Coming of age in 1950s Kerala

An intimate look at how the observed world and the imagined world meet in a writer’s head.

Published : Oct 20, 2022 10:25 IST

The attic in my grandmother’s house was where she kept all the kindling for the kitchen fire. This is where I first came across B.M. Zuhara.

The Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoir
B.M. Zuhara; Translated by Fehmida Zakeer
Sage Publications-Yoda Press, 2022
Pages: 232
Price: Rs.550

Alongside bundles of dry branches, there were stacks of old Vanitha magazines, their crisp pages perfect for starting a fire on a cold rainy day. Nestling between advice columns and fruit salad recipes were the chapters of Mozhi, a novel about a Muslim woman who has been divorced by triple talaq. First published as a serial in the monthly magazine, Mozhi was the second of Zuhara’s books, many of which were set in the milieu of wealthy Malabar Muslim households, with female protagonists who keenly felt the indignities of their golden cages.

The protagonist of Zuhara’s memoir, The Dreams of a Mappila Girl, elegantly translated by Fehmida Zakeer, is herself. “I grew up at a time when Muslim girls did not even have the freedom to dream,” the blurb quotes the book, while promising a glimpse into the secluded lives of Muslim women and girls in a semi-rural Kerala village. This glimpse has been Zuhara’s mandate for decades, and her novels have delivered on this again and again.

More than a memoir 

The memoir is certainly part of this world. It takes us inside the sprawling house in the village of Thikkodi where Zuhara grew up, and offers an intimate exploration of what it is to be a girl coming of age in this wealthy, conservative milieu. There’s Zuhara’s mother who runs the household with a stern eye and insists that her daughter will not go to school in a knee-length skirt. There are pages and pages of culinary descriptions that made me go searching wistfully on Zomato for mangoes in brine.

There’s the annual va’alu, a series of lectures held in the mosque just before Ramadan. Zuhara writes: “The general opinion in many houses was that the men were learned enough already and so didn’t need to attend these lectures.” So when she goes to the va’alu with the women of her household and sees men in the front row, Zuhara is astounded. “Are there men who don’t know enough?” she wonders aloud, to the amusement of the women behind her, for whom the va’alu is mostly an opportunity to gather with friends and talk and laugh.

But this book is also vastly more than an ethnography. It is the story of how a writer is made. Though it is in danger of turning into a “Muslim woman story”, a vegetable to be eaten for fibre alongside the rich fare of magical realism and satire and experimental fiction emerging from Kerala, what intrigues me most about The Dreams of a Mappila Girl is that it is an intimate look at how the observed world and the imagined world meet in a writer’s head. 

B. M. Zuhara.

B. M. Zuhara. | Photo Credit: S. RAMESH KURUP

Though Dreams is subtitled a memoir, in the preface Zuhara admits frankly: “If you ask me if the stories are real or imagined, I can only say that they are both. Is this a story, a novel or memoir? I don’t know.” As much as it confounds classification systems, I appreciate this willingness to acknowledge the slipperiness of the writing project, and this caution against an overly representational reading of this book. Perhaps this is also the distance between 2022 and the early 1950s.

Looking back across seven decades, how can a writer not find her childhood fantastic? From the vantage point of my own midlife, I am constantly amazed by the improbabilities of my childhood. I can only imagine what it must feel like for Zuhara, in her seventies, to look back at a childhood in the 1950s and see the little girl she was, fanning her long skirt out to catch the football when she played with her brothers or telling her social studies teacher that her father is a landlord only to be informed that a landlord is someone who does not earn their keep. 

This encounter between the feudal values of the household and the egalitarian idealism of a newly independent nation is a fruitful contradiction for an apprentice writer. Small as Zuhara’s world is, it is full of interesting inconsistencies. School teaches her to revere Gandhiji and other freedom fighters, but at home, her grandmother holds Gandhiji responsible for the way prices have risen after the British left. In the village, everyone respects her family, but when she visits her sister in Kozhikode, she is scolded for her provincial manners. 

