Book Review: How We Met

Apr 17, 2021 | In books

How We Met: A memoir of love and other misadventures

By

Huma Qureshi

In the first few pages of “How We Met – A memoir of love and other misadventures”, author Huma Qureshi asks –

“What if my story, our story might count? What if it might mean something?”

Every memoir writer who is not a celebrity or a victim of overt oppression, violence, or trauma, probably expresses similar doubts. Ordinary life stories, even well-told ones, are not considered marketable or saleable by the publishing industry, because they are boring. 

Every life is a story but does every story merit a book? The short answer, although inadequate, is ‘it depends.”

Who wants to read a simple, true love story

It is easy to figure out why Qureshi, an award-winning writer and former reporter with UK’s top newspapers harbors doubts about writing the story of her life. Her memoir, as the title suggests, is a love story after all. And one with a happy ending at that. But it is also an extraordinary one because she is Muslim and Richard, whom she wants to marry, is not.

Qureshi has chosen a narrative style that switches back and forth in time. Chapters are classified as “these days” and “those days”. Her current life includes three small children and a life filled with hugs and chores and distractions. In contrast, the story of her early years involves growing up in the UK of the 1990s in a loving home with parents who hail from Pakistan and strive to provide a good life and a traditional upbringing for their three children.

As the youngest and the only daughter, Qureshi is expected to cooperate with her parents and fit into the expectations of the community to which they belong. Her parents’ social life  involves gatherings with other families who share their religious beliefs and cultural leanings. While the elders chit chat over kebabs and biryani, the children play together. And as they grow up, girls and boys are not expected to mingle. Yet, this is the same pool from which marriages are arranged.

The life Qureshi describes is neither angst-ridden nor devoid of opportunities. After graduating from Warwick, she moves to Paris to study politics at Sciences Po and relishes every minute of her freedom and privacy in a tiny room at the back of a lavish apartment where she claims:

“ I had at once no space at all and all the space in the world. It was perfect”.

The best laid plans can go awry

Her plans for prolonging her hard-won independence by applying for a journalism program falls apart when her father has a stroke. Qureshi is summoned back home. Familiar with her father being the doctor in charge, the two years he spends as a patient in the hospital changes her whole life and priorities. The topic of marriage comes up again as her mother, helpless in the face of her father’s illness, tries to ‘settle’ her daughter while her sons continue with their careers and life in London, without the same pressure to get married.

Much of the book reminded me of a young Muslim colleague in Singapore whose family was willing to send her abroad for higher education but enforced many restrictions when she reutrned home. Although she wasn’t nudged towards an arranged marriage, the problem of finding a suitable husband on her own without the freedom to date prospective suitors was one that seemed to me to be both unreasonable and untenable.

Qureshi reluctantly agrees to meet a boy approved by her mother but things fizzle out and when her father dies, the situation changes in her favor. Once again she is able to move away and reclaim the privacy and independence she had craved, this time through her job in London. By the time Qureshi meets Richard, it is clear that her attempts to meet ‘suitable’ boys on ‘halal’ dating sites, boys who share her heritage and religious background have been spectacularly unsuccessful. 

By the time the meet-cute described at the beginning of the book is fully disclosed, readers are able to gauge the inevitability of Qureshi’s fate as it pertains to her desire to fall in love before getting married. The boy will be nice but not acceptable to her family.

The conflict is both internal and external.

Family vs love.

Society vs self.

Giving in vs giving up.  

There are no points of great drama or heroic battles or insurmountable differences. Most people live such lives. Dealing with the drama that plays out in her micro-universe that may not be of relevance to everyone still makes for a compelling stroy that demands examination.

Owning your story

At times, Qureshi’s apologetic tone “for complaining about the tiniest of things, remembering a handful of details’ felt unnecessary. She insists – “I had a lovely upbringing and loving parents”. We get it. The restrictions, the unsolicited advice, the not-so-subtle nudging towards a suitable match, were all done with love and not with the intention of squashing her independence. The conflict was in her refusal to passively accept those diktats.

A memoir writer must own their story. Unlike fiction where characters and conflict can be added for effect, in memoir writing, working with what actually transpired demands a greater focus on unearthing the true underlying conflicts inherent in the individual and in the story and a strong the belief that it needs to be told. 

There is much to admire about Qureshi, who is bold, creative, and open to exploring life outside the lines drawn out for her. As a young woman working within her constraints, she  makes the most of the opportunities that come her way, sidesteps obstacles, and finds joy in her work as a journalist. She is upfront with Richard when things get serious, aware of the difficulty of reconciling what she wants with what her family expects, and prepared to put up a fight to claim her happiness.

The book verbalises the silent questions of many young people who try to appease their immediate family (and society) that follows cultural norms of the old country while simultaneously trying to make their way amidst the reality of place that is now home. Although an easy read, the book depicts what happens when personal conviction and family expectations collide. What will you do when the two are in opposition?

My opinion: A well-written contemporary love story that needs to be told because it opens the door for readers who wish for their own happy endings. It is an equally important book for writers who hope that such stories will create an audience and a market that has room for personal stories that celebrate simple joys and small triumphs.

Have you read other similar memoirs about unusual family relationships or stories that resonated with your own life?

Photo credit: Ranjani Rao‘s personal archives

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