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When you feel deeply unsafe in your own home…

Heart Tantrums, an exceptional memoir, is both a story of lived reality and a meditation on grief, isolation, and consolation, evoking the profundities of human endurance amidst adversities. Writing a book of this sort— with its characters still fluttering in the open— must have been hugely challenging and disruptive. But disruption is at the very core of a life that continuously oscillates between being a good girl and a bad woman. Deliriously inventive and viscerally moving, Aisha Sarwari’s debut is a patterned, protean narrative that is tragic, painful and yet inspiring; a beautifully worded memoir that astonishes and overwhelms.

This is the story of an immigrant girl who considers her teen years to be the worst in the universe, as she didn’t get the desired emotional protection of her ammi (mother) when she deserved it the most. The twists and travails of her momentous journey transform a socially and physically battered young woman into a formidable feminist voice in Pakistan. The protagonist endures systematic family oppression all through, her husband’s contribution being a broken tooth, broken jaw, and broken hip. Confused and anguished at her condition, she instead steers away to stay sane, stay employed, and stay a mom to two beautiful girls. Forgiveness remains her stellar character.

Nuanced portrait

Heart Tantrums is a moving, immersive and nuanced portrait of a tight-knit social world whose ill-perceived values promote oppressive behaviour from its dominant constituents. Such behaviours are gendered from an early age. Young girls are made to clench their urethral sphincter so that their pee doesn’t generate a loud noise; taught to walk noiselessly without dragging their feet, told to avoid loud gulping when drinking water; and farts, those were, of course, wholly taboo. Forced to settle into a strict gender role, women are mere performance monkeys. The book rejects the idea that gendered roles and domestic servitude can save the day.

In this multilayered memoir, Aisha reconstructs her world piece by piece to showcase its glaring cracks and deep crevices. “I was deeply unsafe in my own home, away from my family and very coercively controlled in my day-to-day life.” Much of what she experienced in life not only settled in her milk teeth but revealed in her permanent teeth as well. Pain ought to be fought through with more teeth, she declares, or else victimhood becomes a dwelling. All she wanted was to be wanted without being needed, to be happy on her own terms and because of herself as an individual. One might wonder if a perceptive and aspiring person is seeking more than her genuine share of identity from society…

Aisha comes out as a writer who uses the power of words to narrate the vicissitudes of her life — losing her father at an early age in Uganda; compromising freedom under an extended household in Kenya; and trying to fit into a completely different culture in Pakistan. And then the trauma of losing a man she loved to a personality-altering brain tumour. Such writing, honest though it is, can be haunting for immediate family members. But all that the writer is asking of them is to try again because life isn’t as perfect as a movie.

Heart Tantrums is beautifully crafted and worth reading for the manner in which it is narrated, with honesty, clarity, and purpose. Such is the power of the narrative that somewhere in her world of hits and misses, there remains a small opening for everyone to reflect upon. At the end of the day, there are more questions in real life than shimmeringly packaged answers.

(Published 28 October 2023, 19:52 IST)

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