Book review

When oppression confronts love, who’s the winner? This novel offers an answer

The acclaimed Malayalam novel ‘Barsa’ is available in an English translation 10 years later.

“Can you show me the fine line that separates man and god?”

Barsa is a 2007 novel in Malayalam by Kadeeja Mumtas, and Yoda Press brings us a translation by KM Sherrif. If the blurb on the back is to be believed, this is a “celebrated novel in the original Malayalam by a valiant Muslim female voice.” I find myself completely agreeing with its celebration; it’s a great novel, and I wish I could read it in the original Malayalam.

What I find myself grimacing at, as always, is the specification: a (valiant) Muslim female voice. In the same way, perhaps, as Tina Fey is a courageous white Christian voice? No, actually. Not in the same way at all. One of the realisations I have reached after reading Barsa is that the novel is really not about the experience of one woman surrounded by oppressive practices, never mind the further particularities of religion and gender.

It is, instead, about the experience of being oppressed by practice itself: it is the careful examination of the nature of praxis as the Greeks formulated it, separated from thought and theory, from cranial expectations, crystallised violently into custom by forces beyond one’s grasp. And that is what makes it worthy of a wide readership.

Barsa is acclaimed as the first Malayalam novel set in Saudi Arabia, but like any good novel, its quiet splendour lies in its ability to leave behind both “Malayalam” and “Saudi Arabia”, or, at least, to redefine what “Malayalam” and “Saudi Arabia” could mean.

The religion of love

Sabitha Rasheed is a doctor, and she is far more interesting than her name. She converts to Islam once she marries Rasheed, who is also a doctor. Rasheed wants to work in the Gulf, and Sabitha has no problem going along with this dream of his. They want to move to Riyadh, but end up getting assigned jobs in Mecca (called Makkah in the novel.)

Needless to say, life in Mecca is not easy for Sabitha. She is disgusted to note pregnant women opting for circumcisions that will keep their vaginas tight for their husbands’ pleasure. She wonders at the conviction and defiance with which women in labour demand help in between spasms. And she can’t help but point out to her neighbours that although Islam rejects idol worship in principle, it cannot avoid letting that very devoted materiality creep into the actions of its practitioners (medicine and religion in the novel lead unnervingly similar lives.)

Sabitha is overwhelmed by practice: of medicine and of religion, certainly, but also of womanhood, of marriage, of love – so much so that it does not matter what one is practising. Action itself becomes infinitely oppressive. The fine line Rasheed is asked to define, separating man and god, is a tightrope, and no stars for guessing who the death-defying artists are.

Her own myth

My favourite parts of Barsa, however, are the ones where Mumtas chooses her mythology. Sabitha delights to note similarities in the legends surrounding Queen Sheba and the Kauravas. She also thinks about Sakina, the great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, a brave and intelligent girl who died in a dungeon at the age of five. The novel describes Sakina as Barsa, the Arabic word for the one who does not veil her face, the one who does not bow her head.

Needless to say, Sabitha – like Sakina – is also Barsa. And whether or not an individual chooses to always be Barsa, and to always ask questions, is perhaps not for them to rightfully decide alone. The larger lesson the novel “teaches” is the incalculable stranglehold relationships have on you and your life, the fact that you do the things you do because you love the people you love.

Sabitha’s story to and from Mecca, from and to India, is a story of courage only because it is a story of love. And it is a gentle story, told without malice, disdain, or glory, a simple story about the most complex relationship of the human canon: one person, and the person one loves.

(Yoda Press gets one big thing right with its edition of Barsa: the front cover. Do look at it with care; you’ll return to it several times once you start reading the novel.)

Barsa, Kadeeja Mumtas, translated by KM Sherrif, Yoda Press

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