March 29, 2016

Of Christians and Strong Female Protagonists: Bina Shah's Slum Child gets almost everything right


It was the first time I had been confronted with the notion that the truth was not a universal belief shared by everyone – that different people could have a different version of the truth that was the complete antithesis of what I knew to be my own story. It was devastating to me.

There were a couple of reasons I was unsure about this book. An upper class author writing about a lower class protagonist from a religious minority that is so condemned in this country? Needless to say, I had my reservations, but there was no need to worry. In terms of handling sensitive issues, Bina Shah does everything right.

That’s not to say that I loved this book. It was a good story, sure, and the analytical part of my brain gave it a thumb ups, but there was something missing. Some vague, unexplained connection that only a reader can understand, which makes a book amazing/spectacular/the-best-i’ve-ever-read rather than just a good book. And while this was not amazing/spectacular/the-best-I’ve-ever-read, it was still worth the read.

The Story

In that moment we were equals: equally outcast, unwanted, unloved. He still stank as badly as ever. I was still a skinny, gangly child who didn’t know where her father was.

Laila, a young Pakistani Christian girl living in the slums of Karachi, is our fiery protagonist, a spit fire of a thing. Spending her days skipping school and running around aimlessly with her friends, Laila’s life involves no responsibility because her older Jumana takes cares of their three step-brothers and everything else at home while their mother spends her days working for a Madam from a rich family in one of Karachi’s upper class areas.

“At least if I were dead I wouldn’t be sick.”

Things take a turn for the worse when Jumana contracts tuberculosis and the family is unable to afford the medicine to cure it. Jumana’s prolonged sickness and eventual death and Laila’s mother’s slow decline into complete mental collapse means Laila is forced into the role of caretaker. And in a country like Pakistan, where daughters are considered burdens by a significant number of the population, Laila’s stepfather is convinced by his friend to sell Laila off as a prostitute in a bid to make some extra money.

Today I was a girl; tomorrow I would be a whore.

Laila does the only thing that makes sense in the short amount of time she has to hatch a desperate plan: she runs away. With help from a recovering drug addict and an eager bus conductor, she makes her way to one of her mother’s rich clients and convinces them to let her work there. Living with the Ansaris gives Laila a chance at a new life and shelter over her head, but she is unable to forget the mother she left behind, and soon circumstances force her to rethink the decision she made to leave her old life behind.

I felt dissatisfied with the way things were in my own life, and wanted to lash out at anyone who reminded me of how vast the gulf was between someone like me and someone like the Madam.

The story is fast enough to not get boring and interesting enough to keep a person reading. Within a small page-count (only 288 pages, which is quite diminutive compared to other tomes taking on such heavy issues), Bina Shah has managed to tackle a significant number of important things: social concerns, gender issues, class differences, religious matter, each find an expression within this story.

The Religious stuff

The thing we learned best, I suppose, was how to fit in. This was a vital skill for a Christian living in any Muslim area. We had to be nondescript.

Our main protagonist is Christian, a minority in Pakistan that’s regularly harassed, discriminated against and in multiple cases made a victim of religious violence (Cast in point: a suicide bomber blew himself up at a park crowded with a large number of Christian families celebrating Easter in Lahore two days ago; the bomb killed 72 and injured hundreds more, many of them children). That’s why it is so important for books from the point of view of multiple religious identities in Pakistan to be written, read and discussed.

 “Islam is the perfected religion; Christianity has been changed and corrupted through the years.”
I swallowed. I didn’t like the idea that my religion had been corrupted. Did my parents, our community or Father Robert know that this was what Muslims believed about us?

Bina Shah doesn’t shy away from tackling the uncomfortable stuff; religion is a big part of Laila’s life, and she questions herself and those around her constantly. Her belief is tied to the events around her, and it’s easy to see how they shape her opinions.

