Fence by Ila Arab Mehta | Translated by Rita Kothari | Zubaan Books, India | February 1, 2014
Reviewer: VARISHA TARIQ
“We don’t want to sell this house to a Mohammadan.” My father was too shocked to respond and a sob escaped my mother. She kept repeating how this was not the India where she’d grown up. I sat there disappointed, but not surprised. My parents had found their dream house after five years of searching but, more than the loss of a house, this served as a painful reminder of a Muslim’s place in today’s India. It broke our hearts to be reminded that there is a huge population in our country that would rather have Muslims uprooted and removed than to coexist in harmony.
Much like Fateema and her family, we believe education to be our savior. But the rising Islamophobia in India is often delivered by some of the most educated and non-secular minds. During such times, it is illuminating to revisit a book like Fence, which is about the difficulties Muslims face with homeownership, and to understand it with a new perspective.
“Surely, on this wide and beautiful earth that Allah had made, there must be a small piece of land for me? Surely it exists.”
In Fence, Ila Arab Mehta narrates an absorbing account of a young Muslim woman and her battle to create her own identity in a communal and patriarchal India. Fateema Lokhandwala is pursuing a PhD in Gujarat. Having grown up in deep poverty and religious tensions, she is determined to break the barriers against her gender, class, and religion through homeownership. Her quest to be independent is constantly threatened as the world around her continues to attack her identity as a Muslim woman. Fateema struggles with what many young Muslims are facing today: the reconciliation of the public and private politics of her life. In 2002, Gujarat witnessed gut-wrenching communal riots that caused the deaths and displacements of hundreds of Muslims and Hindus. This riot and the circumstances around them amplified the hatred towards Muslim communities. Even today, in Gujarat, Hindus and Muslims are at odds with each other; both communities are still uncomfortable with each others’ presence. Fateema’s approach, where she molds herself to the idea of being an acceptable Muslim woman to Hindus, is a survivor’s skill that many Gujarati Muslims have had to develop.
As a child, the house she shared with her three siblings and parents was a “fragile mud-baked house that could fall any moment.” She had two brothers, Kareem and Jamaal, and a younger sister, Saira, who passed away early in her life due to a lack of healthcare facilities. Her Baapu was a garbage collector and her Ba was a fierce woman who ran the house and worked around the village. Her parents were dreamers and, given these experiences and circumstances, the biggest advocates for their children’s education.
“A fragile house, but its inhabitants had been strong, like pillars. That’s what turned me into Dr. Fateema rather than just Fateema.”
Fateema was a good student and valued by her educational institution, Navprabhat, because she was smart “despite” being a Muslim person. Over three decades, her education became her shield as she faced numerous challenges with Islamophobia. For example, she was only allowed to enter her best friend Chandan’s exacting Jain home because she could tutor Chandan. Fateema’s teacher criticized the way she was dressed and even her friends explained it away as part of her Muslim-ness. Resisting, Fateema pointed to her poverty as the cause, not her religion. Even when she entered her hostel during her college days, the suspicious warden only became convinced of Fateema’s good character after seeing her as a hardworking student.
Despite the many metaphorical fences in her world, Fateema’s keen observations of the role a house plays in a person’s life make her yearn for a house of her own. A house is not just a reflection of status, but also means comfort and safety. In a country that has often threatened to uproot Muslims from their homes, owning one is more like a privilege rather than a basic right. In post-Partition India, renting or buying a house has always been a challenge for the Muslim minority. Having worked in real estate, I’ve personally observed and experienced the disdain toward “Mohammedans.” Owners refuse to rent to Muslims, citing their dietary habits or financial status. This hatred toward the “other” is internalized within us from a very young age. We are taught to be wary of those who belong to different religions. Certain communities are labeled “unclean” to justify such hatred and marginalize them further.
