Sharifa, the main character in author Farzana Doctor's new novel, Seven (Dundurn), is getting more than she bargained for when she decides to dig into her family's history.
After landing in India alongside her husband, she is intent on learning about her great-great-grandfather's fascinating life as a businessman and philanthropist. It soon becomes apparent, however, that there are things she was never told of. Namely, his four wives who have seemingly been scrubbed from the family's past.
While Sharifa contends with this new knowledge, a passionate dispute over the practice of khatna (which some consider to be genital mutilation) is raging within her tight-knit religious community. A group of outspoken feminists are denouncing the tradition, and two of Sharifa's closest cousins are on opposite ends of the debate, demanding she take a side. As secrets and politics threaten to rip her family apart, she has no choice but to confront some hard truths with dire consequences.
Quill & Quire called Seven "visceral and emotional...a courageous feat", while Trickster Drift author Eden Robinson says: "Penetrating and subtle, Seven deftly explores loyalty in changing times...[An] immersive, absorbing portrait."
We're thrilled to share an excerpt from the book below:
Excerpt from Seven by Farzana Doctor:
April 2016, Mumbai
I take a cautious sip. Tasnim Maasi pours half her cup into her saucer and sucks the tea down in one long, loud slurp. She pulls up her orna, which slid from her oiled hair to her shoulders, tucking the gauzy fabric around an ear to keep it in place.
It is going to happen today; this afternoon. Maasi’s life is going to change irrevocably. Will she think that her favourite niece has turned traitor?
I cannot stop this moving train. What good will it do to announce the crash? After all, Maasi can’t get off at the next stop. Instead I sit on the edge of my beloved aunt’s couch, scalding tea burning my tongue.
Maasi appraises my full cup, raises her right eyebrow. I shake my head.
“Still too hot.”
“You should do it like me.” Her lips upturn into a mischievous smile as she empties the rest of her tea into her saucer, and a wisp of cardamom steam rises in front of her face. With a slight tremor, she lifts the saucer to her lips. “See?” she says proudly, as though chai drinking is a competition. She doesn’t spill a single drop.
“All right.” I tip my teacup to my saucer and chai dribbles onto her glass-topped coffee table. I pat the spill with a tissue.
“Anything wrong, Sharifa? You are quiet today.”
I meet her gaze. Her eyes are a chesnut brown, and shinier than they used to be. These are my eyes, too, and the eyes of my mother, my cousin-sisters, and our daughters.
“Haa, Maasi. I’m sorry. I’m very sorry. There’s something I need to tell you.”
The doorbell tangs and, the coward I am, I am relieved. I inhale courage and wishfully think that I can be loyal to Maasi and my mother, my cousin-sisters, and our daughters all at the same time.
Later, when I share my day with my husband, Murtuza, he will ask me, “And what about you? What’s being loyal to you?” I will not know the answer, won’t even be able to make sense of the question.
Maasi rises, but I gesture for her to stay seated. Instead, I stand to unlatch the door.
Zee and I join Laura and Elena for a playdate at the park. Laura and I found each other here five years ago, and while our then two-year-old daughters tentatively navigated the sandbox, we slipped into easy banter. She’s a mompreneur who sells custom T-shirts on Etsy and blogs about parenting. A year after we met, she shifted her writing to marital communication, later separation, and after that, divorce and shared-custody arrangements.
This week’s column is about dating as a single mom. She’s gone out with four men since her divorce a year back and tells me about the latest. “Research,” she says, with mock nonchalance.
“Pretty good job you’ve got!” I quip. We watch Zee and Elena on the swings, pumping their legs to go higher. Six months ago, they would have been begging us to push them, but now they boast self-reliance. I sigh with gladness and disappointment. One day, she won’t need me at all, I think.
“This guy I’m dating is really good, Shari.”
Zee laughs when her swing hits its highest point. Her bottom briefly lifts an inch off the seat before the swing comes back down.
“Well, for one thing, he lasts a long time.” She grins and waggles her eyebrows at me.
“Lasts?” I ask, distracted by Zee’s high flying. She and Elena cackle, pump harder, then cackle some more. “Zee! Not so high!”
“Well, you know. In bed?” Laura rolls her eyes at my obtuseness.
“Minimum thirty minutes. Long enough for me to … you know … a few times.” She looks away, breaking eye contact, and focuses on the kids. As though noticing them for the first time, she shouts, “Elena, take it easy. You guys are being unsafe!”
Zee and Elena let their legs go slack, and their swings begin to slow. I ponder Laura’s words but can’t think of a good follow-up question. Instead I say, “Wow, that’s great. What’s he like otherwise? Is he relationship material?”
“Look, they actually listened to us, for once,” Laura gripes about the kids, but I know she’s considering my question. She lists a few common interests and the things that annoy her.
While I half-listen, a question bubbles up: is my problem about lasting? If Murtuza could last even fifteen minutes, or half an hour, would it happen for me? I reflect on my earlier boyfriends, all of whom were energetic, youthful. They’d all tried. And just like Murtuza, there was that flicker of disappointment when they eventually gave up. Afterward, I’d have to try to be cheery and satisfied. I’d read somewhere that something like fifteen percent of women don’t climax, and so I’d reassure them brightly, keeping my face open, unguileful: “Really, I get a contact high from you. All the feel-good chemicals you have, the endorphins, they come my way, just because I’m close to you.” I so badly wanted to be okay with living in a society where one hundred percent believe in an end goal that fifteen percent of us don’t experience.
Each partner grew progressively distant over time. In my head, I know they were poor matches, not meant to be, but my heart has always wondered if the sex had anything to do their serial demises. Did it weaken their confidence in our connection? Could it happen with Murtuza?
Laura is now talking about a different guy, someone new she hopes to see next week. I struggle to keep up. “What’s his name?”
“Matthew. I found him on OkCupid. I’d like to see what it’s like to date more than one person at a time. I’ve always been such a monogamist in the past.”
I nod, asking myself, In another life, would I want what Laura has? Multiple orgasms and the thrill of novelty? My phone beeps; Murtuza has texted me three pink hearts.
“It sounds fun. Very different from the ordinariness of marriage.”
“Yeah, it’s good for now. I’m not ready for anything too committed. To tell you the truth, I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready again.”
“One, two, three, go!” Zee and Elena scream in unison, as they leap off their swings-in-motion. I’m on my feet in an instant, my heart pounding. But their young legs are springs, nimbly absorbing the shock of their landings. They race to the jungle gym.
“Hooligans.” Laura pats my arm.
“Yeah.” I sit.
“So, you all ready for India?”
“Haven’t even started packing, but we don’t leave for another twelve days.”
“Actually, I wasn’t all that excited, but now I am. I’ve decided to do an oral history project about my great-great-grandfather. I’m going to interview as many elders as I can. I’ve always wanted to do something like this.”
“Cool. So you’re writing a book?”
“No, nothing that formal. I was thinking about a wiki or a blog or something. Maybe you can give me a tutorial when I get to that point.”
We both look up when Elena cries out. She must have misstepped on her way down and fallen to the sand, but her wails sound more surprised than pained. Laura rushes over, brushes the sand off Elena’s shorts. In a minute, Elena ascends the play structure to meet Zee at its apex.
The commotion passes and I text Murtuza back three purple hearts.
Excerpt from Seven by Farzana Doctor © 2020. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press Limited.
Farzana Doctor is the author of Stealing Nasreen, All Inclusive, and Six Metres of Pavement, which won a Lambda Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award. She lives in Toronto.