By Dana Hansen
Novelist Mayank Bhatt, who immigrated to Canada from Mumbai in 2008, delivers a taut,timely debut focused on one immigrant family and the devastating experience that threatens to destroy the life they have struggled to build in their new country.
Having left their home in the 1990s to escape recurrent violence between Hindus and Muslims, Abdul and Ruksana Latif and their two adult children, Ziram and Rafiq, find themselves “misfits in Canada as much as they had been, as Muslims, in India.” Nevertheless, by the fall of 2008, the Latifs are relatively settled, with a home they own and jobs that promise more than mere survival. The family’s comfortable existence is thrown into turmoil when it is revealed that Rafiq may be involved in a terrorist plot to blow up a number of locations in and around Toronto. Rafiq’s questionable treatment at the hands of the justice system, and the family’s fear regarding the potential repercussions from his alleged crime, illustrate their terrible vulnerable position in Canadian society.
In part, Belief may be read as a cautionary tale urging those with extremist leanings to “steer a calmer, more sober path.” But even more importantly, it reads as a message to mainstream Canada that the isolation and marginalization of the immigrant experience has the potential to result in unintended consequences when faced with individuals who “[don’t] know what one could do about an unjust system except fight it.”
At the novel’s end, the future for the Latifs is undetermined. It is clear that their lives have been irrevocably altered, though not entirely for the worse. Through the experiences of arrest and interrogation, Rafiq is forced to re-evaluate his religious faith, as well as his understanding of his parents; in so doing, he gains a clearer perspective on the older generation’s struggles.
Bhatt’s illuminating, plain-spoken novel could be instrumental in generating substantive discussion about the immigrant experience in a country that is still a long way from understanding what that really entails.
An immigrant family in turmoil
By Piali Roy
What would you do if you discovered the details of a terrorist plot in your child's computer? Who would you call? And who would you blame? Belief is the story of an immigrant family in Malton, just outside Toronto, whose lives turn upside down when Abdul, trying to improve his computer skills after losing his office job at an auto shop, finds incriminating emails on his son Rafiq's computer.
As the rest of the family waits for Rafiq to return home from work, Abdul calls over his only friends, a neighbouring Sikh family who bring along their police officer nephew. So begins their unexpected entry into the confusing world of the criminal justice system.
Set in 2008, the same year that first-time novelist Mayank Bhatt arrived in Canada from Mumbai and two years after the Toronto 18 were arrested for plotting terror attacks, Belief details the life of a Muslim family who fled India after the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992-93.
Rafiq is a loner, wary of the “white Canadian establishment” - raised by a friend of the family, an honorary and devout “aunt.” He naively finds mentorship online through Ghani Ahmed, the plot’s mastermind, who persuades him to take on the cause of the oppression of Muslims around the world.
Rafiq sees his own family’s life harshly: not only were they “hated by mainstream Canada” after 9/11 but immigrants like them “had to be satisfied with half-lives - unfulfilled lives.” To Rafiq, “every adjustment marginalized them, and they were sidelined ruthlessly.” But as he begins to collect information on potential bombing sites - such as the Square One Shopping Centre in Mississauga - he has second thoughts about the killing of innocents.
As Rafiq tries to figure out what has happened to him, his family has to come to terms with what their life has become. Abdul is “defeated by Canada,” losing the self-confidence he once had as a secular trade unionist in India.
He sees his wife Ruksana, a former activist-turned-security guard who has stopped trying to “adjust,” as hopelessly religious. Despite Abdul and Ruksana’s duelling temperaments, they rely on their pregnant daughter Ziram and her Trinidadian husband Jameel to guide them through the crisis.
Belief has a matter-of-fact style that is almost too detached from its subject matter; Bhatt fits in as many backstories as possible.
It is an uneven book, but one that tries hard to highlight the difficulties of making a home in a place where one is unsure of one's acceptance. Still, Bhatt shows promise: the climax of the book is tender and emotional, showing that Bhatt has it in him to completely engage with his subject.
(Published in the Toronto Star on Saturday, 24-12-16)
By Veena Gokhale
Belief by Mayank Bhatt
This is a novel, hot off the headlines, opening with Rafiq, a young, second-generation, Indo-Canadian Muslim being implicated in a plot to bomb public places in Toronto. His family, consisting of his father Abdul, a secular liberal and former labour leader from Bombay, mother Ruksana, a moderate Muslim who once ran a women’s centre in Bombay, and sister Ziram, who works for a settlement centre in Malton (Mississauga) and is preoccupied with her husband’s promotion and her own pregnancy, are all but shattered when Rafiq ends up in prison due to the incriminating evidence found on his computer. The scenes describing Rafiq’s incarceration are compelling.
