A passage from Pakistan: Taymour Soomro unearths "Other Names for Love"

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday August 9, 2022
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author Taymour Soomro
author Taymour Soomro

It's by no means a backhanded compliment to say that, in his debut novel, "Other Names for Love" (Farar, Straus and Giroux), Taymour Soomro is ace at describing weather. These days, when fiction can't compete with the news when it comes to extreme meteorology, reporting the weather has become one of the lost arts of literary fiction. Here, Soomro shoots far beyond trite notions of local color to describe climates and weather events that operate like characters.

Maybe you have to have lived long in South Asian climes like the Pakistan of Soomro's book to appreciate what a force the heat is, and what a Rembrandt Soomro is at painting it.

In "Other Names" the sun is withering at its most benign and more often than not scorching. It's a "hot, hot sun that for some reason could never be seen." It, in turn, spawns "the dust that clouded up around you as you walked so that you appeared from it as if conjured by a sandstorm."

author Taymour Soomro  

A season in the country
In South Asia, not only the scribblers but also the common people speak of the monsoon that comes to dissipate the heat as "walls of water." Soomro reclaims the image to repurpose it as a curtain concealing the spectacle of young men letting off the steam of sex that has been long foreshadowed but, until a storm, repressed. In the resulting scene, witness Soomro's deft avoidance of the sand traps of writing about sex.

Predictably, when young Fahad is sent from the rich family home in Karachi to work on Abad, the family's vast farm, he becomes ensorceled by one of the locals. Less inevitably, Ali, besides being big and hairy and something of a rube —"a thug, the kind of boy Fahad would have gone out of his way to avoid at school"— is a roughneck and only transitionally, situationally interested in Fahad romantically.
Here is their first-time boy-on-boy sex:

"And suddenly it felt as if everything was allowed —for Fahad to tug lose the knot that tied Ali's salwar, for him to press his palm against the soft hairs on Ali's flank, for him to dip his head into the nook between Ali's neck and shoulder— and, in turn that he must allow everything too —for Ali to twist Fahad's arm behind him, to send him backwards, to knock one of Fahad's heels away from the ground and lower him onto his back.

"Kissing was teeth knocking, faces that didn't fit, it was the same with their bodies, grappling with each other... threats of force, that they could not make gifts of their bodies to one another because their bodies were not theirs to give."

The weather in London, where Fahad's family subsequently dispatches him, is not the stereotypical gloom. Soomro, who lives in London but has spent family time in Pakistan, is instead sensitive to its winds, which clap and batter more than they soothe. Everywhere, the author's creations have to weather the weather.

Farewell to formula
I go on about the enveloping climate like this because the elements of Somroo's story are the lingua franca, the common coin, of contemporary gay fiction: the youth sent away to make him a man, young gay love and its discontents, the flight from the boonies to cities for liberation, the tangles of cross-cultural relationships, the fatal attractions across chasms of age and gulfs of class, and, pre-eminently, the primally fraught relationships of fathers and sons. They're all at work in this novel, but they acquire other names from an author with an outright allergy to formula.

His characters, too, are as variable as the weather and crafted with a sculptor's skill. Mingling with them are other, shadowy characters who haunt the pages and each other, none other so compellingly as Mousey, whose sweet tooth for men in the sack sheds slanted light on Fahad's father, Rafik, and mirrors Fahad in his creation of a sophisticated gay life in London while being essentially in exile from Pakistan.

The mother-land for Fahad, London is where he makes, if not quite finds, his adult gay self. There he lives in near-posh circumstances with his older partner Alex (a near rhyme for Ali?) and makes his living as a teacher and writer, another maneuver that could go terribly wrong, the all-too-predictable designation of the novel's protagonist as a writer. That's an old story.

Then, in another arresting passage, a writer's group Fahad oversees considers a student's story about a girl raped in a field by an itinerant worker. It reminds Fahad of his own earlier life in Abad, with its romanticized violence, and he realizes that he's retreated from his own writing.

"What if, he wondered for a terrible moment, he'd written nothing in so long because he hadn't written this, because he'd written always so far away from himself, as though tossing a grenade?"

You can't go home again
When, an adult lifetime later, Fahad is manipulated into returning to Abad to retrieve what is left of the family fortune Rafik has squandered by selling the house, he "sees" Ali everywhere, finally reaching him on a scratchy phone call during which he learns that Ali is now married to a Punjabi woman and the father you'd expect him to be.

There's not a shred of sentimentality in the depiction of their interactions, which holds true of all the relationships in the book. The title of "Other Names for Love" becomes simultaneously clearer and murkier as the plot unfolds.

In the same climactic episode we see Fahad given both his childhood designation as "Little Sir" and, elsewhere, as just "the boy," those names enacting the difficult relationship —not without deeply flawed love in both directions— that he has with Rafik. His father's towering persona dominates the book and would sink it if Fahad had not found his own way in the world before it becomes his charge to rescue Rafik from one of his literal, dangerous nocturnal perambulations.

Without fail, Soomro walks his characters into situations from which they might want to flee and then leads them through those trials without dodging the emotionally hard parts. Grating as many of the characters are at times, at their worst they're troubled, impossibly conflicted people.

All of them become sympathetic in fundamental, necessary ways. The sheer generosity of the abundance of points of view Soomro takes in the writing is powerful; these advanced modes of fiction that don't outsmart themselves. This is a book not a word of which you would change.

The wise old men of gay letters are birthing lively late-life offspring this year. Meanwhile the young'uns, the new kids on the block, are making their debuts, not just as writers of advanced shades of color but as tellers of tales in fresh, untiring Sheherazade voices —none more clarion and involving than Taymour Soomro's— saying, Lookee here.

'Other Names for Love,' by Taymour Soomro. Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Macmillan, 256 pages, $26. us.macmillan.com

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