Monday, 3 June 2013

Racism and the harmfulness of social mores in A World Unseen

From The Week of May 27, 2013
As much as we benefit from society, that wonderful collective of traditions and mores that define localized cultures, it throws up its fair share of challenges. For while society organizes people of different faiths and ethnicities, classes and colors, into a powerful hive-mind capable of defending itself against all manner of external threats, it also imposes codes of conduct upon its participants that can benefit some at the expense of others. After all, society doesn't care about the niceties of personal liberty. It doesn't gaze hopefully into the future in order to bring to the present visionary standards of equality and deportment. Society unifies people on the back of traditions that the majority find acceptable, a reality which is far from inherently liberal. This sad truth is animated to chilling effect in Shamim Sarif's quiet, historical novel. The year is 1952 and South Africa has slid into the worst form of institutionalized racism. Its ruling political party, an all-white assemblage of British Colonials and their descendents, have not only forbidden the races to intermarry, but robbed native Africans of their land by forceably removing them to semi-autonomous districts beyond the urban havens enjoyed by whites. Though some of these restrictions have existed since western colonization, laws codifying this racism have only recently been past, empowering police and the military to execute the will of the European elites. At the same time, however, South Africa is undergoing industrialization for which it has opened its borders to Asians to come and fill its factories and run its shops as it accelerates into the First World.? Into this patchwork country are dropped two young, Indian women seized by exceedingly different circumstances. Miriam is the quiet wife of a Muslim shopkeeper who has relocated his family to South Africa in the promise of new opportunities. Confined largely to the home, unless her stern husband requires her assistance cleaning or taking inventory in the shop, Miriam is rapidly aging under familial burdens made toxic by a nearly complete absence of warmth from her husband. Her children are her only refuge, that is, until she encounters amina, an ambitious cafe-owner who not only flouts the traditional dress and deportment proscribed to women, but defies this racist state by secretly allowing Jacob, her friend and co-founder, to silently own half of their shared business. Though society and circumstance makes it almost impossible for the two women to connect, Amina persists in drawing Miriam out of her shell, offering her a future the beleaguered wife couldn't have otherwise imagined. A novel as quiet as it is moving, A World Unseen, later made into a film of the same name, is a disturbing snapshot of life in a time that has thankfully lapsed into history. With but two brief and emotional scenes, Ms. Sarif vividly captures the senselessness and hopelessness of apartheid, reviving its depravities for a 21st century audience that will largely find its practice abhorrent and shameful. This political backdrop, for all its ugliness however, provides a spectacular setting in which to root our two protagonists, Miriam and amina, both of whom represent the slow, incremental way in which change is brought to societies. They do not march in the streets. They do not organize protests and set fire to government buildings. They do not even lock arms with their fellows to force the state into revealing the hellish depths to which it is willing to sink. No, they simply resist in the most effective way, and in the only way they know how, by living their lives as they wish to, deferring to no one but themselves and to nothing but their own desires. Though superficially a love story, A World Unseen is, at root, a story about the right to choose: one's fate, one's loved ones, one's friends, and even one's mistakes. It harnesses the quintessential elements of liberty in the face of violent opposition and, through that liberty, seeks to capture the preciousness of life and the degree to which we are all lessened when that most universal gift is crushed beneath the boots of an unfeeling state operating on the principles of ignorance and selfishness. In this, it succeeds beautifully. A World Unseen has its troubled moments. It fails to give the uninitiated reader any any real sense of Apartheid's power,, much less where it came from or why it persists. Moreover, the choice to make both of the protagonists outsiders sets the reader at too far of a remove from the bone-deep wrongness of this country at this time. However, neither of these complaints are fatal to the effort and, indeed, perhaps aid some readers in experiencing what Miriam and Amina feel, visitors to an exceedingly strange land in which they've chosen to stay and live. Quietly excellent... (4/5 Stars)

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