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'The Architecture of Loss' by Zainab Priya Dala: Difficult mothers, abandoned daughters

Life’s tapestry: A mural on the walls of Christ the King Anglican Church in Sophiatown, South Africa.

Life’s tapestry: A mural on the walls of Christ the King Anglican Church in Sophiatown, South Africa.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons


A panegyric to the forgotten women of the anti-apartheid movement

Aheavy air of melancholy hangs around unspoken words and former safe houses in South African author Zainab Priya Dala’s sophomore novel The Architecture of Loss. An enriching character study of mothers and daughters and a panegyric to the forgotten women of the anti-apartheid movement, the book is a welcome addition to the pantheon of post-apartheid literature in South Africa.

Forty-two-year-old Afroze Bhana returns after decades to the place of her birth, the fictional Brighton, a declining rural town in the heart of Zululand and decidedly different from that seaside English delight. Her mother, Sylverani ‘Sylvie’ Pillay, a firebrand and former doctor who sent her away with her father to Cape Town at the age of six, is now debilitated by cancer. For Afroze, her ageing mother seems like a parody of herself, having transitioned from intellectual heavyweight to dotty dame.

Vexing choices

Sylvie is scarcely pleased to see the daughter she had neglectfully cut out of her life. In the intervening years since she got rid of Afroze, she seems to have filled her life with people. Halaima, her dutiful caretaker; Bibi, Halaima’s daughter and the apple of Sylvie’s eye; and Sathie, her unctuous gentleman caller, all crowd the house Afroze once played childhood games in. While tension simmers between fiery mother and abandoned daughter, their pasts play out in Cape Malay ghettos and prison cells.

'The Architecture of Loss' by Zainab Priya Dala: Difficult mothers, abandoned daughters

Dala’s prose is occasionally overwritten. “Only one night, and tomorrow she would leave this horrible town behind — cleansed, purified, transcended, dipped in the pool of deliverance.”

She also races through the plot too fast, which has the effect of making some portions feel extraneous to the main narrative. There are characters here who could power entire novels yet sometimes the reader gets no more than a CliffsNotes version of their past.

These quibbles aside, The Architecture of Loss is deeply engrossing and frequently moving. Dala’s admirable alchemy with language manages to give the novel a unique tone — social realism with sprinkles of magic realism.

A perspicacious writer, she crafts a novel that is powered by maternal warmth and fury. The book’s foremost achievement is its array of sympathetically drawn female characters. The stock, if sharply rendered, main plot takes a backseat to the fictional oral histories of its characters. Through their narratives, we encounter a tapestry of South African life that moves beyond black-and-white binaries.

Sober view

Key to the novel is Sylvie, a lower-caste Tamil woman who becomes one of the first admitted to the medical programme at Natal Medical College. Slowly, she gets drawn into the throes of the anti-apartheid movement and has to grapple with vexing choices that position freedom struggles and domesticity at opposite ends of the spectrum. The birth of her daughter isn’t the reckoning of a new day but a cog in the wheel of revolution.

Apartheid — which has shaped so much of public life, consciousness, and discourse — is inextricable from the South African novel. Dala, like many post-apartheid novelists, takes a sober view of the unfulfilled promise of pre-apartheid calls for revolution. Her work also falls into a tradition of post-colonial literature like that of Achmat Dangor and Imraan Coovadia, which manages to shine a light on the way South African Indian characters negotiate their identities in a country where racial barriers can be unyielding.

Sathie is a wanderer and it’s no coincidence that his chicanery is fettered to his Brahminness. Sylvie chafes against the country’s racial restrictions by joining a freedom struggle that nevertheless doesn’t give equal focus to the voices of women.

“Within them lay revolutionaries who could see the ugliness of segregation by color of skin, but who could not bring themselves to see how they kept women in boxes. They read Trotsky, they quoted Marx, but in their hearts they wished we would just go home to cook dinner.”

Afroze, an architect and a post-racial success story, allies herself with whiteness till it takes a toll on her mental health.

Bubbling rage

If one suspects that Afroze is the Dala surrogate, real life indicates that Sylvie’s political transgressions and outspokenness owe something to Dala herself. A few years ago, Dala was violently attacked and forcibly entered into a mental institution under pressure by the Durban Islamic community after expressing admiration for Salman Rushdie (who has blurbed the book).

Dala, a practising therapist, clearly understands the emotional tolls women bear for not being able to voice their stories. “Rage can bubble insidiously in the witch’s cauldron; notice the way a crone is female and the wise wizard is a male.”

The novel emerged out of Dala’s conversations with an anti-apartheid activist in an old-age home during her psychiatry practice (for which she was charged with professional misconduct, apparently for mundane fee payment reasons).

There are, of course, ethical questions about using a flesh-and-blood person’s lifetime of trauma to craft a fictional narrative. The fleeting presence of Steve Biko aside, The Architecture of Loss fabricates many details of a movement that is synonymous with colonialist violence and erasure. It also ends with a pyromaniacal act that is personal release for its characters but feels historically callous.

Yet, fiction’s greatest asset is its ability to amplify an individual’s voice into one of the group’s. Maybe, the only way to memorialise history’s forgotten is to offer them fiction’s alluring possibility of catharsis and resolution.

The Chennai-based writer and editor is the winner of the Likho Award for Excellence in Media, 2017.

The Architecture of Loss; Zainab Priya Dala, Speaking Tiger, ₹399

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 11:50:06 AM |

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