For four years, Fateema struggles to find a house. Her desperate wish is to inhabit a secular space where Hindus and Muslims coexist. In doing so, Fateema has internalized the fear that living with just her community will somehow make her less of a person. In her world, Muslims live in ghettos and dirty lanes. When she looks down upon the space inhabited by her community, she projects the discrimination that she had experienced growing up. Her education makes her see those who don’t have access to education as villains. The work that people from marginalized communities put into moving up in the world is always more laborious when compared to privileged communities. And the success received is always a double-edged sword. For Fateema to own a house, she has to constantly differentiate herself from the average Muslim. She has to convince the world that she is better than them and, therefore, deserving of a home. Her success comes at the cost of constantly othering a big part of her identity and existence.
Reading as a Muslim woman, it was extremely uncomfortable to see how frequently Fateema had to establish her good character. What if Fateema had been an average student? What if she had fallen in love with someone outside her faith? What if she had made the usual mistakes a young woman makes in today’s society? Would that make her a less deserving Muslim? Or a less deserving Indian?
“Fateemaben, can I be honest? You . . . you belong to another religion. If we sell you a house, we won’t be able to sell the rest.
She heard him out. “Arre, Tushar, you think you are saying something new to me? You think I don’t know? I have been struggling for four years now! I know why doors close on me.”
Eventually, Fateema does find herself a house because of the favorable impression she had left on her former school teacher and his children. However, the builder decides to sell the rest of the building to other Muslims because no Hindu will want to live in a building where a Muslim has bought a house. In order to sell the adjacent apartment building, the builders erect a separating wall. This is a devastating moment for the young woman, whose dream has been to exist in a secular space with both Hindu and Muslim people. At that moment, she realizes that, if she gives up on her dream, several other Muslim families might not get to own homes either. She chooses to be a catalyst for the betterment of her community. Her education becomes a tool not just for her empowerment but also for them.
Ila Arab Mehta makes every effort to convince us that, in a world of ruthless patriarchy and marginalization, only education will liberate and unshackle us. Harmonization, however, seems to fall on the shoulders of the oppressed minority Muslim community. At the end of the novel, Fateema even agrees to sacrifice her dietary habits to own a home. It seems as if it is constantly her responsibility to “adjust.” Education, despite giving better job opportunities, doesn’t prove to be quite the savior that she and her family believe it to be. Her tolerance and acceptance of everyone come from the loving ideals she holds in her heart.
The book reminds us that India’s education system is still in need of a revolution that will take it beyond literacy and job opportunities in a globalized knowledge-based economy. Such education is like putting a powerful weapon into someone’s hands without teaching them how to use it. If we teach the classroom about the facts and histories of bigotry against a community, we also have to examine the impact of such bigotry on that particular community. Stories like Fence about women like Fateema can be essential bridges into worlds beyond our own so that we may practice empathy at multiple levels—cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.
In her translator’s note, Rita Kothari writes about the lack of stories of Muslim women in Gujarati literature. Fence gives us a disturbing characterization of a Muslim woman but it also breaks barriers for existing at all, especially in Gujarati literature. In this translation, there were times when I had to pause and reflect upon the text. Often, a translation is judged on the basis of how the prose reads smoothly in one language despite having its origins in another. However, to do due justice to the source work, a translation mustn’t lose its original sense of self: it must make us aware that the language we’re reading it in is the “foreign” language and there is an underlying primary text rich with its own textures, layers, and depths. This is what makes the reading experience of a translated text more profound. Kothari does all of this beautifully, honoring both the Gujarati and the English with her work.
My family did, eventually, find a home. We’ve tried to forget the fact that it took us five years to find a house in our choice of neighborhood and that, in the end, it was a smooth-sailing process only because the previous houseowner was also a Muslim. We’ve tried to move past how the people who had rejected us were, despite their respectable education, mired in the kind of apathy and hate that had left them illiterate about the consequences of their othering.
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Varisha Tariq, alumna of Ashoka University, is a writer interested in the intersectionality of gender, caste, class, and global politics. She has been published in an anthropology text, People Called Lucknow, and news outlets like LiveWire, Feminism In India, and Hindustan Times. She is currently working as a state social media coordinator for the All India Professional Congress. She lives in Lucknow, India.
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