Conformity and rebellion

October 22, 2023

Aisha Sarwari’s memoir weaves a raw tale encompassing themes of grief

Conformity and rebellion


eart Tantrums is a candid memoir in which the author, Aisha Sarwari, takes readers on an intimate journey through the complex tapestry of a woman’s life, delving into the realms of feminism, marriage and pervasive misogyny. The book tackles deeply ingrained societal norms and familial expectations that have, for far long, silenced women’s voices in the South Asian community. The narrative is a testament to women’s resilience and a compelling call for change.

Hailing from Uganda, Sarwari grappled with the challenge of harmonising the cultural pressures of living in South Asia with her fervent yearning for equality. She had been taught that love and selfless service would guide her through life’s challenges.

Heart Tantrums chronicles a series of devastating losses: the early loss of a parent, the departure from the family home in East Africa and the endeavour to assimilate into a markedly distinct culture after her marriage. One detects an unwavering determination not to let life’s hardships define how one lives but also how one has to pay a steep cost for one’s choices. The mental health challenges are relentlessly progressive. The book seems to challenge the notion that love and selfless service alone can rescue the day.

On several occasions living in Pakistan sounds like self-imposed exile for the author. Sarwari and her husband repeatedly find themselves at odds with the prevailing norms. Yet, their quest for belonging occasionally begets the warmth of parenthood and the delight of remarkable friendships.

A pivotal moment is in 2017 when Aisha holds her husband Yasser Latif Hamdani’s brain MRI up against the light to detect a brain tumour. The stress seems to transform her husband’s personality; there are bursts of unprecedented aggression. At one point she has to deal with the question: “Is the illness still the underlying cause of violence, or has it evolved into a justification?”

This book weaves a raw and compelling tale encompassing themes of grief; the complications of a hybrid identity; the challenges of immigration; systemic familial constraints; the weariness of care-giving; and, inevitably, the fear of being forgotten. It is told with a masterful touch.

The early sections of the book explain various intergenerational aspects of patriarchy and violence. They expose the challenging dynamics inherent in marriages within a framework of structural misogyny.

The personal experiences related in the book can resonate with many women who have faced similar struggles in traditional South Asian settings. In a way the story is an ode to countless women who daily challenge the cultural taboos. This alone makes the memoir an important discourse on feminism and gender relations. It holds to light some of the dark corners of patriarchal systems. One is shown the fragility of traditional marriages where many women find themselves stifled and oppressed, even in households that appear to be liberal.

Heart Tantrums is a thought-provoking exploration of the sensibilities surrounding societal pressures women have to deal with. Some readers may occasionally find the narrative meandering. It is best suited to the test of those who appreciate fragmented, reflective and introspective storytelling. Others might wish for a more concise, structured and fluid narrative.

The book might have benefited from a slightly tighter focus and coherence. It’s important to note, however, that its value lies in its intimate and honest portrayal of a life’s experiences.

Book: Heart Tantrums

Author: Aisha Sarwari

Publisher: Hurst Publishers, 2023

Pages: 456, Paperback

The reviewer is the head of content at a communications agency.

Conformity and rebellion