Sunday Herald Book Review: 'The Architecture of Loss'

Sunday Herald Book Review: 'The Architecture of Loss'

In the background

 The diverse characters with their personal histories — it is these that bring life to the book.

Who are those that come to mind at any mention of South Africa and its Apartheid regime? Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Steve Biko, ...and perhaps the recently deceased Winnie Mandela, the lady who hung on doing her bit outside, while her husband suffered internment in an island prison through 27 long years. Well, here is a stirring new novel that attempts to give voice to the ‘silent sisters’ of the South African revolution. The Architecture of Loss is authored by a South African Indian, no less. In her second outing, writer-psychologist Zainab Priya Dala deals with the trauma suffered by survivors of apartheid. Specifically, in her novel’s afterword, the author mentions a case involving an aged female activist, Jane, hospitalised and helpless, enraged and schizophrenic.

This novel thus enables Dala’s entry into the long roster of anti-apartheid writers overflowing with prize winners. While the story is set in present day free South Africa (still dealing with ghosts from its decades of racial shame) — the novel is replete with characters whose back stories recount in searing detail the horrors of being non-white, disadvantaged and subjugated.

 But it is in the present that the story begins, with 42-year-old Afroze, a successful single architect based in Cape Town, returning reluctantly to her childhood home in bleak Brighton, a raffish (fictional) town in rural Zululand. Sent away abruptly and dramatically at age six, by her unconventional mother, Dr Sylvie Pillai, Afroze has never forgotten her early abandonment to a reluctant father Ismail (and luckily, a loving stepmother) in far off Cape Town. Yet, news about a dying mother cannot be ignored and the daughter is back, in the old home, now populated by a strange cast — the still waspish mother dying slowly of cancer, yet full of brittle energy; the mother’s confidante and caregiver Halaima, a loyal Malawian; her brattish precocious child Bibi (who is clearly the old doctor’s pampered favourite); and a 60-ish gentleman dandy Sathie, occasional lover to Sylvie. Afroze (born Rosie) doesn’t really feel welcome, but ... things happen and she stays on.

 The diverse characters with their personal histories — it is these that bring life to the book. The unsociable rakish Ismail shares his Cape Town dwelling with his Malay wife, the impoverished hardworking gentle Moomi. Afroze finds herself bonding well with the kind Moomi. Simultaneously, glamorous Cape Town becomes a character — ‘the mountain, with or without tablecloth...with its hints of decadence, the most beautiful city in the whole wide world’. It helps steer the story, as Afroze grows older, bolder, independent, learns to survive and become a winner.

And now this successful city girl is back to her old childhood home — the still kitschy cottage, along with its old strange mysterious outhouse — the khaya — at the back; this is the ominous place that haunts Afroze, as terrifying childhood memories come rushing back. Meanwhile, the reader wonders too, about this strange combative mother-daughter duo and their past. Side by side, one learns about Sathie the Tamil Brahmin boy-turned-crooner -lothario, a gentlemanly survivor.

There are more incidental characters too, speaking a mix of comprehensible Afrikaans cum Pidgin English, setting the mood and tone.

But the crux of the novel lies of course in the story of a carpenter’s daughter, Selvarani (Sylvie) Pillai, admitted to Natal Medical College, along with three other non-white girls. The four girls and a bigger group of non-white male students ‘were told that they were lucky to have been even considered’. It was 1964, ‘when defiance was bubbling inside the bellies of townships.’ And soon, besides medicine, things like activism against apartheid, secret meetings, hardcore training, calls for action — all entered the lives of these students.

Even the real life character of Steve Biko (the student activist firebrand) appears in this fiction, as a minor character, the pioneer of the Black Consciousness Movement. Before long, Dr. Sylvie, unwed reluctant mother, finds herself in distant nondescript Brighton, a cog in the anti-apartheid program wheel, settled in a ‘safe house’, that was also a bush hospital. Ultimately the inevitable happens.

Arrest, confinement, torture, survival, release, a quiet retirement sans the perks availed by a few prominent activist stars.The book’s overwrought emotions are reflected in the writing: ‘Fury finally came to breakfast.’ Yet there is quiet humour too: A Zulu baby is named Tombifuti – literally, ‘yet another girl’. Ironically, Dala’s style recalls the magic realism of Salman Rushdie. For it was her 2015 endorsement of Rushdie’s style that led to furious Islamists physically attacking Dala.

In the book’s third and penultimate section, there is a rush of action, leading to clarity and resolution. Understanding, forgiveness and redemption follow. There is calm and closure. Even the rake has mellowed. Essentially, this book is the author’s tribute to South Africa’s unsung heroines.