Clash of cultures

Last Updated 18 June 2016, 18:42 IST

Return to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul
Deborah Rodriguez
2016, pp 306, Rs 399

Return to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul is Deborah Rodriguez’s sequel to The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul. The book reintroduces a cast of characters from its predecessor, and introduces some new ones as the story goes along. Sunny, the protagonist from The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, finds herself on a soul-searching journey outside of her beloved Afghanistan, on her way to an island she doesn’t want to go to.

The novel begins quite enigmatically, with a girl running from something... or someone. That girl, however, is not the protagonist. Return to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul stands well on its own even though it’s a sequel. Whatever happened in the previous book is reintroduced slowly and clearly, making the characters and events seem lucid and relevant.

Sunny Tedder, the headstrong, free-willed owner of the Kabul Coffee Shop, is left alone after the sudden death of her partner Jack. She is also, she discovers, the owner of the Screaming Peacock Vineyard after Jack’s death. The inheritance of the vineyard is something of an annoyance to Sunny, who’d rather remain in Afghanistan with her coffee shop than return to the US. But the vineyard beckons, and Sunny hands over the coffee shop to the unconventional Halajan, her son Ahmet, and her daughter-in-law Yazmina. But there’s reverse culture shock to contend with back in America, and Sunny soon finds herself missing Afghanistan.

Despite all that, Sunny does manage to make new friends. Her Japanese American neighbour, Joe, is philosophical, wise, and full of good humour. The punk-like and young and good-natured Sky takes to Sunny immediately. There’s Kat, the mysterious Afghan-American girl, who has a dark and murky past. Then there’s Layla, Yazmina’s younger sister, on a stay in America. Between them and their antics, Sunny’s initial displeasure at the vineyard begins to soften.

As a character, Sunny is bold, almost brash, and fixed in her ideas. Jack’s dream of owning a vineyard was never hers, and she is headstrong, almost unrelenting in her belief that she wants to sell the place and be rid of it as soon as possible. The change of fortunes is, for her, confusing and at times shattering.

Back in Afghanistan, things are changing, and not for the better, as the elderly Halajan notes. There was a time in her youth when things were different for women. Now, she worries about terrorist strikes and social oppression, and despite that, has managed to marry for the second time, learn a new skill otherwise forbidden, and keep her cigarette smoking a secret. Yazmina, her daughter-in-law, is a gentle woman who takes pride in her life and the coffee shop. She manages to keep her spirit despite a violent past. Her husband, Ahmet, is something of an idealist and a reformist, holding secret meetings in the coffee shop.

The story moves back and forth, sometimes focusing on the present, sometimes drifting into the past, and these transitions are a little overdone, for they appear throughout the book. The characters appear unusually idealistic as well. Sunny’s friend Candace, with her contacts and connections, rescues the Afghani characters from the turmoil of the war-torn country. They are indebted, it seems, to Sunny, for creating a coffee shop that helps them live, and to Candace, for pulling the right strings and giving them hope. It seems a little odd that folks in a country which, by Sunny’s admission, has thousands of years of culture, cannot fend for themselves without an American’s help in their own country.

Nevertheless, the clash of cultures comes across pretty convincingly in the novel, especially where Layla and Kat are concerned. Both are from the same country, and both view their homeland differently. Kat, with her secrets, is trying to forget, and the effort makes her short-tempered and more of a rebel, with her hair dyed black and white. She does not believe in wearing the hijab, or in Layla’s devout prayers. Layla, on the other hand, is devout, traditional, and finds it hard to adjust to American ways. She cannot abandon her beliefs because Kat disapproves, but Kat cannot understand why anybody would stick to what she is convinced are regressive ways. As for Sunny, she is caught in the middle, feeling both uprooted from a country she admires, and yet oddly at home in a place she thought she’d despise.

Each character has his or her own quirks and backstories, and each of them is woven into the events that unfold. Zara, for example, is struggling to avoid a forced marriage she does not want. And Return to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul does a commendable job of juggling multiple themes within the story. An enjoyable read to be sure.

(Published 18 June 2016, 15:53 IST)

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