The Heart Asks Pleasure First

High and Dry

By Sara Danial | May 2023

The Heart Asks Pleasure First authored by Karuna Ezara Parikh is a love story of two star-crossed immigrants in Wales, one Indian Hindu and one Pakistani Muslim. Most of the book slides into a steady, detailed pace, with intricate descriptions and thoughtful characters. It is pleasant to read, flowing well as it holds the attention effortlessly.

When I first saw the cover of The Heart Asks Pleasure First, I knew I had to read this book. With hues of blues and ochres, the creative artwork subtly entails meaningful text written in Urdu that prompts you to buy the book.

Although a love story, Karuna Ezara Parikh’s debut refuses to be just that. It tries to do too many things (with a lot of characters) for a focused novel. An ambitious novel – and all the ambitions are worth fighting for: communalism, racism and Islamophobia, religious extremism, misogyny, family conflicts, language, 9/11… And while we are all aware of the moral and worthy causes, it downplays the central story and the characters. If asked to summarize the book, it would be a pain point as it is difficult to put a finger on what may have gone wrong, mainly because it tries to do too many things. And when one is not focused, what follows is everything done mediocrely, a mess of messages.

Addressing these issues is not a problem. It’s a novel, and with the benefit of the doubt, we do give the author the creative space to explore them. In fact, many of them intermingle with each other and are quite relevant and captivating. The problem lies with how chaotically Parikh’s vision has been executed.

Parikh also has a habit of disturbing her own narrative for a back story. For instance, cut to the dramatic, intimate scene between our forbidden lovers. And she trails off to the childhood, backstory of the hero’s roommate.

To illustrate poor execution again: there’s a scene of a dinner party thrown by Daya’s liberal parents. This scene looks like it only aimed at Asha having to explain about Islamophobia in India. Again, well-intentioned and soundly argued, the scene isn’t poorly written. But, as a reader, I like elements to be transitioned subtly. Otherwise, it breaks the flow. In hindsight, all the characters seem to be quite preachy when they begin to give speeches about right and wrong, that are too outrageous.

So it comes across as though Parikh is imposing political messages and literary thoughts, something that are best left to the reader. By the end of the novel, we read about an emotionally heavy symbolism carried by the characters’ names. Gyan and Asha, and their daughter Daya. The author toys with a lot of filmy melodrama with no real substance in the peripheries, for example, “I have your keys.” / “Oh, Daya. You have my heart.”).

Another area where her writing falters is that the book is bursting with lyricism, especially when Daya daydreams about eating “Aaftaab’s brain”. Because romance can’t be written without cannibalism, even figuratively?

Another issue is that whenever we see Muslim characters, the plot is rather predictable, because their lives and decisions are identified with Islam - it controls their present and shapes their future, without much depth. The other characters are usually featured by ambitions, opinions, and traits that are independent of their religion.

It is important to note that this is Parikh’s first novel, and she shows a lot of potential. I wish I could like this book more as it checked the boxes of a good book: tranquil setting, lyrical writing style, an inter-religious love story, immersive atmosphere, meaningful history and profound friendships.

I hope Parikh will go upwards and onwards from here, as her talent shows great promise. This one didn’t quite hit the mark but here’s hoping the best for the ones ahead.