Colours of identity

The World Unseen
by Shamim Sarif.
Review Books, Headline Book Publishing, London. Pages 344. £ 7.99

The World UnseenWHEN Hari Kunzru was awarded the Betty Trask prize of £ 8000 for his first novel The Impressionist, in 2002, on the same podium was another young author, Shamim Sarif. She got the 4000-sterling prize for her novel, The World Unseen. First brought out by The Women’s Press in 2001, it has been reissued now by Headline Book Publishing.

Born in the UK of South African and Indian descent, Sarif has delivered a delectable treat, the taste of which lingers long after the book is finished.

The novel is about the ordinary, the ordinariness of apartheid in South Africa, where repression was the norm in a system that segregated black from white, black from Indian. Within the ghettoised rigidities of the 1950s’ world, there are other currentsdesire, of yearnings for freedom in the personal as much as in the political. The urge for expression is so overwhelming that no political system, social code or cultural conditioning, however cruel, can keep the lid on passion stealing out.

This is the story of two Indian women: Miriam, a married mother, dutiful, submissive and bound to her husband, his family, their children and their business in a back-of-the beyond place, Delhof; Amina, single, irrepressible, unafraid, who has shrewdly circumvented the laws to partner a restaurant in Pretoria with a much older black man, Jacob. The women’s acquaintance blossoms into a friendship and more, an intimacy that is physical but much else too.

Sarif unravels the electric charge that grips Amina and Miriam in slow sensuous word strokes; restrained and nuanced, the story of their relationship, though it stands apart and outside of their families and the community, is located within the layers of these. The delineation of characters is clear but gentle, where each person is portrayed with understanding as a prisoner of tradition and custom. The difference is that some—most of them—are buried deep in enforced convention, while others—a few—never give up the resolve to break out of it.

Miriam’s husband, Omar, and his brother, Sadru, are unthinkingly accepting of conformity, despite Omar’s lapse into an affair with Sadru’s wife, Farah. The sister, Rehmat—like Amina and later Miriam—has broken out of the mould.

Miriam breaks out in her own way, assertive but discreet, suggesting that each one in the South Africa of those days had to find his or her own way to survive within confined spaces or find expression outside it.

Between the two extremes are the many who are supportive or ambiguous and don’t dare: Like Amina’s father and, at times, Sadru; like Jacob and the white postmistress who dare to go to the brink, but are forced to retreat; like Farah who also steps out of line not only to seduce Omar but also to mislead the police to help Rehmat.

The novel is an engrossing mirror of reality, intense and yet humane in its portrayal of lives thrashing about in a brutal system. — S R