As the kids see it

Last Updated : 15 April 2017, 19:42 IST

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Those Children

Shahbano Bilgrami
Harper Collins
2017, pp 352
Rs 399

This is a delightful and sensitive tale about the innocence of childhood and growing up, of family ties, loss and love. Imaginative and poetic, with touches of humour and childlike innocence, this novel presents unique and engaging characters seeking their roots.

Ten-year-old Ferzana Mahmud’s life in Chicago is shattered by the untimely death of her mother due to cancer. As their affectionate father nurses his own sorrow, Ferzana and her older sisters Fatima and Jamila, and her big brother Raza, must console each other as they try to cope. They do this by creating their own fantasy world, where they are superheroes with special powers.

To further complicate matters, their father moves the family to Karachi, half a world away. Landing in a strange city with alien people and unfamiliar customs, the children must adjust to a completely new life. They now live in a large compound as junior members of the Mahmud clan. There are grandparents to deal with; sometimes distant and forbidding, and sometimes affectionate. Uncles, aunts and cousins with diverse personalities must be tackled, and school poses new challenges. There is the secrecy around their late mother and the circumstances of their parents’ marriage. Clandestine meetings with their flamboyant maternal uncles raise more questions than answers. What was their mother really like as a young girl? Why is she never mentioned in the Mahmud household? Why is Ferzana’s Dadi so sad, and what secrets lie buried within the folds of the Mahmud family?

“My instinct was to tell her that she was wrong,” Ferzana thinks at one point about her dear Dadi. “That it was unfair of her to deny us the right to find out about our family’s past. After our mother’s death, we needed anchorage; after being displaced... we were searching for something to hold on to, to explain to us who we were and why we were here.”

As she navigates her way through this chaotic new world, Ferzana begins learning things that school books don’t teach. “It was no less a surprise to me, after countless geography classes and colouring my way through outline maps, that countries, like people, were not stable entities, that they were made and broken, then made again.”

Religious differences and intolerance are a reality creating rifts even within Ferzana’s own family. Her youngest uncle, Shahbaz, says in an uncharacteristic fit of outrage, “But the evidence is everywhere. Where do you think this rigid, intolerant, unforgiving version of our faith has sprung from?” Their orthodox uncle Jamshaid Chacha retorts, pointing at Ferzana and her siblings, “What about the filth these people have brought into our country?”

The influence of religious intolerance is all-pervasive and a reason why their late mother and her family are never mentioned. As Shahbaz Chacha points out to Ferzana’s father, “Even Bhabi and the kids are into it. It doesn’t end there... it just seems as if some of them have lost sight of the essence, or spirit, of the faith in the process.”

Her friendship with Shahnaz, their driver’s daughter who is a girl of her own age, brings home to Ferzana the reality of class divisions. “Even after months of living in Karachi it struck me as odd that people were not always seen as individuals but as products of several abstractions which, when combined, typecast them as surely as if they were mediocre actors in a third-rate comedy.”

People can be dangerous. Ferzana and her brothers and sisters barely escape an attack on their father by “a typical ‘aunty’ complete with full stage make-up... They were intentionally khatarnak, or dangerous, and feared by children the world over, especially for their wet kisses and cheek-pinching fingers.”

Ferzana learns harsh worldly truths when she realises she is being used by her teacher, Mrs Naseem, to carry on an illicit relationship with her rakish teenaged brother Raza.
Despite such grave themes, Ferzana’s imaginative escapades liven the story and prevent it from sinking into gloom. The children suspect the warm and lively Shahbaz Chacha to be “born of a scandalous union”, because he is so unlike the Mahmuds. Ferzana as the superhero Little Furry sleuths around, losing her sister Fatima’s black panties to a devious opponent in the process. She weaves fantasies around her parents’ first meeting and falling in love. A college trip to the scenic hills of Swat and the chance meeting of future true lovers; or Baba as a placard-wielding student protester and Amma as his revolutionary sidekick facing a lathicharge together; she imagines “their pure love a perfect example of the union of the personal and the political.” When Fatima raps her for reading their maiden aunt’s forbidden Mills & Boon romances, Ferzana’s innocent retort is hilarious. “I’m telling a serious story. What do baboons have to do with it?”
As secrets unravel, a transformation takes place in the family. Durdana Phupo emerges from the cocoon of her little-girl room, and slips off her chador. Shahbaz Chacha comes to terms with the truth of his parentage, which is stranger than any fiction the children could have concocted. Dada and Dadi mellow, and the beautiful ending is of hope, tender love and reconciliation. This is, overall, a heart-warming and memorable read.

Published 15 April 2017, 16:25 IST

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