A plot with much promise marred by flat prose.
By Suvanshkriti Singh
What is the purpose of writing? The question has been asked endlessly and answered variously, evading a consensus. Like questions about the purpose of life, being, and politics — that Sharbari Zohra Ahmed explores to different degrees. A case for writing being its own end, and serving no greater purpose, could, indeed, have been made just as well as that for its unequivocally political nature being the raison d’etre. And, while it is all very well that our personal preferences in these regards inform our ideas of good and bad writing insofar as the subjective experience of reading is concerned, reviewing the objective merit of the written word demands a tad more objectivity. I submit, therefore, that the evocativeness of writing — and this holds regardless of the genre or form it takes — is the measure best suited to comprehensively, and flexibly, analyse its quality. And, Ahmed’s Dust Under Her Feet proves just why.
Yasmine Khan is the owner-proprietor of Bombay Duck, Calcutta’s premier nightclub. The club strives to make its English — and, now, American — patrons forget about the ongoing war and the death that they face or have faced, if only for the evening. “At the Duck,” Yasmine would tell her employees, “there was no ‘India’ as they knew it”. The club, in fact, was not India — the entertainment offered, with one exception, was of the Anglophone West, the liquor served black-market fancy, not what the ‘natives’ would consume, and the cuisine anything but traditional. Yasmine, we are told, is a beautiful woman, who, by virtue of also being a no-nonsense businesswoman, lacks the usual seductive charms of her employees. She descends from courtesans, but believes she inherited only organisational talents.
When the young, capable, enchanting Yasmine meets the handsome, bespectacled, American Lieutenant Edward Lafaver, sparks fly. Except, you don’t see them.
Ahmed’s prose belies her plot. The dialogue is flat, and fails to convey the sizzle of instant chemistry or, further on, make romantic and sexual tension palpable. Nor does the narration, which attempts, rather shabbily and without any grace or subtlety, to infuse the atmosphere with sentiment, incite empathy, let alone an emotional response. While they are perfectly descriptive, Ahmed’s sentences are featureless to the extent of being harsh. Not that there aren’t sharp, incisive, even hilarious sentences, but these are few and far between.
Separation is but natural to a love story set against the backdrop of the Second World War, and the reader is warned of its imminence at the outset. While Yasmine, refusing to believe that a man could ever treat her as a respected equal, deludes herself into believing that love and romance are not for her, Edward has a wife in America. Yet, a relationship develops. And, almost immediately, begins to fail. I have no gripe about the plot elements themselves; they are logical, if predictable. However, the tropes into which Ahmed’s characters fall are criminally unoriginal. Yasmine’s dichotomous professed and private beliefs, and Edward’s well-meaning but fumbling foreigner are but the most glaring instances of caricatured, one-dimensional characters. Shockingly, this extends to Akash Alexander Khan, Yasmine and Edward’s child, to whom the epistolary parts of the novel —which, once again, stop some distance short of making a personal impact on the reader — are addressed.
Nor is Yasmine and Edward’s the only relationship that falls through the cracks — childhood friendships are damaged, seemingly irreparably; death claims spouses, unborn children, and employees that are akin to family. Here, in addition to political themes of war, race, caste, class, colonialism, language, hegemony, nationalism, identity, patriarchy, and feminism, Ahmed creates space to engage with questions of morality, fidelity, and responsibility in the many positions an individual occupies — friend, lover, parent, spouse, confidante. It would be an unfair assessment to say that this opportunity is squandered. However, instead of responding to each other through characters, these projects are taken on as separate intellectual exercises, taking away from the impact of both — although the interactions between private and universal fears are brought out with some success. Moreover, Ahmed doesn’t theorise, she ruminates in tired aphorisms, resulting in ideas that are overly simplistic and not carried through quite to completion.
If Ahmed can claim a triumph, it would be her treatment of the migrant identity. Explored through the experiences of American troops in India, those of mixed-race persons, as well as the anxieties of taking a ‘native’ wife and a ‘half-caste’ child to a racially segregated country, the motif of a colour-determined social identity is the one that the novel explores best.
While Dust Under Her Feet is a quick read, and even manages to be engaging at times, it leaves you with the unique disappointment of a novel that could have been great, but turned out to be exactly average. It is the distance that it almost holds — the one that only aesthetically evocative writing ever manages to traverse — that proves the last stumbling box for Ahmed.