Although it starts out as an action novel with an element of mystery – is Rafiq an innocent who refused to be drawn into a terrorist plot after a flirtation with extremism, or is he lying about his continued involvement – the main goal of the book is to plumb the psyches and motives of its main characters and reveal the tangled web of family relations with its loves, hates, loyalties and resentments, sharpened by the exigencies of immigration and the complexities of being a Muslim in the West (or for that matter anywhere).
Don’t expect literary lyricism. Bhatt writes in a no-nonsense, journalistic style (he is indeed a former journalist from Bombay) that works well for a lot of the narrative, though he could have done more “show” and less “tell” at times. Bhatt also follows an unnecessary prescription to describe in detail the physical features of each and every character, however minor.
But these are petty quibbles. The power of Belief lies in the way it penetrates Abdul and Ruksana’s family and their world, making the reader intimate with the horribly shaken lives of four multi-dimensional human beings. We see them, warts and all, and feel for them. Rafiq’s portrayal is particularly masterful: from a feckless young man to someone who reflects deeply on his actions and responsibilities.
Outside the immediate family circle is Nagma Khala who runs a daycare centre that Rafiq attended as a child. Nagma is another kind of devout Muslim, and clearly a great influence on Rafiq whom she loves as her own son. Bhatt exposes the diverse ways of being Muslim – a reality that mainstream society does not care to comprehend – another reason for the novel’s relevance and strength.
This book is an indictment of the marginalization of minorities both in India and Canada. Abdul and Ruksana leave India and come to Toronto in the wake of the terrible 1992 wave of communal violence in Bombay. But these urban, English-speaking, professionally skilled immigrants can’t “fit in” here, nor can they find work that recognizes their experience. Their working life remains a perennial struggle, and they become marginalized, living in ethnic ghettos outside the mainstream. Worse, the children born to such parents – children who have been through the Canadian education system – can’t always find their rightful place here either.
The very “dream” that drives people here – “a better future for their children” – may thus remain unfulfilled.
In fact, studies have shown that systemic racism affects second generation Canadians as well.
Read this book not only to know the realities of immigrant experience from inside out, but also to understand what drives some of the headlines we read. I can truthfully say that Belief helped me better understand the phenomenon of the radicalization of young, Muslim, second-generation, immigrants of colour.
The idea that injustice must be opposed, confronted, and a better world shaped as a consequence, runs through Belief. But what means are fair, what foul? And what if one is simply thwarted from taking action, one way or another? Challenging questions with no ready answers: questions that literature is so well equipped to take on.
By Elizabeth Lowe
Mayank Bhatt. Mawenzi House, $24.95 US paperback (200p) ISBN: 978-1-927494-80-6
Newly unemployed, and seeking to develop his computer skills, Abdul Latif opens his son’s laptop and discovers evidence of a terrorist plot. He immediately turns his son, Rafiq, into the police.
Heartbroken, he and his wife watch as his son is arrested and “frog-marched” out of their townhouse. They arrange for a lawyer, attend the hearing, and remember. As they travel the labyrinths of their past, Rafiq struggles to cope with the harassment of other inmates, his interrogations by two agents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the truth.
Bhatt’s probing into the deeper reasons why some young Muslims can become disaffected is worthy of respect. He never takes the easy way out but explores issues that are often left unexamined, such as the chronic underemployment of immigrants and their identification with their coreligionists ‘back home.’
Thus, Abdul and Ruksana work long hours at minimum wage jobs, raising their family in a one-bedroom apartment until, at last, their children can buy them a townhouse. Huddled together in front of a Hindi channel, the family is rocked by violent riots back in Mumbai. Abdul’s depression at losing his job is offset by the breeze in their small backyard, but that small patch of earth is small comfort for a son agitated by what he perceives as worldwide injustice.
At the time of his arrest, Rafiq is twenty-two years old and incapable of empathizing with his parents’ sedate appreciation of their kitchen and its appliances.
Belief is populated by Muslims of disparate countries of origin, ages, and political persuasions. Without exception, they are hard-working. Some are middle class, others are trapped in “half-lives” that Rafiq considers “pointless” and “mechanical.”
