Slavery. It’s easy to assume it’s no longer an issue since it’s been banned in Western countries but the fact is, slavery is an ongoing issue in many parts of the world. And much as we don’t like to think about it, it often rears its head in our own backyards. Razia takes a look at the ‘new’ form of slavery and how it can hide in plain sight.
Fiery, feisty Farah Jilani is an attorney, head of the immigration department at a high powered law firm in London. It’s a position she’s worked hard to obtain and she’s proud of the work she does, tackling important issues for the clients sent to her by The Pakistani High Commission. She’s well aware that work comes her way not because of her Pakistani heritage but almost entirely due to the fact that one of the managing partners at the firm was school chums with Deputy High Commissioner Zaheer Mansur. Which is why she is headed to Zaheer’s posh apartment on a Friday night. Spending the evening schmoozing with her colleagues and their important embassy contacts isn’t her idea of fun – especially since her ex, a junior partner at the firm, is bound to be there – but she gamely shows up, planning to eat and run.
During the meal, Farah decides to use the opportunity created by the dishes being cleared to make a discreet trip to the bathroom. She makes a wrong turn that will change the course of her life. She arrives in the kitchen instead, where she discovers a young woman being berated by Zaheer and his wife. The girl, clearly frightened, is dressed in rags, and sobbing as the lady of the house castigates her. It is when Zaheer lifts his hand to strike her that Farah is really taken aback. Leaving the room before anyone notices her presence, she heads back to the party deeply disturbed. A return the next week under the guise of looking for a lost earring confirms her worst fear: Razia, the young woman in the kitchen, is a domestic slave.
Farah puts her legal skills to work and quickly has Razia released into her custody. Conversations with the Pakistani High Commissioner in London assure that Zaheer loses his position and plans are made to send him home. Farah puts Razia on a flight to Lahore, happy to be able to reunite the girl with her family. But Razia’s taste of freedom looks to be very short lived indeed, for once she arrives back in Pakistan, problems immediately arise. Determined to see this through to the bitter end, Farah heads to Lahore, ready to take on the injustice and exploitation which is keeping young women enslaved.
The author does a fantastic job of creating a tense, taut story that focuses a spotlight on a formidable problem. I quickly found myself swept up in the tale, wondering how our protagonists were going to survive taking on a system that was ancient, evil, powerful and deeply rooted. Ms. Khan also does a great job of showing us how this is just one aspect of the culture – the fabulous food, beautiful clothes, the comforting grace of the Islamic faith, the kind, generous nature of the Pakistani people – all of these serve as gentle contrasts to the brutality of a form of government which tolerates the complete oppression of the lower class. It was chilling to read about it and realize that real people are experiencing that existence right now.
Ms. Khan tries to lighten the mood of the novel by including a romance for Farah, who has been unlucky in love in the past. While in Pakistan, she meets human rights lawyer and activist, Ali Omar. It’s clear from the start that the two share a deep passion for justice as well as compassionate natures and it’s wonderful to watch their relationship grow as they form a partnership to help Razia. Farah’s close relationship with her parents and love of Pakistani cuisine are additional bright spots in the story. I found myself hungry for tandoori chicken, naan and samosas by the time I turned the last page! I know sometimes it seems that authors over emphasize food in multicultural stories but the fact is that food often plays a huge role in the lives of immigrants. That literal taste of home evokes a place and people no longer seen on a regular basis and can be powerfully nostalgic and comforting.
The book does have some problems. The writing can be choppy and fortuitous events happen with shocking regularity. The characterization is roughly drawn; it could be hard at times to understand what motivated people to do what they did. Both Ali and Farah behave unprofessionally when such actions are needed to move the plot along and Farah especially seemed to struggle with the concept of subtlety and social niceties. This often made her seem like a bull in a china shop since both British and Pakistani cultures tend to value courtesy and calm civility. I’ll add that I thought the epilogue was completely unnecessary and actually detracted from the story. The intense, chilling nature of the plot captured my interest enough that I was able to stay engaged with the book in spite of its flaws.
Razia is a disturbing and at times, downright frightening, novel. However it is also a powerful reminder about the crucial role the courts play in the lives of ordinary citizens and the importance of fighting for equality for all. It opened my eyes to some of the horrors that occur just an ocean away and made me grateful for all the freedom, peace and prosperity in my own life. This isn’t an easy read but I would say it is a very timely and relevant story and would recommend it to those looking for a book that will truly move you and maybe even enlighten your perspective.