How Sharbari Zohra Ahmed brings history to life in Dust Under Her Feet
Reviewed by Rheea Rodrigues Mukherjee
(Sourced by Bangladesh country editor, Farah Ghuznavi)
Title: Dust Under Her Feet
Author: Sharbari Zohra Ahmed
Publisher: Tranquebar/ Westland, 2019
The particularly enchanting quality about Sharbari Zohra Ahmed is her ability to make under-discussed historical eras come to life while still holding potent resonance in the present era. Dust Under Her Feet, Ahmed’s debut novel, measures how much and how little we’ve changed both in South Asia and on a global scale, by drawing us into a rather cinematic setting.
The novel subverts our collective imagination of the 40s in India, a decade that was largely defined by the lead-up to Independence and the death of the British Raj. Our protagonist, Yasmine Khan, shows us a micro-culture of the second World War from her point of view. She has us compellingly engaged with the U.S army presence in Calcutta. The novel is set against the backdrop of the Chinese-Burman-Indian Theatre that evolved when the United States went in support of the Chinese against Japan.
Calcutta, because of geographical proximity, was critical to facilitate resource trade. The Allied forces built the Ledo Road that connected India to China, to deliver supplies, and a significant portion of the workforce was American. In fact, the road also came to be known as the Man-a-Mile road because of the number of American casualties during its construction. The Ledo road played a large role in facilitating the movement of US troops from India through Burma and into China during the early 40s.
At the outset, we learn about Yasmine’s love for an American. They have a child together with who she starts corresponding in 1959. The epistolary start prepares readers for an unlikely love story. By and large, this anticipation will not be disappointed.
We are then introduced to The Bombay Duck, a night club in Calcutta, where spirits, music, bright lights, and a feisty set of women cheer up tired and homesick soldiers with dance and song. Yasmine Khan is the ferociously independent club owner who peppers the entirety of the book with her brand of feminism. There are elements of Yasmine that I find out of step with the times she is living in, especially since her views cater to feminist notions that have evolved in the age of the internet, but perhaps she was a progenitor. That said, Yasmine’s feminism and quick criticism of the colonial mindset that has been ingested by even the later generations are crucial in setting the tone of the book. A tone that is not shy to critique the rigid insularity of caste (via her character of Radhika, the only dalit dancer at The Bombay Duck), class and notions of ‘respectability’ via the outsider perspective that Yasmine has; she is Muslim, she is single, she runs a dance bar, she is financially responsible not only for herself but for all those who work at the club.
The women at the club are diverse with reason. We have my favorite, Patience, who is an Anglo-Indian, born of a white soldier and a ‘native’, and her inevitable identity crisis. There is the aforementioned Radhika, who remains a critical part of this book’s plot, whose character calls out the subject of caste and allows readers to see how pertinent the issue still remains. There is the ‘suspected’ Brahmin Madhu, and Asma who is Parsi. A very curated secular group of people make up The Bombay Duck, and while I have mild reservations about using this diversity as an easy trope to showcase outsiders coming together to subvert notions of ‘Indian culture’, the device still works in making a point to the larger theme of this book; our histories are as individual as they are collective, and collective histories usually omit too many individuals from it.
Enter Edward Lafaver, an officer from the U.S army. He’s your average ‘good-natured white guy’, well-intentioned, not overtly racist, but obviously clueless about the structure of power he sustains. Yasmine describes Americans with a warmth that is still unsentimental “They are the most paradoxical and peculiar group of people. They are not as stuffy and formal as the British. When they were in India, they treated all Indians they encountered with warmth and curiosity …yet, they segregated their coloured soldiers and treated their Jewish soldiers with suspicion and contempt.”
Perhaps it is this incongruity of America and Americans that draws Yasmine to Edward in spite of her sharp awareness of the global stage. As the book itself tells us, it is during the most violent and war-ridden times that love prevails, proving, unabashedly, that humans are ironic by nature and sustained only by love.
Dust Under Her Feet comes alive in the quiet moments of human bonding — when Yasmine calls out the Americans for not allowing their own coloured troops in to the same places of recreation or provides a strict but loving dose of matriarchal wisdom to her staff at the club. Yasmine exists with a sharp loneliness that no one or no incident can change.
These moments are exemplified in the private scenes between Edward and Yasmine in her stuffy room, packed with the stench of cigarettes. Where the reality of the world outside is frozen for the benefit of resolving the fiery but monosyllabic nature of Yasmine with the candied dedication Edward offers her.
Towards the end, when Edward emotionally blackmails a pregnant Yasmine by saying — “I could die” when he is called out to war, she stoically reminds him that childbirth could very well end her life too. It is this reality-check attitude that Yasmine employs to navigate feelings about her role in the world as a mother, lover and a businesswoman. It is the reason we are pulled in to an honest and sometimes dazzling narrative of all the bonds and interdependencies that made up a collective whose voices were mostly dismissed in popular history.
Rheea Mukherjee is the author of The Body Myth (Unnamed Press and Penguin India) Her previous fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart and was a semi-finalist for the Black Lawrence Press award. She co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop in 2012 and currently co-runs Write Leela Write, a Design and Content Laboratory in Bangalore.
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