognise ‘caste’ as a form of discrimination?
Where is this all going, we ask, in this most American of novels. Are we supposed to be excised by the predicament of the embattled white American male who is at the centre of the new campus agitations? The American campus novel has always been the site of examining the rituals of a tribal community that works, as tribes are wont to do, on excluding people, on rank, race, religion, or riches, underpinned by a capitalist system.
The semantics of entitlement is what makes Jha’s insider readings of the wars of attrition between the mostly white tenured staff and the students of mixed-race backgrounds totally riveting.
Or do we echo the French author who did not say: Le hijab c’est moi! (The hijab is me!)
Penguin Hamish Hamilton
The writer is a Chennai-based critic and cultural commentator.