Hold review: Being the person

Hold review: Being the person


Adolescents and even people in their early 20s (people who have barely come out of their chhilkaas, as the comedienne Prashasti Singh says), thinking aloud about life and depression are the stuff of comedy. Here are these naïve nothings who have not seen even a fraction of what “proper” persons, people in their 30s (and onwards), toiling away for a living have. “Proper” persons have dominated the space to think about love and hardship. Michael Donkor’s Hold surprises with the story of what it means to be such “half-a-person”. This debut is about three Ghanaian adolescent girls wondering how to live with themselves and the world. Belinda and Mary work as household help, and Amma is an over-achieving student who appears to be living comfortably with her parents in London. Set in the year 2002 in the Ghanaian city of Kumasi and London, the novel dwells upon the anxiety of age and coming-of-age. The girls realise, at least one of them surely does, that as adults too, they cannot have their own way.

They say Belinda has a gift; she can help people. She mentors Mary: “Imagine that you are the kind of girl that can cope with it, even if you are not . . . . Let’s play — what is the girl who doesn’t’ mind fishing in the plugholes for the hairs?” A little later: “She has no fears. So when she has to climb on the step ladder to get to the dirty ceiling corners or to wipe the fans, even though inside she is trembling a little, she can still do it. And another one of her favourites is cleaning the glasses.” To Amma, she says that the truth is not weak. One should not despair of the truth.

Amma and Belinda share a sense of discomfort with their own identities, and what they are hiding about themselves. The conversations between the girls ask questions about what if things were different, about the wish that things were better, irrespective of the privilege one is born with. What if desire were transferable? What if identities were transferable? When she learns about Belinda’s past, she lashes out at the world and its unbelievable cruelty. She is aware that it is so because it has got a lot to do with black people’s blackness: “Or was it only black people’s beautiful things that ended trampled on like that? And didn’t they do the trampling themselves?”

Grief changes us. Love, not loved genuinely, becomes pretence. These girls are immensely aware of how pretending pinches them. Amma finds her teacher’s reverence for her “exoticness” irritating. She would rather recite Coleridge or learn Cantonese. When Belinda asks Mary to imagine that she is someone who loves her chores, Mary knows she has no choice. She can only choose a new name, Cynthia because the name sounds the way angels breathe. While Mary and Amma ask why they are what they are, Belinda knows that all questions are not waiting to be solved and answered. Answers finish everything.

 Michael Donkor gets the voices of the girls right. Mary and Belinda do not speak in “standard” English, and Amma’s London English is peppered with slang and “like”. Where the girls are grappling with things that overwhelm them, there is a simple voice speaking clearly. Belinda, at one point, thinks: “Why should love be about sacrifice and giving something up, about not doing? Why should it be about standing back to waters washed everything away? Why wouldn’t you at least try to withstand the flood throw out a rope across the swelling waves for a desperate hand to seize?”Life is not reasonable and Belinda has a solution: we must clown back at it. But we must not betray ourselves because identities cannot be switched on and off. These are tough situations but they will pass. The only situation in which it does not seem to pass is if you are Hitler or the devil — that is when there is no escaping.

These are characters “mired in different kinds of shit,” but they try hard to work it out. They know they are terribly alone. Belinda must try to be nice to herself and listen to herself a bit more. Amma is trying to be normal and Belinda is worried because it feels like lying. Mary is not around any more but she has not been without her moments of strength. The “calm courage” of the girls amidst their angst, and their recognition that they have to protect themselves, give their stories an appeal outside their location, too. One character says, “London is a tiny place and we’ll make it even smaller.” The context is different but the sentiment holds true: that wherever we are, we are contented with ourselves. Hold is about the pact we “proper persons” could make with ourselves, too.