Who is That Across the Fence?

This novel about a young Gujarati Muslim woman is a contemporary portrait of prejudice as well as hope.

Updated: July 18, 2015 11:46 am
Fence, Book review Fence, Ila Arab Mehta, Writer Ila Arab Mehta, Gujarati novel Vaad, Gujarati literature, Rita Kothari, The symbolic cover design deserves appreciation. Seen through the burkha is only a pair of eyes — apprehensive, circumspect and moving ahead with confidence.

BY S. D. Desai

Title: Fence
Authors: Ila Arab Mehta
Translated from the Gujarati by Rita Kothari
Publisher: Zubaan
Pages: 200
Price: Rs 350

The power of suggestion and an economy with words, an empathetic portrayal of a gutsy protagonist, an insightful enunciation of Islam and the taut structure of the narrative make the reader wish s/he could finish reading Fence, Rita Kothari’s English translation of Ila Arab Mehta’s Gujarati novel Vaad (2011) in one sitting.

Fateema Lokhandwala is a young girl growing up in a fictional village, somewhere in Saurashtra. With conviction and exceptional perseverance, Fateema jumps over the vaad or fence the society she lives in has erected — of poverty, gender, religion and illiteracy. The author does not explicitly state if this is a post-2002 riots novel, but its portrait is that of a society divided along communal lines.

Fateema anticipates Malala in her strong belief in education, which she manifests by setting herself a goal and achieving it quietly.  Her father is a scrap-metal seller and her mother collects cow dung. But despite her straitened circumstances, Fateema has the resolve to realise her vision of becoming an enlightened individual, even as she is rooted in the family and soil she has grown up in.  As an individual, she insightfully understands all religions but would like to be a human being free from any bondage on Allah’s earth.

She goes on to break many fences, by finding a job in the big city. She signs an agreement to buy an apartment when she realises that between the two blocks of apartments — one for Hindus, the other for Muslims — the builder may helpfully get a wall built (“Why not a garden there?” she wonders.) Fateema very reluctantly seems to make the compromise on her friend’s cajoling, “Take the house.  Living together will bring down the prejudice, ignorance and contempt and, of course, the fence.” Given her conviction and approach to all religions, that doesn’t sound like an unachievable goal. The reality in Gujarat, and elsewhere, though is such that it does not seem possible in the foreseeable future.

Art does help shear, even if slowly, ingrained prejudices, distrust and insensitivity. The conviction of the novelist and the translator is reflected in the gently flowing language. The antithesis of Fateema is her brother Kareem,  who turns terrorist for no obvious reason except exposure and brainwashing.

His story, however, goes on to strengthen her belief in vidya. Atop Mount Girnar, recalling the sight of the virgin earth as “a lush green ocean” and inhaling its fragrance, she “felt herself strewn over the landscape, pieces of her dispersed but also cohering into a new shape, the shape of Fateema.” She realises as “the inheritor of this multi-religious legacy” that the teachings of the Koran and of other religious traditions, including the Vedic,  are one in saying, “Let there be no violence…”

An actor does parakaaya-pravesh (gets into the body of another being) to be a character.  A creative writer outlines a character and then lets herself drift into his life with brahmaanand-sahodara, the aesthetic pleasure akin to spiritual bliss. Ila Mehta’s style has the undercurrent of that pleasure. Heartening, for Gujarati literature is largely unconcerned about the trauma the Muslim community suffers. Gujarati Hindu teachers supporting Fateema in her struggle bring a breath of fresh air, indeed.

Kothari’s English translation, despite minor handicaps caused by accepted printing conventions and a few printing errors reads like an original work. With the social concern she shares with the novelist, her writing assumes an easy flow and a tone that rings true. It is interesting to observe how she transfers the colloquial flavour of the original to the translation, at times retaining words of the source language.

The symbolic cover design deserves appreciation.  Seen through the burkha is only a pair of eyes — apprehensive, circumspect and moving ahead with confidence.

SD Desai is a writer based in Ahmedabad

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