The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak
As brazen as the title, The Bastard of Istanbul, carries bold, outspoken and savage characters. What is it about strong characters that make a story? Their stories, their personalities or just that they somewhere or the other, resemble and mirror our deepest, darkest desires?
Elif Shafak, is one of Turkey’s bestselling author and The Bastard of Istanbul is her second novel which came out in 2006. Shafak is acknowledged as a brave author, and she should be. The Bastard of Istanbul, almost put her behind bars. For fiction and fictitious characters to create controversy is rare. But as I read, everything hit close to home, since we are looking at something similar on the home front, (Hint: Padmavat(i)). Shafak raises powerful questions and puts forth even robust situations. Dealing with nationalities, culture, families and finding roots, the book gives you a lot to think about.
Long lasting female characters are what makes this one a definite read. I could not pinpoint a specific protagonist in this narrative. So, the protagonist, for me here were the female characters. The book opens with a family full of women; the Kazanci family, where all the men mysteriously die young. Zeliha wants an abortion and so begins the story. Asya Kazanci is the youngest woman in the family, who has grown up surrounded by her eccentric aunts, grand mother and great grandmother. The rebellious Zeliha, stands out among these women and the book gives an insight into her life. There is a clairvoyant aunty Banu, the ever so perfect aunty Cerviye, aunty Feride, who has a series of mental maladies which are self-diagnosed and then there is Armanoush. Armanoush is Asya’s American-Armenian cousin who has come to Istanbul to find her roots. Asya and Armanoush meet and what ensues is the need to find their connections.
Shafak has narrated the Turkish culture beautifully, probably a bit too openly, which prompted the controversy. However, I felt that it could be easily replaced in the Indian context, as both cultures seem so close and similar. The scenarios could easily be depicted in any Indian family setup. There is gentle humour in her writing, which at times made me laugh out loud, and at the same time there is a lot of dark, underlying sentiment which made me ponder over the situation. It was heart-breaking to think of the lives that some of these women have lived, loved and let go…
The book moves abruptly between time and places, so it is hard to keep track. Chaos is the word. I liked the way each chapter is titled after an ingredient in the Turkish cuisine. Very metaphorical of what happens in the lives of the characters. The ingredients subtly find their way into the narrative and give perspective to the situation.
There is too much happening in this book and there is too much happening in the world right now! But I am amazed at how we have regressed, what was rampant in 2006 is still rampant in 2018.
Elif Shafak, garnered rave reviews for her ‘Forty Rules of Love’ and quite rightly so, but The Bastard of Istanbul, hit the heart where it hurts and made her characters linger on, long after reading the last page.