"The "deconstructed heart" of the title concerns the disconnection between a husband and wife, but could also be a stand-in or metaphor for the disconnection within a family separated from loved ones in a former homeland, or between old and new cultures. The author has a fine sense of style, with a wry sense of humor, rich images, and skillful use of simile and metaphor. Writing this good is rare." O. Barnack
When you think about major tragic events in human history, it is hard to fully grasp the suffering and loss involved on such a large scale. The Partition of India in 1947 led to an almost unfathomable amount of sorrow and upheaval. The declaration of the Radcliffe line, delineating the border between India and Pakistan led, over a time span of a few months, to the deaths of approximately one million people in interreligious conflict and the displacement of another 12 million.
As a writer of historical fiction series about families living in India, I wanted to examine the lives of people caught in the conflict as they went about their everyday business. The stories that dominate the history books have other stories tangled up in them: people trying to live normally, finding work and raising children at a time when everything is falling apart around them.
I wrote The Dust Beneath Her Feet, a short story from The Purana Qila Stories series, to bring a spotlight on one such family, struggling to make ends meet and hold their family together in the eye of the maelstrom. The main character, Safiyah, is married to a man who has all the ambition in the world, but no work ethic. Fate brings him work in a wealthy home as a servant, but he soon tires of his responsibilities and gets mixed up in a robbery that leads him to leave town under a cloud of suspicion. Safiyah is left to raise their two daughters and patiently waits for her husband to send money from his new job in the north of India where he has moved to work with his cousin. As the country is pulled into religious riots between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, Safiyah has to manage as a single woman and depend on the kindness of others in order to keep her small family safe. Partition is looming, just as Safiyah hears a child's rumor about her husband and his new life in the North. She has to decide whether or not to brave the dangers of cross-country travel at this time to find out the truth, or give up on uniting her family, possibly forever.
It was important to me to create a strong female character, who maintains a remarkable resilience, despite the daily indignities of poverty and the vulnerability of her position. Safiyah's story was personal. I wrote it to honor my eldest aunt, whose story was told to me as a child. Like Safiyah, she had an extremely difficult decision to make that would determine the fate of her family during this dangerous time in Indian history. I know that almost every family from India and Pakistan has their own story from that dark time.
While I know what happened to my aunt, and the events of the Partition-era have been detailed in history books, there are no tidy endings in my story. The Dust Beneath Her Feet stands alone as a work of fiction, but is interwoven with other stories in The Purana Qila Stories series; the reader will be able to revisit some of these characters in my other stories to get the full picture of their lives.
In my series, I wanted to create a sense of interconnectedness and flux, as we move back and forth in dates and geography, getting a sense of time's pull on a once tightly-knit community. The series begins with a focus on the families living in or around a compound in India. I move forward in time to revisit some of these characters, their children and grandchildren, to share what has happened to them; some of my characters take part in the emigration that brought many South Asians to the West in the 1950's and 1960's; in subsequent stories, I will be examining the intended and unintended betrayals that come with uprooting and building a life in a new land.
I hope that visitors to The Writing Desk will join the characters of The Purana Qila Stories series, like Safiyah, and share a little way of their journey with them.
Excerpt from The Dust Beneath Her Feet:
When Safiyah was a small child, the Spanish flu took away one family member after another, leaving only her mother and a set of distant relatives who remained dazed and untethered to one another so that they drifted to different parts of the country without apology or regret. Aarif had lost both his parents not long after his marriage and a bitter dispute over some farmland in the Punjab had broken all connections with his older brother, Shauqat. A few years back, they had received news that Shauqat too had died, leaving nothing but debt, the family farmland swallowed into the neighbors’ acreage.
After Aarif and Safiyah were asked to leave their home at the Grange and a hoped-for connection with another English household did not materialize, there was no one to whom they could turn. They moved into a small house in a neighborhood where they were not known.
Aarif announced that he would become a teacher and that the last of their savings was invested in textbooks so that he could “change their destiny.” He performed odd jobs during the day for the shopkeepers on their street, hauling in sacks of rice or lifting carcasses onto his shoulder for the butcher. When there was no more daylight left in the sky to study, he took his textbooks outside and sat under the streetlamps to read.
Safiyah kept a tiffin for their savings on a high shelf in their house and she brought it down once a week, waiting patiently until Aarif brought out the last rupee from that week’s work and dropped the notes and a few small coins into the tin. She would shake the tin gently, looking intently at the money as if she were prospecting for gold, then put the tiffin away with a sigh.
They were running out of serviceable clothes, so she washed their clothes every evening and hung them up to dry on lines of string that she tied from one tree to another behind the house; she unpicked thread from clothes that had to be thrown out, harvesting buttons and lengths of string for future repair projects. The girls were quiet when their mother put bowls of ox bones swimming in oil in front of them at dinnertime, or when she walked past the heaps of fresh produce gleaming in the stands to root around in sacks of slightly spoiled guava or soft turnips that were thrown to the side.
They were surprised one day, a few months later, when their father came home with heavy bags oozing with blood that seeped into the grain of their wooden table, and they watched their mother as she floated around their small living room like a feather.
“I was watching him,” said their father, as their mother started slicing an onion, looking up with a big grin from time to time, before bending back to her task. “You don’t see good shoes like that around here often, I knew he was someone important.” He sat back on a chair and put his arms behind his head. “He didn’t notice the men following him, but I could see right away they were goondas. I wasn’t scared, I’ve seen these types before, shouting up and down the street about what saints Gandhi-ji or Jinnah are, but then waiting for the dark to cut a man’s throat. I knew he could not handle them at his age. I didn’t even think.”
“Listen,” said their mother, pointing the rusty knife at him. “You could have been killed.”
“That’s what Masood Sahib said to me. He said, “That was very courageous. You could have been killed.” But let them dare bring crime into my town where I am raising my daughters! I told Sahib, these damned political rallies just bring thugs roaming around afterward. Decent people should be able to go wherever they want at night without being attacked. The British can’t get out of here fast enough, but who is taking care of the law?” Aarif smoothed his kurta over his small potbelly. “He lives at Purana Qila. I walked over there today, it’s a fine house. I would have liked to be his driver, but he already has one, but servant of a good-sized house will do. Who knows? One day soon, we might be able to get these ones,” he pointed at the girls, “in school.”
“I want to go to school, Baba! Take me to school!” Laila was hopping.
“Not yet,” said their mother. She turned to her husband. “What about your exams? Will Sahib give you time off to take them?”
“Waste of time. It’s fixed. It’s who you know, and I don’t have one thousand rupees to slip in the examiner’s pocket. And chances are less I’ll get a job, without contacts. Being a servant is the best opportunity right now, especially when you’re working for the big man in town.” He reached forward and pulled at the handle of the canvas bag that was slumped over on the table, and a potato rolled out. “Make something good, I have an appetite.”
Their mother began working more slowly, and she did not look up as the knife rose and fell absentmindedly, chopping the onion into clumsy wedges that would not fry evenly. After a few moments, she rubbed her eyes with the back of her knife-wielding hand. Henna went to fetch another, smaller knife, stood next to her mother, and reached for an onion. They worked in silence.
Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed won a national essay competition about life in India held by the Indian High Commission in England and has had her poetry and prose published in the Cadbury’s Book of Children’s Poetry, Nadopasana One and Tomorrow magazine.
Shaheen lives in Chicago with her family. To follow her blog, please visit: http://www.coinsinthewell.wordpress.com and Goodreads and follow her on twitter @hailandclimb