Shrouded by night, with hot rain falling and red hibiscus in bloom, a teenage girl crouches over a baby beneath a mango tree. She grips a steel paring knife, her arm hesitating as the rain seems to goad her on: “This is how you birth a nation,” it tells her.
The nation in question is the Republic of India, and as anyone familiar with the history of partition will know, the heart-splitting violence intimated by the opening paragraphs of Melody Razak’s debut novel, Moth, is apt. That scene frames with horror and mystery – lush poetry, too – an atmospheric dramatisation of India’s troubled start and the creation of Pakistan, as told through the fate of one family of Delhi Brahmins.
Its backdrop is a beautiful old home on Dry-Biscuit Alley. Named Pushp Vihar, or the House of Flowers, it’s been passed down through generations of Brahma’s family. He’s a timid dreamer, besotted with his wife, Tanisi, an orphan who grew up on a houseboat in Kashmir and has pale blue “drowning-in-a-lake” eyes. The pair of them lecture at Delhi University, and in defiance of a society in which marriage and honour are everything, they’re raising their daughters, 14-year-old Alma and five-year-old Roop, to be fearless and free.
Little Roop is a budding psychopath, killing mice and crickets. Her Muslim ayah is made of cake, she used to believe
And yet, this is the 1940s, and with news of atrocities spilling from Punjab, where religious violence against women in particular grows worse by the day, they’ve let Brahma’s mother – a meddlesome, haunted hater – arrange a match for Alma. Alma parries their anxieties with her own enthusiasm for marriage to the 22-year-old stranger, but even as wedding preparations gather pace, it’s hard to shake the dread instilled by the novel’s dreamlike – nightmarish, really – opening moments.
Before becoming a writer, Razak was a pastry chef and cake shop owner, and India’s culinary riches flavour her prose just so. Dilchain the cook, for instance – a woman who carries her own trauma and keeps a jar filled with unrequited love – spoils the family with kulfi and jelabis. “Knead until your face is pink and hot,” she tells Alma, teaching her to make paratha dough. “When you can’t breathe, then you know it’s ready.”
Other characters are just as vivid. Little Roop is a budding psychopath, killing mice and crickets. Her Muslim ayah, Fatima Begum, is made of cake, she used to believe. And then there’s cocktail-sipping, nail-polish wearing “Cookie Auntie”, who breezes in from Bombay.
The sounds of muezzin that float across the city are soothing, the air is soft with the scent of jasmine and rose, and conversations are strewn with quotes from Tagore. At least, that’s how the first half of Moth reads. However, this is as much a story of the riving of naivety as it is about the loss of innocence, and partition’s agonies go abruptly from being a political tragedy, discussed over supper, to a source of intense personal anguish. Meanwhile, a “shattered” Delhi fills with displaced souls.
The end, when it comes, is brisk, but readers will be grateful for the hope that flutters from Razak’s closing pages. With its unflinching focus on violence against women, her strong, captivating debut tells a story that is at once firmly rooted in a time and place and yet pressingly relevant to the here and now.
• Moth by Melody Razak is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply