The Royal Abduls
By Ramiza Koya
Forest Avenue Press, 2020
304 Pages, $16.95
Review by Shumaila Taher
Amina Abdul, an evolutionary biologist, is trying to carve a life for herself in DC but also to get close to her brother Mo (Mohammed), his wife Marcy and her nephew, Omar. Amina has always been a recluse. Even now, her mother considers her lack of social niceties the biggest flaw. When Amina enters their life, she feels like a stranger.
Omar is a young boy growing up in an environment that’s on the verge of collapse. He is desperate to put together fragments of his family’s history. Faking an Indian accent in the company of his school friends, bombarding his aunt with questions about India — a country that always seems pervasive, Omar seeks to find answers that would reassure him of his identity and why he wasn’t “white” enough like his mother, though neither parent seems to have much time for him. He yearns for a connection, something concrete he can call his own. In an attempt to fit in, to be considered a normal child, he tries to learn about his family’s past, calling up his grandfather, researching about India in order to put together this piece of puzzle his parents deem unimportant.
In Omar’s head, India is a magical place, something he only sees in movies with his aunt Amina, where things seemed larger than life. Things take a turn for the worse when he brings a knife to school. It isn’t long before adjectives like “A-rab” or “towel-head” are attached to his name.
When I started reading the book, I imagined it to be about immigrant experiences and the aftermath 9/11 brought with it. But Ramiza’s novel delves much deeper, bringing to light the racial interference, considering non-white Americans as the “other” which then proliferates deep down and removes the very fabric of the American dream. The novel also addresses the second-generation experience — Amina’s parents were Indians and they immigrated to America leaving behind their roots and cultural heritage.
Cracks begin to appear in the Abdul family soon after. Mo and Marcy, once childhood sweethearts, seem to be walking on eggshells. While their marriage crumbles, Omar retreats into his own shell, unable to cope with tensions at home and school. The only person he found solace in was his aunt Amina, who, according to him, has also started drifting away.
Alternating between the POVs of Amina and Omar, the Ramiza brings out the glaring differences in how an adult and a child perceive situations. Omar’s plight weighs heavy on Amina’s conscience while she grapples with the moral dilemma of moving to India for a job posting in the Himalayas. She’s worked hard to earn that position, working on hybrid zones, a job fit for her professional growth. Moving meant leaving behind Omar, and Prakash — the man she had started falling for, unknowingly. It meant leaving behind the only trace of a “family life” she had. But staying was as damaging as leaving everything behind. Amina’s workplace was toxic, filled with blatant sexism, where doing her bosses a favor meant selling her soul. With subtle commentary on workplace harassment, Ramiza brings to light issues that women continue to face.
It was heartwarming to read about Amina and Omar’s mutual love and respect for each other, and how it grows as they came to spend more time together. When Mo and Marcy were at locker heads with each other, Amina stepped in to baby-sit Omar. She would indulge in Omar’s obsession about India by cooking Indian dishes with him and watching Bollywood movies. When Amina’s decision to move to India was final, Omar was heartbroken.
The Royal Abduls carefully deals with anti-muslim sentiment that is always just there, lying somewhere beneath, ready to resurface. It deals with identity and race, of familial conflicts that are often confusing and isolating. Ramiza Koya’s novel about an Indian American family reflects the multigenerational trauma seeping into the lives of many, of active racism and white privilege that result in many struggling to belong in a country they call their own.