Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Story of Maha - Book Review

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The cover is as shockingly pink as the tale. Vivid, true to life and a definite page turner. These were my first impressions of The Story of Maha by Sumayya Lee, South African author.

For those who are regular commentators on this here blog, you all know her. She is none other than anonymous. And this is what she looks like.

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Okay, guys, you can stop slobbering all over your keyboard. She is married, you know. Back to the tale…

Maha is quirky; she’s funny; and totally irreverent. The blurb reads, “A spunky tale of Romance, Rotis and Unsuitable boys,” and for hormones a-raging Maha, the unsuitable boys seem to fall into her lap.

Lee captures the ‘Durbanites’ - as we Jo’burgers refer to them - with startling clarity (she was one herself once upon a time). Right down to the ‘and all’ that punctuates the speech of so many of them. Prepare yourself for dialogue like: "Eh, Maha! What you naaching and koodhing outside like boy? Like junglee you? Gor and help your naani in kitchen like good girl!”

And it’s exchanges such as these that brought laughter bubbling out of me in many places.

My favourite passage in the book reads as follows:

Maryam was tall, pale-skinned and pretty, with a waist length sheet of silky , golden brown hair. A fair catch indeed, especially within the widespread yet close-knit Indo-African society where fair skin was the ultimate prize.
Unfortunately for my mother – sweet Maryam Maal , as everyone in the community referred to her – expectations were high. Not regarding her matric results or the number of folds in her puff pastry – although to be fair, these were important as well – but expectations regarding her marriage and marriage partner. And to say that she had disappointed everyone would be mild. The community was devastated.

This was enough to keep me up until the wee hours of the morn in a bid to eat the last one - em...page, that is.

But Maha is not all laughter and light heartedness. It is a tale that speaks of deep rooted prejudice, racism, caste- ism (if there is such a word) and a whole host of other ills that the Indian community in South Africa is plagued by. It brings the mirror up close to our faces. Scant wonder then that there are those in the community who have seen fit to question her faith after reading her literary contribution.

For someone who rarely ever swears though, Maha was a teacher of sorts. I found myself reading words that I have never ever thought of using. Except perhaps in my teen years, and that was a lifetime ago. And even then, my mouth was clean by comparison. So be warned, it is not for the faint hearted.

It’s honest, to the point and somewhat thought provoking. I enjoyed it. And I don’t say this because I know the author and have had the privilege of meeting her – hey, I’m famous now! Go out and get it. For non South Africans I doubt whether there is another book available which captures the Indian community of South Africa more succinctly. Not very flattering, but then again, being under a magnifying glass seldom is.

Monday, August 20, 2007


After what feels like a lifetime, Muse Mine has come and sat downbeside me. She's taken my hand and told me that she's here to stay if I will have her. She's been holding baby while I type. And thanks to her, The Collection is getting along nicely. She's even put another old manuscript under my nose and forced me to have a rethink. And this is what she's inspired.

Chapter One

It has been this way as long as I can remember. I’d be walking amongst a crowd and see him. Plain as day, standing before me. He never looks at me. Never acknowledges my presence. At first I was alarmed by these sightings. But now, I’ve come to think of him as a friendly ghost of sorts. Someone who is there, watching over me. You know, if that were really the case, I would not be surprised. Since, what we shared…well it’s hard to explain. Hard to talk about even. Excruciating to bear thinking of.

I remember that day vividly. The riots. 1976. Uncle Hassan with blood on his hands; a cut on his head; dust on his clothes. Before he even opened his mouth, I knew what he was going to say. I wanted to scream at him. Tell him to go. To leave me. I wanted to put my hands over my ears, block out his words. Close my eyes and pretend I had not seen him. But the jacket. Bloodied and torn in his hands, it drew my gaze towards it. Claimed my attention totally. Consumed me. And I hated him.

Why didn’t he listen? Why? It was a road that was going nowhere. A road that would forever be paved with bodies, mostly black, being trampled on by the boere. Those bastards. Sharpeville was only the beginning. The bloody beginning. Soweto would be remembered forever.

“They killed a dog,” Uncle Hassen murmured. Almost to himself. . “Hacked it to death and burnt it. A police dog.”

He didn’t need to say more. I had seen the images. The ones that could not be blacked out by the media censorship guys.

