Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 25, 2023

Moth (2021), by Melody Razak

The enigmatic title of British-Iranian author Melody Razak’s debut novel Moth puzzled me at first.  My Dictionary of Symbols (Paladin, 1982) advised me only that butterflies signify transformation, which is apt for a book set during India’s 1947 Partition, but not quite adequate to explain the title.  A quick search online, however, revealed a plethora of spirituality sites devoted to the meaning of moths.  It seems that in addition to symbolising change, moths also signify endings, death, and the mystery of the night.  They are delicate and represent the fragility of life and the vulnerability of the human soul, and they can also represent fertility, immediacy, attachment, disguise, and unconditional love.  These symbolic meanings make perfect sense in Razak’s novel…

Set in 1946-47 during the tumultuous end of the British Raj, Moth traces the fortunes of a liberal Brahmin family.  Ma and Bappu teach at the local university in Delhi, and they have brought their daughters Alma and Roop up to be independent.  Also in the household is the malevolent mother-in-law Daadee Ma who resents her son’s choice of wife and adheres strictly to the old ways; and the faithful servants. Dilchain is an exemplary cook who was rescued at seventeen from an abusive husband who accidentally set himself on fire instead of her. Fatima Begum — after her husband was killed in a grotesque traffic accident — came into the household as a wet nurse and stayed as an ayah who has cared for the two girls since they were infants. She is Muslim, and her presence in the house has to be defended against Daadee Ma who is furious about it.

Ma said it would be complementary to have an Islamic influence in an otherwise strictly Brahmin household and Bappu agreed.  Hiring a Muslim ayah felt like progress.

Daadee Ma was livid.  But she was also wary of displeasing Bappu’s pa, who’d been dead less than a year.  And it was not often that Bappu was so firm.  His was a natural male authority she could not go against.  She simmered down, but insisted that she would starve herself to death if there was to be any co-dining.  If Gandhi-ji could do it, all stick and bone, so could she. (p.76)

According to the traditions of the time which still persist today, these three widows can never marry again. Widows are expected to withdraw from the world as if their lives are over, even if they are widowed very young.  Daadee Ma is very unsympathetic to Fatima Begum still mourning her only child who died a week after her husband.  She herself lost many children in their infancy but Bappu and his sister Cookie Auntie survived and she has grandchildren.  She also has strength and agency.

This agency extends to a dubious role as matchmaker for Alma.  Alma is only fourteen and still a very bright student at school but as the extent of atrocities triggered by Partition become clear, her parents’ liberalism is revealed to be limited.  A distant cousin is tortured, mutilated and killed and they naïvely think that marriage will protect Alma from dangers to come.  A girl’s reputation for purity is essential to make a good marriage, so Daadee Ma is authorised to find a suitable match and when the novel opens, preparations for the marriage are under way.  Cookie Auntie (who married unhappily for money) turns up from Bombay with deep pockets for wedding jewellery along with the trousseau sewing skills that Ma lacks.  Alma, too young to realise the implications of leaving one household for another not necessarily as congenial, is enthusiastic and indulges herself with romantic dreams about the young man.  (Who is 22.)

The character of Roop, aged about five, is very interesting.  As writes in her review at The Guardian, Roop is a budding psychopath. She is grotesquely fascinated by killing things, and satisfies her nascent bloodlust by killing mice and moths.  Late in the novel she disguises herself as a boy in order to move freely around in a neighbourhood that has become perilous, and in a reversal of gender ad age expectations, she takes charge of her father when it’s too dangerous for Dilchain to venture out so Bappu has to shop for food.  The novel reveals this gentle, kindly man to be entirely unsuited to the savagery of the times, but Roop thrives in the new atmosphere of danger and excitement.

Razak’s Prologue foreshadows that the novel does not shy away from depicting the violence of Partition though it’s not overdone and it’s not gratuitous.  But through vivid characterisation and engaging dialogue, readers become invested in the fate of this family and its household, and some of what happens is harrowing material, all based on authentic research. It would, IMO, be a betrayal of history to write a facile historical novel with a happy ending.  As Stanford scholar Priya Satia suggests, annual celebrations of India’s independence will always be haunted by the violent history of Partition.

The partition created the independent nations of Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India, separating the provinces of Bengal and Punjab along religious lines, despite the fact that Muslims and Hindus lived in mixed communities throughout the area, Satia said. Although the agreement required no relocation, about 15 million people moved or were forced to move, and between half a million to 2 million died in the ensuing violence. (‘Stanford scholar explains the history of India’s partition, its ongoing effects today’, Stanford News 9/3/2019, viewed 25/2/23)

For some readers, Moth will be an introduction to this history.  For others, it will be a reminder that India’s transformation into a modern independent nation began with cataclysmic events, which makes its achievement even more notable.

Highly recommended.

PS Thanks to Karen at Booker Talk for this recommendation which came via Katherine Stansfield who was a recent guest in Meet a Welsh Author.

Author: Melody Razak
Title: Moth
Publisher: Weidelfeld & Nicolson, 2021
Cover design: Steve Marking
ISBN: 9781474619240
Source: Kingston Library

*Sources for the symbolism of moths:

  • the


  1. There’s always MOTHMAN! This sounds good. But, and I have to ask, on the question of animal killing/torture, is it graphic?


    • Not as graphic as the torture and killing of humans, Guy!


  2. Sounds fascinating Lisa. I think the only book I’ve read which covered Partition at all was Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain, which was a bit of an eye-opener and which I loved.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: