Many South Asian Canadians grew up enthralled with the emotional stakes, the larger-than-life stories, and the space- and time-transcending connections of Bollywood films. Sabina Khan’s latest novel, which spotlights fiercely independent South Asian Muslim girls triumphing over the insurmountable odds placed on them by culture, evokes a similar experience. Meet Me in Mumbai tells an intergenerational tale from dual perspectives. The first belongs to Ayesha, a teenage Indian expat living in Illinois who becomes pregnant out of wedlock and faces the heartbreaking decision to give up her baby to ensure the best outcome for her family. The second, unfolding years later, is that of Mira, Ayesha’s now-adolescent cross-culturally adopted daughter, who struggles to reconcile her love for her adoptive family with the nagging feeling that a crucial piece of her identity is missing. To fill that missing piece, she feels compelled to travel to India to seek closure from her birth mother and reconnect with her roots.
The premise may sound like the plot of a melodrama, but Khan makes sure it’s anything but, with fully realized, sympathetic main characters who immerse readers in their interior and exterior worlds. Rich inner monologues that read like diary entries and dialogue from key characters give readers insight into their emotions and circumstances, bringing to the forefront many of the characteristics and issues faced by the South Asian Muslim diaspora and adoptive families, from barriers to immigration to the prejudice faced by same-sex adoptive parents. In explaining the cultural circumstances that force Ayesha to give Mira up for adoption, Khan avoids vilifying Indian Muslim customs; and although she doesn’t justify certain cultural expectations and principles, Khan describes them, injecting some much-needed nuance to challenge Western notions of moral superiority.
If Ayesha’s story is about isolation and the need to enforce barriers to protect loved ones, Mira’s is about bringing down those barriers and healing through human connection. Through Mira’s quest to discover her roots, she literally and figuratively brings together her loved ones, both adoptive and biological, into a multicultural, multi-circumstantial tapestry. Although the novel’s conclusion feels rushed, and Mira’s biological father and adoptive parents could have been better fleshed out, Meet Me in Mumbai is an emotionally satisfying ride that is sure to entertain.