Book review: Bringing the profound into the mundane

29th Jan 2021
Book review: Bringing the profound into the mundane

The Colour of God by Ayesha Chaudhry. Oneworld Publications. 309pp. 2021. Hardback £16.99/Paperback £12.99.

I have never completed an autobiography knowing so very little about the author at the end. This book is a feminist academic rant, and a thoroughly enjoyable one. Chaudhry is both profound, incredibly funny and with very little inhibitions. Her academic background lends her the ability to zoom out of the different life situations putting them into a socio-political context, without playing the victim card – a feature which tends to dominate other biographies in this genre.

This book is a dedication to her nephew Sibghatullah – which means colours of God. His sudden death early in her marriage had a profound impact in the way she perceives and navigates her life.
The book begins and ends with this event. It is the rawest that she ever gets describing the grief of her sister and the vacuum that the sudden death brings.

Chaudhry has grown up in a household dominated by “puritanical Islam”, espoused by her parents who migrated to Canada from Pakistan. She attributes the embrace of “puritanical Islam” to the racism that they faced after migrating to Canada, as it offered them a belonging which they so desperately craved. As she herself also admits “Hyper – performing my identity as a Muslim cushioned me from blatant racism.” (p140)

Her take on “puritanical Islam” is comical. Chaudhry recalls, “I remember one religious preacher, a dentist by training and a cleric by presumption.” (p196). Or how he “peppered his sentences with over pronounced Arabic words really playing up the ayns and qafs and khas.” (p150). I wonder if comedy is a way of demoting and grappling with the formative players in her life.

Chaudhry’s observations bring home painful truths of how we perceive (and measure) piety, the versions of Islam that we find palatable, and how we treat that which we don’t approve of.

“I didn’t have a lot of Muslim friends in school, and there were a few reasons for this. First, there weren’t a lot of Muslims to begin with. Second, Muslims didn’t like that I wore a niqab; They didn’t see it as Islamic and didn’t want to be associated with my brand of Islam.” (p133)

The Colour of God is not a Huntington-esque, us vs them book, but a mirror showing us who we are.
Chaudhry towards the end of the book also refers to God as a Her. I have not encountered that in any other book that I’ve read. “God has many names. Two of Her favourite names are ‘Rahman’ and ‘Rahim.’… The womb is also called a ‘rahm’ in Arabic, and mercy is ‘rahma.’ This teaches us that womb and mercy are relatives….” (p254). These lines and a few more that followed in the book made God feel closer to me as a woman.

The author’s strength is to bring the profound into the mundane. She has this astounding ability to explain each situation in a context and at every point explaining why people make the decisions that they do. I found myself in every page, ranging from epilation (who knew that could be so philosophical?) to dealing with difficult parents.

I’ve never completed such an incomplete narrative but knowing that she has done this deliberately stops me asking for details. Chaudhry doesn’t talk about how she goes from a niqabi wearing to a non-hijab wearing woman; nor does she dwell on her love life. She dedicates all of a grand five lines on her three broken engagements as none of them understood her driving force. The author doesn’t dwell on her hurt which makes me think it goes a lot deeper than what she has let up in the book.

The Colour of God is not a chronological arc, but a series of life events arranged – I believe – according to impact. For every event, numerous contexts are offered, but I am left guessing as to their impact on Chaudhry herself. This lack of clarity and the eloquence with which she writes makes this book a very alluring read.

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