BookView I Re-telling Tales: The Bastard of Istanbul


The true impact of the book doesn’t quite strike you until you’ve actually finished reading The Bastard of Istanbul. The story is too riveting for one to care about anything but the interspersed threads of the characters’ individual stories. Authored by Elif Shafak, parts of the book are set in her motherland Turkey, while others are set in the American cities of Phoenix, Arizona and San Francisco, California. The story traces the lives of four generations of women and how they interconnect with each other, many decades and many hidden secrets later.

Reading The Bastard of Istanbul left a very personal and intimate impression on me — and no matter how much I try otherwise, fair warning this review will not simply be a neutral summary of the plotline of the book. I’ve gone back to the book many many times after I’d first read it and came away with a different perspective on each subsequent read. For instance, it only struck me much later that almost every single character mentioned in the book is prominently, female. Of course this is by design, but while reading, it seems to be the most natural selection of characters to fit Shafak’s fictional world.

We meet Asya Kazançi, fiesty, firebrand and foolish, who lives in the heart of Istanbul with her unmarried mother, Zelihah, her bevy of colourful aunts, her grim grandmother and her angelic great-grandmother. Asya is restless and finds herself stifled with the constant female uproar at home. Each woman in her house, including Asya herself, has a strong and distinct personality which clashes with the rest. Across the Atlantic ocean, Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, divides her time between her estranged parents. In San Francisco, she lives with her father and his devoutly Armenian family who have yet to shake off the horrors of the Armenian genocide in Turkey. In Arizona, Armanoush clashes with her feverishly American mother Rose, who does her best to erase any association with her ex-husband’s family. Armanoush, who desperately wants to connect with her Armenian identity, sets out to visit the very place that nearly exterminated her people in 1915 — Istanbul. The lives of the two girls intersect when Armanoush lands in Istanbul to live with her Turkish stepfather’s family, which happens to be none other than Asya’s own. In isolation, both characters are reserved in their own way. Together, their friendship unravels in the most silent and delightful way.

The other novelty is that every single character’s personality, story and action is brought forth through the pages. The book could very well be about Asya Kazançi, or her mother Zeliha, or about Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian. Or conversely it could be about nobody in particular, but rather about the entire extended Kazançi and Tchakhmakhchian clan. Every single woman in the book brings forth her own understanding of womanhood without conforming to a stereotyped version of a single identity of femininity. Asya’s mini-skirt-donning mother Zeliha runs her own tattoo parlour, and has adamantly refused to reveal the identity of Asya’s father. Her Auntie Banu is devoutly religious and a professional clairvoyant, and covers her head with a scarf. Armanoush’s grandmother Shushan is the gentle and loving matriarch of the Tchakhmakhchian family, carrying scars from the genocide to the United States. Her mother Rose, on the other hand, is peevish and compulsive. The beauty of the story is woven together with every single one of these characters.

Perhaps what really holds my fascination with the story are the parallels to be found with Indian culture in the book. On both sides, the girls have extended families. Both have to deal with certain stigmas, as common to Indian culture as they are to Turkish and Armenian cultures. Asya is born out of wedlock to an unmarried mother while Armanoush’s mother has married a Turk or what the Armenians call odar. Even the two girls themselves, represent polarities that nevertheless appear seamless in the book. While Armanoush embraces the fold of her culture and its traditions, Asya finds them impossible to relate to. Armanoush seeks to connect with her roots, Asya takes solace in the time she spends away from them.

Despite its obvious poignancy, The Bastard of Istanbul, was attacked as Armenian propaganda aimed at inciting hatred for Turkish people and Shafak herself was charged (although later acquitted) under Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code for denigrating the Turkish identity. Perhaps it is the detraction that makes the book seem so, but The Bastard of Istanbul is a lasting message about the importance of our stories, and the power in telling them again and again.

Priyanshi Vakharia is a Research Associate (Legal Reform) at One Future Collective.

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