Hidden Fires: On British-Pakistani family grief and healing

Hidden Fires: On British-Pakistani family grief and healing
Book Club: Delving into family trauma and cultural expectations, Sairish Hussain's 'Hidden Fires' is a poignant take on the British South Asian experience.
5 min read
14 February, 2024
How can you live in the present when you're trying to bury your past? [HQ Stories]

Bradford-based author Sairish Hussain’s second novel Hidden Fires is a powerful family story of healing generational trauma and the importance of knowing your heritage and history.

The novel lays bare the inner lives of a British-Pakistani family and is as gut-wrenching as it is heartwarming.

Family secrets and personal vulnerabilities are at the heart of this story, with the partition of India and Pakistan serving as a significant historical backdrop and the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire framing the present setting.

Set mostly in Bradford in 2017, the novel is told from the perspectives of three generations of a family who have drifted apart but share kindred beating hearts and must find their way to each other. The shifting views result in brilliant writing, producing a masterfully twisted tapestry that keeps the reader engaged throughout.

"Hussain captures a thousand untold stories in one by constructing a fictitious story based on a true historical occurrence"

Yusuf is a traditional Pakistani man and an elderly widower living alone in Bradford, being haunted by the ghost of a child; Rubi, his biracial granddaughter, has a terrible secret of her own while also dealing with the loneliness, the awkwardness of the teenage years, and bullying and body image issues; and her father Hassan is a social worker struggling to maintain the work and life balance.

When Rubi's maternal grandmother dies in Spain, she's sent to live with Yusuf, a grandfather she rarely meets or has a connection with. This is when worlds collide and two vastly different generations of a family come together under the same roof, forced to confront their differences and also find common ground in unexpected ways.

In Hidden Fires, Hussain authentically develops each character's voice, depicting their pain, confusion, and fears, as well as the compassion, warmth and hope that they carry for the world and one another.

Torn between past and present: A British-Pakistani family experience

At the heart of the novel is the story of a grandfather and granddaughter overcoming their generational and cultural differences to create a space where they can rebuild the bonds of family and love.

In its heartbreaking turns, the story shows the loneliness of old age and the slippery reality that emerges as dementia takes hold of a person.

While Yusuf – overwhelmed by life and ageing – attempts to keep the appearance that he has his life in order, the value of a thoughtful community, friendships, and steady routine becomes apparent.

Pain, loss and trauma in South Asian, Arab and Muslim cultures can sometimes be swept under the rug or used solely to instil the value of patience and steadfastness while not appropriately acknowledging the human need to be heard and to express. The novel reads like a response to and a suggestion for the poor communication or the avoidance that plagues some of our families.

"Fires can be put out or contained. They never really die, though," says one character. "They just remain hidden. Hidden until something causes them to ignite again."

The impact of a terrible schism like the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan is still felt in families today, particularly because people are unable to discuss the separations and losses and reconcile the past with the present.

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Family struggles post-Partition

Even those who may have gone on to a more "secure" existence for their families are still unable to recover from the trauma of a mass displacement event that scattered families across the continent and the globe. Hussain, as a perceptive young novelist, depicts how such a scar can spread across a family, even if the members are ignorant of the gash.

Yusuf, seemingly triggered by the horrors of the Grenfell fire and his own old age, is haunted by visions and nightmares that take him right back to those horrifying days of danger, violence and confusion, and is forced to reluctantly confront the secrets that he has kept from everyone.

In contrast, Rubi's curiosity and interest in learning about this portion of history begins to grow, fueled by access to information online and on television, and the brief encounters with her grandfather that leave her with unanswered questions.

Her character growth and development are a testament to how affirming and healing it can be to learn about your family’s history and past, along with the necessity of dressing old wounds.

The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire serves as a spectre in the background, informing the characters' state of mind and realities, while also representing systemic injustices that are fully avoidable.

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Paralleled with the partition, which occurred on a different scale but also had an impact on the lives of the people it touched, the two devastating brackets in time are a reminder of the circle of life, and the importance of being able to discuss these painful events and how they shape our lives and society.

Hussain captures a thousand untold stories in one by constructing a fictitious story based on a true historical occurrence.  Although Hidden Fires has a satisfying ending that somewhat cushions the difficult places it visits, it is raw and realistic enough to make one think that the people in the story are real.

Sumaiyya Naseem is a Bookstagrammer and freelance writer and editor who specialises in Middle Eastern and Muslim stories. In 2019 she joined the Reading Women Podcast as a guest contributor to talk about South Asian and Middle Eastern narratives.

Follow her on Instagram: @sumaiyya.books