Abdul and Ruksana were union activists in Mumbai and held fast to their liberal political and religious views after immigrating to Canada. Ziram, Rafiq’s sister, has inherited their secular liberalism. Her husband, Jameel, speaks with a Trinidadian accent, drinks rum, abhors terrorism but still helps the family he married into. Nagma Khala, Rafiq’s childhood babysitter, is the only conservative in the bunch, and she stubbornly refuses to comprehend why the police are going after “these nice boys.”
Homegrown terrorism is a volatile topic. When you close this book you are left with a twenty-two-year-old in a hoodie sitting across from two CSIS agents, wondering what it’s all about.
In a sense, Belief is about a lonely, alienated kid who flees the claustrophobic evenings of his parents’ home to play on his nanny’s computer. The chatter, in various Hindi-English mixes and Hindi dialects, conjures a world vivid and real. It lacks only the aroma of slow-simmering food. Ziram and Jameel pull out their cell phones regardless of whether they are in the middle of a family drama or in front of an old Hindi movie.
Belief works in that it convincingly creates these particular people living through this particular trial. It is an unbelievably engrossing read.
Belief Explores Road to Radicalization
By Paul Gurski
Belief is a novel by Mayank Bhatt, a Mumbai-born resident of Toronto. It tells the story of the son of Indian immigrants to Canada who cooperates with terrorists to identify Canadian places to bomb, in part to avenge the death of Muslims in Afghanistan by Canadian soldiers.
The book parallels to a certain extent the 2006 case of the “Toronto 18”, a terrorist cell that planned to explode truck bombs in Toronto and at a military base in eastern Ontario to punish Canadians for the decision to deploy the Armed Forces in Afghanistan after 9/11.
This work of fiction is billed as a look into what “makes young people give up their sheltered, secure lives and take up causes that are sure to lead to catastrophe, for others as well as themselves”.
It does not quite achieve that goal but does contain a good look in the effects of terrorism on a family. We see the devastating effects on the mother and father, immigrants who fled violence in India to seek a new home in Canada but had to struggle to make a new life in a new land. We see the anguish of a pregnant sister whose husband’s promotion may be cancelled because of Rafiq’s actions.
We see a South Asian police officer, Ravindar, who tries to help the family but who is not trusted completely, perhaps because of his role as a representative of the law.
The book does delve slightly into what has often been put forward as the ‘causes’ of radicalization to violence in Canada. There are references to the slaughter of Muslims in India and to discrimination and bias against immigrants in this country.
Neither theme is developed in this novel. It also does not explore other reasons why individuals go down the path of radicalization.
Early in the novel, the author includes excerpts from emails sent by the terrorist ‘mastermind’, a man named Ghani Ahmed, to Rafiq, the young man arrested and accused of participating in a terrorist plot. These excerpts are full of the rhetoric most commonly associated with terrorist recruiters: innocent Muslims are being killed and no one is doing anything to stop it. Ahmed appeals to the faith of Rafiq and tries to convince him that fighting back is a religious obligation.
Ahmed is an intriguing character and more could have been written about him. Who was he? Where did he come from? Who else was involved in his plot? How did he identify Rafiq as a willing participant?.
The one character who remains an enigma is Nagma Khala, a woman who runs a Muslim crèche and who had an extraordinary influence on the young Rafiq. She is deeply religious, but it is never clear whether her faith contributed in any way to Rafiq’s openness to radicalization.
Flashbacks to India
I welcomed the introduction of two officers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), although their portrayal is superficial and unsatisfactory. It would have been interesting to introduce a main character from CSIS and show how that person was trying to understand the scope of the terrorist plot and Rafiq’s role in it. That may have been beyond the author’s expertise, though.
The book contains many flashbacks to life in India and provides interesting background into the lives of the protagonists, although the link between these episodes and Rafiq’s decision to become a terrorist is not obvious. They do provide insight into the circumstances behind the parents’ choice to leave India, but these are tangential to the book’s primary plot.
Throughout the book, the author seeks to present Rafiq as an unwilling dupe whose involvement in terrorism is peripheral. While Rafiq regrets his choice, he also seems to minimize his role.
It is only at the end of the novel when Rafiq learns of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai (in 2008 – a real event) that he grasps the enormity of what he was part of in Canada and (spoiler alert!!) tries to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. The author’s attempt to paint Rafiq as a character to be pitied does not come off strongly, even when he writes of the bullying Rafiq received at the Maplehurst Detention Centre in Toronto.