And here he was again. In the crowded mall. In the year 2007. But this time he looked different. He’d aged. My ghost always looked twenty. Like I remembered him. It always wore the same pair of jeans. The same t-shirt and scuffed takkies. This ghost had on a pair of chinos. A tannish brown. A shirt and leather shoes. And this ghost looked at me. Straight into my face, even caught my gaze for a moment before passing right over me. But strangely enough, the light of recognition did not creep into its eyes.

I should have run in the opposite direction. Pretend I had not seen it. I should have told myself it was a dream. But my feet moved of their own volition. Straight towards it. I stood right in front of him. Blocking his path. I saw only confusion in his face. Even a mild irritation perhaps. But nothing more.

And then I felt fear. Cold fear that congealed in the gaps left by his death. Fear that made my feet heavy and my shoulders creak under the weight. I was spinning. Spiralling into an abyss, the pictures that were once hidden, plastered on the walls of my dark tunnel. Flickering, restless, like the images on a TV screen. I was gasping, breath hammering at the inside of my lungs forcing them to expand. But they would not. My hands were clammy, my scarf suddenly choking me.

I turned and fled to Zaheer waiting in the car. Zaheer and my darlings. One of whom share his name, though Zaheer knows this not. Ammar.

The years folded in on themselves. Merging a yesterday that held precarious promise with a today, languid as a heat induced shimmer. Zaheer and Ammar, side by side. My children with them. I was being thrown headlong into a maelstrom, torn free of my moorings. Dragged, dragging. Where was I going? I could not be sure. The house of Lego was falling apart. The pieces slipping through the same fingers that had so painstakingly pressed them together. Fingers that were raw from the forcing into place. From the task of creating a picture that would conform. An acceptable picture in a world where we were often our own worst enemies

His voice came to me again. But I had torn out his vocal cords. How could it? I had a bad feeling about this holiday. The dream of the snakes, multicoloured, writhing on my bed. I should have heeded. And now, it was too late.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Her Hands

I look at my hands and see hers. The flat nails, corrugated due to a lack of some or other vitamin. I rub his loose skinned little body with the olive oil and Dutch Medicine infusion and remember her hands doing the same on another body, one that was somewhat bigger. I wipe the hairy new baby shoulders and hear her say, “Wipe properly to help all that hair fall off.”

I see her rubbing the joints, stretching the little limbs, exercising them. “Come now, don’t be lazy,” she’d croon. I remember removing fluff from a little fist, one that was attached to a body that she was bathing, many years ago. More than twenty, in fact. Babies today… they don’t collect fluff in tightly closed fists. Their hands are open from the very first day.

I think of her hands now. How loose the skin seems. Papery, like the rice paper that I had used not too long ago for a macadamia nut nougat. They’re darker too, darker than I remember them being when she could still bathe little babes. When she taught me how to bathe them. When she taught me how to form a koeksuster, or knead a yeast dough. She was good at that. I can almost taste the milk tart, a baked one, mind, that would always be made on the day she bakes coconut tart.

She’s forgotten how to do those things. She’s confused, bewildered by why she can’t seem to remember being told things that people insist they had told her. She’s scared, alarmed by her forgetfulness. She’s scared to bathe babies, or bake milk tart. She’s scared to knead a yeast dough. She’s intimidated by her daughters’ efficiency in their homes. Yet they are the products of those hands that she seems to see as useless now, that she folds away uncertainly. And I feel like crying.

I want to tell her that it is okay to be getting older, that sometimes we need help and that saying so doesn’t diminish us. But I can’t. The words catch in my throat. I see the fear in her eyes, the self doubt. I want to put a hand, one that looks like hers used to, and moves with the confidence that once possessed her own hands, I want to lay it on her furrowed brow, the only sign that belies her befuddled state of mind. I want to say, “It’s okay, I’m here…” But the silence between us stretches and stretches…

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Deathly Desire - Part II

The self pity and shame had ebbed from her pores. It left gaps that were soon filled with anger and hatred. The guilt congealed, solid in these hollows. Each day was much the same. Brooding, hating, regretting. Azhar had taken to visiting with her in-laws. Perhaps he felt all the negativity in the air. He’d go there after school each day. Naeem barely spoke when he returned, later and later from work each day.

Darkness. A shroud, heavy, impregnable clinging to her soul. She saw herself in dreams, in visions, tumbling down the stairs. She saw her dress catch fire on the stove. She saw death. More than anything, she wanted death, the blissful oblivion that it would be.

