Saturday, 28 April 2012

Book Review: Slum Child by Bina Shah


Bina Shah is one of Pakistan’s leading writers and though I’ve been planning to read her works for a long, long time, it was only recently that I succeeded. One of Shah’s most recent books, Slum Child, is the story of a young Christian girl, Laila Massih, growing in Karachi’s Issa Colony. Part Khaled Hosseini’s Kite-Runner, part Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing, Slum Child is as much story as setting, as much drama as realism.

Issa Colony or the Colony of Jesus, is one of the numerous slums in Karachi, but Issa Colony is different from other slums in that the majority of its inhabitants are Christians. Residents of Issa Colony have no illusions regarding their status in Pakistan. Laila, the narrator, tells us that ‘The thing we learned best, I suppose, was how to fit in. This was a vital skill for any Christian living in a Muslim area. We had to be nondescript. We could not flaunt our faith outside of the safety of the Colony. Nobody was going to accuse anyone here on burning a Quran or blaspheming against the Prophet-accusations concocted for the purpose of grabbing someone’s property or land rather than defending another’s faith-and nobody here had any property or land worth grabbing. We went to church and told anyone who asked that we were Christian, but avoided wearing crosses and our women took to wearing dupattas on their heads or even burqas when venturing out of the house. Why ask for more trouble than you already had been born to?

Pakistani Christians are no different from others in the subcontinent in their preference for sons. Laila’s mother Zainab has been deserted by her husband because of her inability to have sons. As if Zainab doesn’t have her hands full looking after Laila and her elder sister Jumana, she marries Irfan who doesn’t have a regular job and lives off her earnings as a housemaid. Why does Zainab marry the good-for-nothing Irfan, who brings with him his equally good-for-nothing friend Salim? We never know, but Zainab soon delivers a couple of boys as if to reiterate that it was her ex-husband’s fault that she had had only girls till then. Laila goes to a school where she is taught by the kind Apa who at times turns into a hard-as-nails proponent of Islam. Laila is poor and at times hungry and her neighbourhood is dirty, but she is reasonably happy, till the time her elder sister Jumana contacts tuberculosis and dies. From then on it’s all downhill for Laila and quite Dickensian.

Zainab loses her mind after Jumana’s death. Step-father Irfan’s friend Salim tries to persuade Irfan to ‘sell’ Laila to a Saudi sheikh for fifteen thousand rupees. Salim himself has designs on Laila. A nervous Laila overhears the plot and manages to escape from Issa Colony, with some help from an honest vagrant and former drug user called Haroon the Makrani and a young Pathan boy named Najeeb. Laila runs off to the Ansaris’ mansion where Zainab used to work as a domestic help. The Ansaris are nice and kind and they take Laila in, after she tells them that Zainab is dead, rather than that she has lost her mental balance. Why does Shah make Laila lie, especially after showing us so many examples of Zainab’s and Laila’s honesty? We never get to know. The aristocratic Ansaris, whose roots go back to India, have three kids, Maryam, a girl of roughly Laila’s age, who wears a hijab and is into fundamentalist Islam, Jehan, Maryam’s twin, who seems to like Laila and Sasha, the baby of the family.

Laila gets on with the Ansaris, but soon trouble crops up yet again, when the youngest child Sasha, who Laila was supposed to look after, is bitten by a swarm of bees. Sasha survives, but Laila’s days with the Ansaris are numbered, especially since Laila cannot explain that when Sasha wandered off and ran into the bees, she was having an argument with Maryam regarding Najeeb, the Pathan boy who had by then offered to marry Laila. There are many twists and turns after that, all of which lead Laila back to Issa colony and an inevitable showdown with Salim. Laila comes out of her ordeal successfully, not least because of help from Najeeb and Haroon the Makrani.

Shah writes well in simple prose that is rarely flowery or lyrical. I couldn’t help comparing Slum Child with the story of another slum, Annawadi in India, which has been beautifully portrayed by Katherine Boo in her non-fiction magnum opus, Behind The Beautiful Forevers. Slum Child is quite different from Behind The Beautiful Forevers, and not just because it is fiction. Behind The Beautiful Forevers shows the economics and politics of the Annawadi slum, but Slum Child merely depicts the folks of Issa Colony as a bunch of quarrelsome good for nothings who may be good at heart, but are constantly fighting and drinking. However, Slum Child does give a foreigner to Pakistan (like me) a feel of the lifestyles of different classes of people and the vast and unbridgeable gaps between the haves and the have-nots.

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