Tight grip over the strings

Tight grip over the strings

Tight grip over the strings

Andaleeb Wajid
pp 296, Rs 175

The contribution of Islamic authors to Indian writing in English is almost minuscule. And, among the few, it is the women who take the lead. Andaleeb Wajid is probably just the third woman novelist, the 200-years history of this literature has produced. The other two are, Iqbalunnisa Hussain who used dark laughter to present  the patriarchal ways in Muslim family life in Purdah and Polygamy: Life in an Indian Muslim Household (1944) and Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column (1953), whose heroine dares to free herself of the purdah. While Bhasha literatures have given some capable novelists from Muslim households, we had to wait for almost half a century to get Andaleeb’s Kite Strings translated into English. But, it has been well worth it.

With the action moving between Bangalore and Vellore, Kite Strings gives a complete picture of the protagonist of the novel — Mehnaz’s teen years. She is part of a typical middle-class Muslim family. What could be termed as clinical isolation from its surroundings, the family has moved with times since the daughter of the house is getting educated. And as for the action, it could all be happening in any household in India. As the author sagely comments, “Where there are siblings, fights are bound to take place.”

As for Mehnaz, it is through her, Andaleeb tries to make a statement about the place of a woman in a rigidly patriarchal religion. Kite Strings is no feminist proclamation but a bare recital of facts. For girls in Muslim families, marriage is the goal and motherhood, the culmination. Serving her husband is the ordained duty.

Through the book, Andaleeb projects alternate lives of the character, through which she asks her readers to decide for themselves. Mehnaz has graduated with a first class. What is she going to do, as so far, she has resisted being hurried into a marriage. Her classmate Jyoti has found a job and is earning Rs 6,000 every month; another classmate Sahana is pursuing a postgraduation degree while her little cousin Rehana is already four months pregnant.  

The author puts the character in a situation where Mehnaz knows and so do the readers, that her parents are already discussing her marriage. Like a kite sailing in the skies, she has come close to freedom with her degree, but her strings are in the hands of her family and the society at large. A Muslim girl cannot taste such freedom. And why so?

As the author illustrates in Kite Strings, because women are not ready to dare the unknown. Perhaps, it would become possible if there is sisterhood within the secluded society. Unlike the one which exists today, where women themselves speak against the education of women, sisters do not talk to one another for decades in a mistaken view of chastity, where mothers insist upon the burqa for girls alienating their growing mind. It projects the view that women cannot become achievers and make their mark in the society.

As Andaleeb directs her incipient gaze at the Muslim family unit in Kite Strings, we sigh for the day when Shabanas and Zulekhas will come together in large numbers, Rehanas will come to appreciate the likes of Mehnaz and wait for the day when Mehnaz’s creator comes up with her next novel. About Mehnaz, of course.