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This ambitious novel set in World War II Calcutta misses an opportunity despite its promise

  • Published at 02:31 pm September 14th, 2019
Dust Under Her Feet

Book review

Sharbari Zohra Ahmed’s meticulous research dredges up a great many details that do not always make for organic story-telling.

Sharbari Zohra Ahmed makes her debut as a novelist with Dust Under Her Feet, a story set in 1940s Kolkata amid the racial and socio-political tensions of the Asian theatre of World War II. The plot centers on the personal and romantic lives of Yasmine Khan, the owner of a nightclub called The Bombay Duck, and Edward Lafaver, an officer of the US Army who is awaiting deployment to Burma.

The subplots touch on various issues related to religion, caste, gender, nationalism, race and class, courtesy of its sprawling supporting cast, which includes the women who work at the Duck and US soldiers assigned to work on the Ledo Road project. It is an ambitious attempt, especially because of the interwoven complexities of such topics, many of which continue to be relevant today.

Given such lofty material, it is surprising that the strongest parts of the novel are actually its quietest. An affecting scene sees three African-American soldiers not being allowed to enter the premises of the club owing to the policy of segregation practiced by the Duck’s regular clientele—the US military. This sets up a tender moment with one of the employees.

Radhika, a Dalit dancer, silently recognizes how the soldiers’ ostracization mirrors her own. Both parties are integral to their respective institutions—the African-Americans are the workforce on the Ledo Road project, and Radhika’s skills at Kathak are the biggest draw at the Duck—yet they are constantly and consciously made to feel inferior and separate to their comrades.

The scene culminates in Radhika, unable to speak English, treating the soldiers to an impromptu performance, the silent cultural exchange marking a moment of mournful solidarity between two marginalized groups. Ahmed wisely refrains from overloading the prose here, showing the intensity rather than relying on expositional dialogue or narration.

The writer must also be commended for her obviously detailed research into the US presence in Kolkata at the time. The Ledo Road project and the racial dynamics of its workers are never mentioned in South Asian literature and, indeed, wider popular culture that deals with World War II, and this erasure needs to be tackled.

Research versus narrative

Unfortunately, the research that must have gone into this book is not always backed up with organic story-telling. The second chapter is supposed to introduce us to the residents of the Duck and their various proclivities. It is a fascinating space, inhabited by women (and a few men) who come from various religious and social backgrounds. Yet, instead of taking advantage of this inherent diversity to flesh out its cast, the novel focuses on a heated political debate about the merits of supporting Hitler as a method of anti-colonialism.

To be very clear, an anti-British sentiment did see groups gravitate towards the Axis Powers at the time. Most notably, Subhas Chandra Bose mobilized many Indians, and especially Bengalis, to look to Japan and Germany for aid in overthrowing British imperialism.

However, the moral merits of these actions were almost exclusively being debated in political and military spheres. The mostly middle-class men in these fields were fiercely locked in the question of whether pacifist neutrality (Congress), pro-British military action (the Muslim League) or active anti-British militancy (Bose’s Indian National Army) was the best step forward.

On the ground, such questions would have taken on a different tone. It is fallacious to say women and working-class men did not have any political leanings, but their loyalties were more likely to be shaped by the pervasiveness of propaganda and rhetoric. It would not be Hitler and Churchill, but Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Bose who would be fighting over their support. Framing the Duck’s conversation as its residents talking about Bose and his struggle, for instance, would have done justice to the reality of the time. 

Instead, Ahmed breaks the historic authenticity by making the women argue over Hitler’s anti-Semitism—a topic that was not well-known in Kolkata at the time and would certainly not have been the basis of pro- or anti-colonial bias in any case. It is particularly disappointing that Radhika, the same character who displays such empathy and compassion towards other oppressed groups, seems to brush aside the anachronistic knowledge of concentration camps as a necessary evil as long as it topples the Raj in the long run.

Looking back from modern times

Equally disconcerting is how this topic is never picked up again. Ahmed does this throughout the book, picking up threads such as the 1857 Mutiny, the 1905 Partition, Churchill’s racism, the 1943 Bengal Famine, and the Direct Action Day riots and massacres, only to drop them once the exposition ends. Even violence that directly affects the characters, such as a badly-handled rape, hushed abortions, and racial discrimination within the military, only get explored until their narrative tension cannot be mined any more, often at the expense of character consistency and internal logic as well. They are not resolved, feeling more like a checklist of oppression to lend dramatic heft to the plot, which does disservice to the severity of such issues.

Strangely enough, Ahmed seems intent on judging the bigotry of the 1940s by modern standards, which is a pity because bigotry was being called out at the time already, just in different ways. Sexism, a recurring theme in the novel, is viewed through the lens of modern neoliberal feminism, where Yasmine’s ownership of the Duck is an emancipatory rebellion against chauvinist capitalism. The gung-ho support of women’s lib through American dollars is more akin to modern-day development banking than anything else.

Yet, that same ownership was part of an existing feminist struggle. Kothas—spaces of music and drink run by former tawaifs and nautch dancers—had existed in Kolkata’s Bowbazar since at least the 1920s. Colonial authorities despised them, viewing them as decadent and immoral, while the women who owned them used their property rights to argue for suffrage, a privilege granted to landlords at the time. Kothas preserved traditional Indian values of hospitality and culture while forging a radical feminist path that was actively anti-British and anti-patriarchal.

Indeed, the Duck is only seen as revolutionary because its individual inhabitants are able to break free of some conventions, including at the cost of being ridiculed by other women. Placing it within a wider struggle would have given the narrative a stronger historical footing while showcasing the oft-forgotten dissent of marginalized groups of the time. Unfortunately, the potential for such radical story-telling is never fulfilled.

A missed opportunity

On a side note, descriptions of the Duck indicate it could well have been a kotha instead of an anachronistic nightclub—products of the ’60s and ’70s—which raises the question of whether the author or the publishers decided to change the terminology to make the book more palatable to Western audiences. Given the liberal use of Bengali words elsewhere, that seems unlikely, but if that is the case, it is a worrying sign of how commercial concerns can overtake artistic integrity.

Many books have used historical settings to explore social issues before. Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha is a popular and comparable example, using its okiya to share a love story amidst the turmoil of World War II Japan. However, Ahmed’s clear politics makes it important to also draw comparisons with the wider tradition of feminist and anti-colonial writing from South Asia.

There is a rich tradition to draw from, including the ongoing writings (and activism) of Arundhati Roy. Ismat Chughtai consistently dissected class and female sexuality in her works, which were strongly embedded in the history of their times. The most obvious comparison is with another Bengali writer, Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain. Her writings were heavily critical of patriarchal standards of both colonial oppression and Bengali religious norms.

In Padmarag, Hossain used an all-female school to argue for women’s rights that was simultaneously radical in its politics and traditionally authentic in its history. Dust Under Her Feet could have followed suit by showcasing the vibrant legacy of South Asian feminist fiction. Instead, it falls into the unfortunate tropes that only serve to exoticize the brown experience. 

Ibtisam Ahmed is a Doctoral Research Student at the School of Politics and IR, the University of Nottingham. His work explores utopianism and colonialism, with a focus on the emancipatory potential of grassroots decolonial utopianism.

(This article was first published in Scroll.in)

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