At last, American readers can get their first glimpse of Ayesha At Last, Uzma Jalaluddin’s highly anticipated romance coming to shelves next summer.
The novel is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in a Muslim community in Toronto. Ayesha is the Lizzie Bennet of the story — a young poet who bristles against her family’s expectations of a young marriage, particularly in light of her flighty cousin Hafsa’s routine rejection of marriage proposals. Ayesha’s world is turned further upside down when she meets Khalid (the Darcy-esque figure of this tale), a smart, handsome man who is exceedingly conservative and judgmental. Khalid’s surprise engagement to Hafsa pushes Ayesha to question everything she believes as she struggles to decide what it is she truly wants out of life and love.
Ayesha at Last debuted in Canada last year and has already been optioned for a film adaptation by former Sony exec Amy Pascal’s Pascal Pictures. It’s the debut novel for Jalaluddin, a teacher who also writes the humorous parenting column “Samosas and Maple Syrup” for the Toronto Star.
EW is excited to reveal the vibrant pink-and-yellow American cover for the novel, and to share an exclusive excerpt from the book’s first chapter.
Excerpt from Ayesha At Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin
He wondered if he would see her today. Khalid Mirza sat at the breakfast bar of his light-filled kitchen, long legs almost reaching the floor. It was seven in the morning, and his eyes were trained on the window, the one with the best view of the townhouse complex across the street.
His patience was rewarded.
A young woman wearing a purple hijab, blue button-down shirt, blazer and black pants ran down the steps of the middle townhouse, balancing a red ceramic travel mug and canvas satchel. She stumbled but caught herself, skidding to a stop in front of an aging sedan. She put the mug on the hood of the car and unlocked the door.
Khalid had seen her several times since he had moved into the neighbourhood two months ago, always with her red ceramic mug, always in a hurry. She was a petite woman with a round face and dreamy smile, skin a golden burnished copper that glowed in the sullen March morning.
It is not appropriate to stare at women, no matter how interesting their purple hijabs, Khalid reminded himself.
Yet his eyes returned for a second, wistful look. She was so beautiful.
The sound of Bollywood music blaring from a car speaker made the young woman freeze. She peered around her Toyota Corolla to see a red Mercedes SLK convertible zoom into her driveway. Khalid watched as the young woman dropped to a crouch behind her car. Who was she hiding from? He leaned forward for a better look.
“What are you looking at, Khalid?” asked his mother, Farzana. “Nothing, Ammi,” Khalid said, and took a bite of the clammy scrambled eggs Farzana had prepared for breakfast. When he looked up again, the young woman and her canvas satchel were inside the Toyota.
Her red travel mug was not.
It flew off the roof of her car as she sped away, smashing into a hundred pieces and narrowly missing the red Mercedes.
Khalid laughed out loud. When he looked up, he caught his mother’s stern gaze.
“It’s such a lovely day outside,” Farzana said, giving her son a hard look. “I can see why your eyes are drawn to the view.”
Khalid flushed at her words. Ammi had been dropping hints lately. She thought it was time for him to marry. He had a steady job, and twenty-six was a good age to settle down. Their family was wealthy and could easily pay for the large wedding his mother wanted.
“I was going to tell you after I’d made a few choices, but it appears you are ready to hear the news. I have begun the search for your wife,” Farzana announced, and her tone brooked no opposition. “Love comes after marriage, not before. These Western ideas of romantic love are utter nonsense. Just look at the American divorce rate.”
Khalid paused mid-bite, but his mother didn’t notice. Her announcement was surprising, but the news was not unexpected or even unwelcome. He resumed eating.
“I will find you the perfect wife—modest, not too educated. If we can’t find someone local, we will search for a girl back home.”
“Back home” for Farzana was Hyderabad, India, though she had lived in Canada for over thirty years. Khalid had been born in a suburb west of Toronto and lived there for most of his life until his father’s death six months ago, before Farzana and Khalid had moved to the east end of the city. Farzana had insisted on the move, and though Khalid had been sorry to leave his friends and the mosque he had frequented with his father, deep down he thought it might do them both some good.
Their new neighbourhood had felt instantly comfortable. From the moment they’d arrived, Khalid felt as if he had finally come home. There were more cars parked three or four deep on extended driveways, more untamed backyards in need of the maintenance that only time, money and access to professional services could provide. Yet the people were kind, friendly even, and Khalid was at ease among the brown and black faces that reflected his own.
Farzana neatly flipped another paratha flatbread onto her son’s plate, though he had not asked for more. “The wedding will be in July. Everyone will want an invitation, but I will limit the guest list to six hundred people. Any more is showing off.”
Humming to herself, she placed a small pot on the stove, adding water, milk, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and tea leaves for chai. Khalid’s eyes lingered on the chipped forest-green mug on the counter. His father’s mug. Ammi had used that mug for his Abba’s chai for years. This was the first time he had seen it out of the cupboard since the move. Maybe his mother was finally beginning to make her way through the cloud of grief that had paralyzed her after Abba’s death.
There was so much of the past they did not talk about. Khalid was relieved she was thinking about the future. Or rather, his future. The idea of an arranged marriage had never bothered Khalid. A partner carefully chosen for him, just as his parents had been chosen for each other and their parents before them, seemed like a tidy practice. He liked the idea of being part of an unbroken chain that honoured tradition and ensured family peace and stability. He knew that some people, even his own sister, thought the practice of arranged marriage was restrictive, but he found it comforting. Romantic relationships and their accompanying perks were for marriage only.
At the thought of romantic perks, Khalid’s attention drifted to the window once more—but he stopped himself. The girl with the (broken) red mug would never be more than a fantasy. Because while it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single Muslim man must be in want of a wife, there’s an even greater truth: To his Indian mother, his own inclinations are of secondary importance.