A pre-Internet childhood

To all this, add the slow-burning curiosity of a pre-Internet pre-television childhood. Zuhara’s childhood belongs to a time before moving images and the endless scroll permanently altered the neurochemical nature of human attention. Yes, there is a cinema theatre in the nearby town but the only entertainment it affords Zuhara is when someone who saw a movie there tells her the story of the movie, thereby rendering this modern media back into the oral tradition. Dreams makes tangible the immense boredom of dusty afternoons in a village house, alleviated only by borrowed Vaikom Muhammad Basheer novels. Many a long day is spent eavesdropping and playing games and following the railway tracks to the next village. 

““The Dreams of a Mappila Girl” makes tangible the immense boredom of dusty afternoons in a village house, alleviated only by borrowed Vaikom Muhammad Basheer novels. ”

A stranger arrives one day, a holy man on his way to Ajmer. As the women of the house respectfully greet him, he puts away his prayer beads and says: “The big master of the house has recently passed away. His younger son is walking around in that room aimlessly.” Indeed Zuhara’s grandfather had died recently and his son, Mammad, who had suffered a mental breakdown as a young man, spends his days in confinement because of his unpredictable and often violent behaviour. The holy man promises to make an offering for him at Ajmer—maybe Rs. 10 or 25?

But then Zuhara notices that the holy man’s voice is just like that of her oldest cousin, Bachan. The holy man becomes restless and decides that he is in a hurry and must leave. On his way out, he collides with Zuhara’s father and his disguise unravels further. It is indeed Bachan playing a prank. Even the stranger turns out to be a familiar. 

Zuhara’s memoir makes room for all these characters—the mentally unstable Mammad, the mischievous Bachan, her quick-tempered father who spends his inheritance pursuing futile court cases, her mother who strongwills the family into moving to the city so that the children can have a decent education. There is affection and laughter and lots of pathiris, but there is also the deep knot of sorrow that Mammad’s mother carries around, the glut of resentments simmering between Zuhara’s parents, there is anxiety over inheritances, there is foreboding about the social and economic reforms that have been put in place by the Communist government.

The book ends with Zuhara getting into a car. The car will take her and her family to Kozhikode where they will live in a small rented house so that the children can attend good schools. A Malayali reader may be well aware of the fruits of this education, the remarkable careers that they will go on to have—while Zuhara becomes a well-known writer, her brother Gafoor will become a respected political cartoonist. Another sibling, Ummi Abdullah, is credited with having put Malabari cuisine on the cookbook map. In many ways, the memoir is a prequel to the future that is waiting for these children, who, despite many trials, are able to ride the coattails of their vanishing feudal privilege into a world that embraces their talents. 

And then there is my favourite character, Kunhamina, one of the many maids in the Thikkodi house whose long days of rice-washing and coconut-grating keeps the household well-fed and prestigious. When we meet her first, the man of the house, Zuhara’s grandfather, has just died, and Kunhamina is told to stop cooking pathiris. “When there is a corpse in the house, no one should eat, you stupid girl,” someone yells at her. While the other women in the kitchen fall into a shocked mourning of the stop-all-the-clocks, cut-off-the-telephone variety, Kunhamina sneaks a few pathiris into the folds of her dress. That was all I needed.

After that, I eagerly waited for Kunhamina sightings in the margins of Zuhara’s story. She is usually getting yelled at for being lazy or gossipy. In return, Kunhamina complains under her breath and offers tongue-in-cheek flattery. Her subversiveness is a foil to the grandeur of the Thikkodi house. Kunhamina, if you are reading this, please write your memoir, I beg of you. 

Shahnaz Habib is an essayist, fiction writer, travel writer, and translator. She teaches writing at Bay Path University and The New School, New York and works as a consultant for the United Nations.

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