There is no reason why we should have heard of Fateema Lokhandwala. She is an ordinary girl growing up in rural Gujarat and attending the first-ever school in her village. She is the daughter of someone who collects scrap – lokhand, hence Lokhandwala. Her mother Khatija toils all day, collecting cow dung to make fuel cakes every morning. Fateema lives in abject poverty and dreams of a dignified and proud life that she will achieve through education. There is no reason why we should know of her…

These are not unreasonable desires, and Fateema manages to achieve most of what she wants. All that’s left is a tiny house, with a little balcony. Taken out of Fateema’s context, the proposition seems reasonable, especially as Fateema has earned enough to be able to afford a small house, somewhere. But Fateema is not reasonable, she’s not willing to compromise. She wants what is nearly impossible in parts of urban India, and more so in Gujarat, where she lives. Fateema wishes to make her home in a mixed area, where there are different communities. She is a Muslim woman who refuses to be relegated to a religious and ethnic ghetto.

- Rita Kothari, translator

It was time for that tiny, hidden dream to acquire a form and shape.

The thought of making it come true was an audacious one. She dared not do it. And yet, there was a lot she did dare – after all, she was Fateema Lokhandwala, a young woman of courage. It had taken a great deal out of her to simply travel down the bumpy and potholed roads of life. Where was the time to even think?. But now, perhaps the time was now: indulge in some nice fantasy.

She’d leave home very early every day. By the time the sun began to silver the grass, she’d already be on her way to work. She lived in a noisy area – clamouring children who may or may not go to school, bleating goats, cackling hens, ferociously fighting women queuing up to fill water from a common tap.

As pots and words banged and clanged against each other, her two-wheeler would whizz past everything, leaving it all behind. Main road, Mashallah! Current-like, the city would course through her body with the energy of those heading out to work, the buses and cars, the heady spirit of urban life! At such times, Fateema lived in the present, and in the future.

Despair, loneliness, the deaths of loved ones would all recede.

Like her two-wheeler, she would become one with the flow of the city. At Navprabhat College her day would be filled with tenderness and affection – this faith would sustain Fateema as she zipped through the rush and bustle of the awakening city.

She’d recently changed her route to work. These days she preferred to ride along the riverbank. That way, she got to see the new buildings coming up away from the centre of the city – a series of housing estates, like the one called Sonkamal. Sonkamal Housing Society was almost ready and the city’s rich had begun to occupy some of the houses.

The buildings had beautiful names. Sonkamal, the golden lotus! Sonkamal No 1 and Sonkamal No 2. Situated between two towers was a garden studded with colourful flowers, how beautiful! ‘Ramniya’. as they say in Gujarati. Ramniya… yes, that was the word for ‘pleasing.’ She had learnt this from Gaekwad Sir when she was in the tenth grade.

Fateema noticed that next to the building were some wooden benches that had been set out for senior citizens, there were slides and merry-go-rounds for children. If this is how Sonkamal was on the outside, what must the inside of the homes be like, she wondered.

The two-wheeler moved ahead. She saw several construction sites. Some carried notices of one and two-bedroom apartments for sale.

Fateema’s heart lurched. She couldn’t wait to go to over to the real estate offices.

She reminded herself that she did not yet have the means to buy anything.

Her eyes scanned the brick and sand debris and the half-built pillars. She made a valiant attempt not to look in their direction and determinedly headed for college. Time was running out. She would go to the library once she was done with classes. She had been thinking of pursuing doctoral studies.

All this was Fateema Lokhandwala’s penance, her tapasya. Chandan’s favourite word – tapasya. Fateema’s closest and childhood friend was a Jain. She would refer to the fasts her grandmother observed as Dadima’s tapasya. Once she’d even spoken of Fateema’s and her studies as a form of tapasya. Fateema quite liked the word. Giving up fun and games to achieve a goal is what Chandan had meant by tapasya.

When Fateema used such words in class, her students would find it quite surprising. A bright boy named Manish Dave once came up to talk to her after the class:

“Ben, you are a Muslim, aren’t you?


“And yet you look like us, you talk like us.” His voice betrayed disbelief.

She laughed, “Arre Manish, I am like you, one of you. My teachers and friends also…” She paused, and then continued, “My religion is different, but I am not.”

Just like Manish, another student had come up to her. This time it was a girl. Holding a strip of stick-on bindis in her hand, she had said, “Bahen, stick one on your forehead, from Fateema you will turn into Falguni.” An amused Fateema had taken the strip and put it in her handbag.

She had said to the girl, “Anuja, were I to continue being Fateema, would you not like it?”

Anuja thought for a bit and said, “I don’t know about liking or not liking it. I do like you but my mother says…” She couldn’t continue.

There was no need to. The chasms that lay between two different religions could not be bridged in one go. Fateema had a sense of what Anuja’s mother would have said.

“Sure, she must be good, your teacher, though…” That “though” had so much unsaid in it.

It brought back the memory of her brother Kareem and how he’d slapped her. Her cheek stung at the memory.

“Bitch! You’ve become an infidel by hanging out with infidels! Note my words, Islam will conquer the entire world one day.”

It was the same Kareem who used to salute the Indian flag, and make a clarion call of “Jai Hind” to which all students would respond: “Jai Hind.”

Fateema sighed. Mumbling “Allah’s wish,” she gathered herself up.

Past new homes and colourful gardens, she arrived at her college. The wistfulness was turned into a ball and thrown away. Fateema was back to being a teacher. Her qualifications in the subject of history were beyond dispute.

Meanwhile, the dream continued to grow and fidget.

“Fateemaben, you have been confirmed as full time permanent faculty. You must treat us to a party.” Niruben exclaimed as she entered the staff room.

“Yes, how about giving us tea, “ Vinodaben added, “or some cold drinks?”

“Oh no, how can mere tea be enough? Along with that…” A sudden silence fell over the conversation. Fateema may invite them over, but was it all right to go to her house? And to eat there? Perhaps this was being too familiar? Whatever. They were treated to a party.

Fateema had immediately ordered tea and biscuits which everyone fell to with gusto. Then, they began to disperse, congratulating Fateema as they left one by one.

Fateema felt somewhat wistful. If only she had a little house of her own, she could have called them over.

She was back on that long route and looking once again at new homes. It was an illusion, a sweet nothing, an attempt to put aside sorrow and live out a fantasy through words like “bhoomipujan” and “building under construction.” Had she possessed a house earlier, Ba would have left the village and come and lived with her.

Excerpted with permission from Fence, Ila Arab Mehta, translated from the Gujarati by Rita Kothari, Zubaan Books.