No memories that taunt, recriminations that glide, vaporous beside her wherever she walked. Why didn’t it claim her like it had claimed her child – her children?


Naeem stared at the wall clock, watching the second hand move tirelessly. The minute hand inching along. He could almost feel it eating away at his life. Twelve thirty. He wondered what Fairuz would be doing. A wistful smile formed on his face at the memory of her laughter; her smile, the one that would always greet him at the door in the first year of their marriage. Even when she had struggled with the morning sickness, swelling feet and an aching back. And then Azhar had come into the world. A colicky baby, a nervous toddler and now an anxious little boy. Her smiles had melted, her words had sharpened. Azhar, Naeem sometimes felt, was like a toxin in her life even though he was a product of their love, a piece of both of them. It was then, that he had felt himself harden. If she felt this way about his son, how then did she feel about him?

She was unaware that he knew about that day six years ago when she had killed his child. He had followed her, he had seen her enter the clinic, he had seen her leave hours later in tears. While she was inside, he had debated the situation, and finally concluded that this would be best for every one. He had sat in the car, imagining what was happening to the piece of him that she was to have nurtured in her womb. There would be others, he told himself, legitimate ones that didn’t need to have their lives justified. He had hated himself then for taking from her her innocence, but he hadn’t been able to help himself. She was so darned desirable. And so very willing.

He wondered sometimes whether he shouldn’t just tell her that he knew. Share the burden somehow, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so. She hated him enough already for all the pain he caused her. And now this, the haemorrhaging. He had been on site that day. His cell phone battery had run down. He had returned to the office later that afternoon to find a message from her on the answering machine. Her voice sounded strange, distant, tearful. She had said she was losing the baby. He had called the neighbour. Mrs Amin had taken her in her son’s car to the hospital. She said that she had stayed there until the womb scrape was done. She said that Fairuz was fine, resting. She had returned home barely fifteen minutes ago.

Naeem had then called his mother.
“Yes, we were with her. We booked her in. Don’t worry son. The doctor says that she is fine. In fact I just spoke to her now. She says that Fairuz has been discharged. You can go and pick her up. Bring her here. I can help you take care of her. And don’t worry about Azhar, he’s with us. Shame, poor child. He’s sleeping now.” Just as he was about to hang up, she had added, almost as an afterthought, “And don’t worry about the account. I know that your neighbour took her to a private clinic, but Papa says he’ll pay for it.”

Mummy, always so thoughtful, he had mused, as he got into the car ready to fetch Fairuz. Her reaction when he had told her that they would go to his mother’s house had been like a slap in the face. After all Mummy was just trying to help. Why was she this way? Always pushing people away when the meant well. He wished he could unlove, her, but truth is, she had burrowed so far into his heart, that his life would be incomplete without her.

Naeem suddenly felt an urge to hear her voice. He looked at the telephone, uncertainly. Should he? In the end, he decided he would. He’d call her and check up on her.


She sat on the edge of the bed in pyjamas. Her hair dishevelled. In her hands a bottle of tablets. She stared at the bottle. She turned it over in her hands, toyed with the lid. This was it then. The only way out of her misery. She’d have to pay, she knew. Answer to Allah. But this life was just not worth living. The weight of the guilt felt like sand on her grave. Crushing. She popped off the lid, poured about a dozen into her palm. She lifted the glass of water, held it up to the light. She could see little particles swirling in the glass. Dirt, dirty, like her.

And then the telephone rang. Loud, piercing, insistent. “Shut up, shut up!” she screamed. She picked it up, threw it against the wall. The mirror, in pieces struggled free of its frame. Tinkled to the ground. Musical.

She laughed. She picked up the lampshade, flung it against the wall. The shade smashed into a million little fragments. She laughed some more. She picked up items one after the other, threw them against the wall, against what was left of the mirror against the bedroom window. She broke out in a sweat. She laughed louder and louder.
When there was nothing left to be thrown, she collapsed to the ground, spent, in tears. She sobbed, sucking in great gulps of air, hacking, rolling about on the floor.
“I want to die, I want to die. I can’t do this I can’t do this.”


Naeem found her on the floor, sobbing. Inconsolable. Like an abandoned child. He touched her shoulder. Called her name. Shook her. She sobbed louder, more heart wrenchingly. He gathered her in his arms. Lifted her gently, carried her to the bed. He stroked her head, pulled her to his chest. Rocked her back and forth. She wept. And he let her. She wept and he wept with her.