- Title: What about Meera
- Author: Z P Dala
- Publisher: Umuzi
- Number of pages: 256
- Year of publication: 2015
- Category: Fiction
What about Meera is not a question; it is a fervent quest for the place of the socially marginalised in the scheme of things. What about Meera is not a question; it is a witty record of the palpitations of broken hearts and broken dreams. What about Meera is not a question; it is a determined unearthing of buried sherds, tracing the quotidian struggles of the peasant Indians of Tongaat (‘in rich detail’, the blurb adds). Z P Dala’s debut offering follows the escape of a young, South African woman of Indian descent from Durban to Dublin in search of life and love.
There is no soothing rain on the night that Meera Rekha Narain is born, but there is India Swami. He happens on the farm called Emona on the same night that Meera arrives in the simple world of her farmer parents and grandparents. India Swami installs himself as the household priest whose duty it is to mediate between the mortals inhabiting the farm and the many deities that oversee their earthly affairs. As mouthpiece of the gods, India Swami’s word is law. When he asks for the cherished gold of the women of the house, they must give it up; when he declares any of the teenage daughters of the house wayward, the erring girl must be delivered to him for cleansing rituals that take the sacred form of buttock-pinching; when he decides that eighteen-year-old Meera is old enough for marriage, old enough she is. She is married off to Doctor Rajesh, the scion of a wealthy family that lives on Millionaires’ Row.
A drunken, abusive husband, a conceited mother-in-law and a cursing parrot combine to plunge Meera into misery. However, she escapes the noxious marriage to resume as a caregiver at a school for autistic children in Dublin, Ireland. The Irish wind blows Ian across her path. Ian, father of an autistic child. Ian, husband of a negligent Spanish woman. Meera wants love, and when she eventually finds it, it slips from her. In her desperation, Meera commits a horrible act, the result of which sees her return to Durban.
This first novel of Dala’s contests the patriarchal frameworks that subject women to the whims of men. There is the all too familiar narrative:
The boys were left alone…. They grew up into strapping, confident farm boys, strong to the core…. The boys were given Choices. They stayed to farm the land of their fathers. Or they went to join the navy. Or they opened businesses. Or they studied Law. Or they went to work in the Big City. They had so many Choices.
The girls grew up knowing they were dirty. They blossomed into ugliness. They took overdoses of painkillers and blood-pressure medicines. They sat on the shelves until they were almost eighteen, and after India Swami had pinched, rubbed and rutted his way into cleansing them, they were rapidly married off to the nearest decent offer that arrived (pp 56–57).
While the narrative and the overall purpose of the work are familiar, Dala engages her task ingeniously. Careful to show the patriarchal configuration of the society that ill-uses Meera and other women like her, Dala manages to turn the arrangement upon its own head. Of all the male characters in the novel, India Swami stands out as a bearer of authority, even over other men. And that seems to be the case because he pretends to religious superiority, for it is hard to imagine that without his array of gods, he would have the latitude to determine what becomes of others. The other man who comes close to India Swami is The Man, or the-Tiger-that-never-changes-its-spots. He does not contribute much to the development of the plot, for his political appointment is terminated as soon as it is found out that he has been engaging in corrupt practices. Other prominent male characters are silent, if not distasteful: Meera’s grandfather is voiceless and so is Meera’s father, and Rajesh, Meera’s drunken husband, is a pitiful puppet of his mother’s imperious caprices. The only time the men of Tongaat come together to act, it is to destroy an Indian family that they hold responsible for desecrating their place of worship.
Conversely, the women are imbued with strength of character. The only person to ever challenge India Swami is Meera. She is the first character to see through him, the one who discovers that what he brandishes as books of Sanskrit hymns and prayer verses are not what he claims they are. When she finds that her marriage traps her in a home every inch of which is controlled by Anjali, her mother-in-law, she decides to flee the captivity that is her marriage. Anjali looms large over other characters around her, male or female. She decides how to bury her husband, how to run the family business, when and whom her sons must marry, and how her daughters-in-law must live their lives. There is hardly any other character more powerful than Anjali.
This is how Dala configures power relations among characters in the work: while women are subjected to the suppressive order of a patriarchal society that has conditioned the men, men are often subordinated to women or to men like India Swami, who exude some form of higher authority. Even the principal of the school for autistic children, where Meera flees, is a woman.
Dala also commits some space to the tyranny of blind religiosity. When India Swami enters the farm ‘dressed in white dhoti and a glowing saffron-coloured robe with ancient Sanskrit verse in Hindi script’ (p 49), the simple inhabitants of the farm, in awe of the representative of the gods, lavish their kisses on the robe. Here is the humorous rendering of the scene:
The farm people, knowing nothing of the meaning of words with lines at the top, bent to kiss the robe, kissing perhaps the corner where it was emblazoned, ‘Meenathchi’s Sari and Kurta bootik. Print will wash off if the using hot water. Please to wash in cold’ (p 49).
Emboldened by this robe-kissing reception, India Swami makes demands of these people and even determines which girl is to be married off against her wish.
Setting the story in the twilight of the apartheid regime warrants the political undertones in the novel. References to P W Botha, Nelson Mandela and freedom underline the repressive national atmosphere that is at one with the domestic tribulation the women of Tongaat have to endure. It is this delicate balance that makes for the depth of the story told in the novel.
Dala takes feminist writing to a new level, carefully avoiding the overly tragic tone and the melodrama that works like hers are wont to affect. Instead, she treats her readers to humour. She takes the anticlimactic route to the heart of her protagonist, giving the reader the opportunity to reflect on the subjects her book addresses.
The novel can be read as a collection of short stories, each story a plug for the narrative hole created by the opening chapter. Far from inhibiting and truncating the narrator’s flow of thought, Dala’s creative use of end marks effectively projects the motif of psychological turbulence that drives the story, and the transferred epithets strewn across the pages of the novel infuse life into the story. These elements bestow on What about Meera the aesthetic delicacy that makes it an enjoyable read.
In the end, What about Meera is a mind-boggling question well deserving its question mark. It is a call to reflection, to a wholeheartedly honest discourse about the place of women in the scheme of things. What about Meera certainly belongs, deservedly, in the place accorded the works of such eminent African feminists Buchi Emecheta and Ama Ata Aidoo.
Photograph: ‘Sugarcane’ by Rom
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