Overall, the book flows and reads well, with the exception of the flashbacks. These occur at times at unexpected intervals and detract from the story.
The book does a good job at showing the destruction of a Canadian immigrant family when one member becomes involved in terrorism. The emotional responses of the characters are believable and compelling.
As long as the reader does not see this novel as an actual book on homegrown terrorism in Canada it is a good read.
Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield).
He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/
The book Belief is published by Mawenzi House
Lives of immigrants are always difficult
Mayank Bhatt’s debut novel Belief is out. Mayank was a journalist in Mumbai and immigrated to Canada in 2008. He witnessed how Mumbai was changing and also how the city was getting polarized on the basis of religion. His novel touches the same issue.
The novel revolves around a Muslim family of Abdul, Ruksana and their daughter Ziram and son Rafiq. They migrated to Canada from Mumbai after 1992-93 riots and serial bomb blasts. Their house in Andheri’s Teli Galli was burnt down by a communal gang. They were trade unionists. Their office was also burnt down and their leader, friend Dhinmant was brutally murdered.
The family lost everything but not the hope. They immigrated to Canada and started a new life in Mississauga, Ontario. They struggled, work hard and finally after many years of hard work they could build their own house. They gave an appropriate name to their building i.e. Manzil (destination). They thought they found their destination. But, it was not that easy. The global scenario was changing. Militancy in Muslim countries was affecting prospects of Muslims living in other countries especially in US, Canada and Europe. At the same time, a section of Muslims was getting radicalized. The influence of Wahabism was spreading and militants were targeting western world.
Ziram and Rafiq started earning. Ziram got married in the same city. She used to regularly visit her parents and teach computer to the father. One day while teaching computer to her father on Rafiq’s laptop she found a file and that again shattered the life of the family. The file contained some email exchange between Rafiq and one Ghani Ahmed. It was about the plans to bomb public places in Toronto. They immediately called him. At the same time, they called their neighbour Kartar and a police officer Ravinder. Ultimately, police arrested him for the alleged links he had with terrorists. Later on, he explained to his lawyer, who is known for taking up the issues of human rights, and parents that he had stopped communicating with the Ghani Ahmed some time ago as he realized the killings cannot be a remedy for the injustice done to the Muslims. Yet, called a rank terrorist like Ghani Ahmed ‘Saab’ out of respect. Rafiq had surveyed some crowded areas, roads for Ghani Ahmed. It was during one survey he saw a Muslim woman in Burqa eating in a crowded restaurant with her small kid and he realized that killing of innocent persons is against the humanity.
In jail, he was treated badly. All his rights were violated. Though he was treated much better compared to the treatment prisoners get in Indian jails. Rafiq gets bail thanks to Anita and other friends of Abdul and Ruksana. The surprising part is once Abdul was a confident person and Dhinmant had given him the responsibility of forming unions in Poona, but he had lost self-confidence since their arrival in Canada. Such things do happen in case of immigrants. Many times they live in dilemmas like Abdul and Ruksana. They always think of Mumbai, India. Abdul and Ruksana’s love for the Mumbai city continues to remain. But, Ziram and Rafiq’s love for Mumbai was not as strong as their parents. These happen with most of the migrants. The next generations of immigrants are attracted to a new lifestyle and get involved in it.
The family migrated to Canada because they lost everything in 1992-93. They thought they can start a new life in Canada. They will not be discriminated on the basis of religion. But, it was not true. The family was horrified when they saw attacks on Mumbai in 2008. Even Rafiq was horrified. It was in this background Rafiq decided to commit suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. He was admitted to the hospital and survived.
The author has narrated the incidences brilliantly. He refers to the 1992-93 riots and serial blasts, 2008 attacks on Mumbai, the trade union scenario etc. It also gives us an idea of how young Muslims are tapped by terrorists and influenced by them. They use social media and internet to influence young minds. They lie. They try to influence immigrants and their kids as they migrate to other countries because of some persecution or harassment. Militants look for such people, who can be influenced easily and they found Rafiq.
The book is an eye-opener. Terrorists and their sleeping cells work at a different level and they look for kids of immigrants. They know the life of immigrants is not easy and can be influenced by the name of religion. The author himself struggled a lot before he established himself.