Taymour Soomro’s debut novel Other Names for Love (Harvill Secker, 2022) is a deeply engaging work for myriad reasons, even though it features a rich family whose patriarch wants his son to follow his footsteps — a story arc everyone is familiar with.
However, it’s the drama that unfolds when multiple actors join the landscape with their individual interests and motivations, and, additionally, the socio-political changes at the backdrop, which make this book a layered work that shines in its astute writing.
Soomro’s sharp sentences immediately pull its readers into his world right from the start. One of the reasons for its relatability is that Abad, where the story is set, is modelled on Jacobabad, Sindh, Pakistan and happens to be the region where the author’s ancestors owned farmlands. A peculiar quality of this setting is that toxic masculinity and landlord worship — norms that can be found worldover in any feudal estate — disallow its inhabitants to imagine a future other than the one that’s templatised for them. Furthermore, disparity and inequality ensure the dominance of a particular person, family, or state over others.
Rafik is the patriarch in this story. Married to Soraya, he is the father of a teenage boy, Fahad, whose interests don’t intersect with his father’s, as he enjoys art, books, and theatre. Rafik is quick to label whatever his son does — sitting with “his legs crossed the wrong way”, developing an affection for cooking, and having a shrill voice — “nakhras” (loosely translates to attention-seeking behaviours). He feels his son has picked all these “wrong” habits from his mother. Sifting through the first half of the book, one learns why he wants his son to grow into a “man”. Because he doesn’t want him to become Mousey, Rafik’s cousin, whom Rafik forcibly ousted from Pakistan to establish his ownership back home.
While Rafik tries everything (to no avail) — showing farmlands to his son, teaching him about the nitty-gritty of the cultivation processes, and how money can buy everything, even freedom; but what should one do with that freedom, he doesn’t know. He eventually brings Ali, his friend’s son, into the picture. Ali seems to be the antithesis of Fahad, and a relationship soon develops between the two, which is the highlight of this book.
An interplay of queerness could be foreseen right from their first few interactions between these two characters, but it’s the conversations they have about fathers and inheritance that propels this story forward, for it is perhaps conventional wisdom that no one tells you about your family and their secrets better than the others.
Ali becomes the other in this narrative and keeps things interesting. He makes Fahad notice his family’s influence. All this disgusts Fahad, who feels that it would have been great if the world was without fathers. And that’s precisely what this book explores: through the ‘why’ Fahad feels so, it explores a twisted relationship that each father and son share.
Several years roll by in the story, and Fahad is a writer now and lives with his partner. Abroad, of course. One day, he receives a call. His mother informs him that his father “is gone in the mind”. Fahad returns home as someone returns to a memory, a love, a loss. Seeing his father grappling with dementia, he feels a sense of responsibility to provide care, but he also learns a few things about his father. However, for me, the narrative also gets enveloped in a sense of loss, making me feel disengaged towards the end. Nevertheless, the book is enthralling in ways that not many debut works are, which is why I am looking forward to reading a volume on race and culture that Soomro has co-edited titled, Letters to a Writer of Colour, with Deepa Anappara, author of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (Hamish Hamilton, 2020).