It tickled me sometimes to think that I could just as easily have been born into a Hindu family, and then I would have been worshipping cows and elephants instead of our Lord Jesus. Or I could have been born a Muslim, and then I’d be bowing my head to the ground five times a day and learning how to read the Quran. Why had God made me a Christian?

Of course, it would have been better if a Pakistani Christian wrote this book, but let’s face it, discrimination is a thing that is well and truly thriving in Pakistan, not only in cases of writing opportunities but even at a basic level such as the right to an education or job opportunities. Let us hope that one day we can read about a Christian from the point of view of someone who belongs to that religion, and until then we must believe that the writers who choose to tackle representation at least know what they’re doing.

The Slums

It was safe to say, however, that nobody in the slum was unemployed; everyone had their own line of work, legitimate or otherwise, and everyone worked hard to keep themselves and their families fed.

The one thing that worried me throughout about this book was how much research went into writing this story. Because writing from the point of view of someone who lives in the slums or belongs to a religious minority requires more than heartfelt empathy; it requires the extra step to ensure that the representation is valid and not contrived, that these characters aren’t stock figures and images of what the authors thinks poverty or religious discrimination looks like.

I recognized the pragmatism in what he was saying: we shared that instinct. We had to say whatever would help us to survive; that’s how it always was for us residents of the slums and the sewers.

It’d be fair to say that this book straddles that line uneasily; some scenes hit home, while others look like they’ve been viewed by a foreigner. Maybe one of the main problems is that much of the commentary on the religious or social lines is done through the mouth of a protagonist too young to voice these thoughts; in these cases Laila seems to be nothing more than a vessel for the author to express her personal musings.

They committed these acts not because of the terrible conditions in which they found themselves – that was, after all, our way of life in the Colony – but because of the loss of hope, the discovery that all doors had closed in their faces and all paths were now blocked to them.

For a book about the slums to be realistic, you can’t write romanticized versions of what rich people imagine the poorer parts of the city to look like. In these cases, Laila’s narrative focuses more on her rich, inner life rather than on her surroundings. The things around her are part of the commentary that runs through her head, but they are the background to her reactions to all the other things in her life.

It had rained overnight and the roads were filled with dirty grey puddles of rainwater that had mixed with sewage; drainpipes had overflowed and the water bubbled out of the broken manholes and into ditches.

Each reader will have to decide for themselves whether they believed this representation of poverty to be valid enough. In my case, I didn’t stop to think, “Well that’s not very realistic,” in which case I’ll give this book a pass.

The Social Class

She didn’t have to worry about being raped at the police station. That was a fate that awaited only those who were poor, or stupid. Like me.

At its heart the story is about the divide between rich and poor, between those born in the slums and those who enter this world privileged. And throughout the book this divide remains stark, showing us how different the worlds and the lives of the people in these worlds remain.

Sorry. What did that word mean, uttered by this boy who had never known a hungry day or a grief-filled hour in his life? It was only a courtesy, a word used as a unit of social currency, like please and thank you. Had I come into their lives just to teach them the meaning of this word?

Laila’s time with the Madam and her family bring this divide into stark clarity; the Madam’s two children, Jehan and Maryam, are of Laila’s age but used to a life very different from her’s. As a reader who associated more closely with the former two than with Laila, it was interesting to see how Laila looks at the other two, baffled by their ways and their lifestyles.

There’s no place to go once you’ve left the four walls of the school: everyone knows that. There are no jobs magically waiting for us; no nice officers for us to go to, no smart clothes for us to wear. But Apa kept her eyes tightly closed against the future that we could see... I preferred to look at it and get to know it rather than listen to Apa and pretend like her that there was any alternative to it.

The Gender Discussions

I felt the stares of men more keenly these days; sometimes they burned like acid into the back of my head before I could actually see them, while at other times my throat started to constrict and I felt as though I was being strangled by invisible bands.

Told from the point of view of a teenaged female protagonist, this book picks all the right issues, and it’s surprising how well it tackles them. Laila reacts exactly the way every girl has ever reacted to being ogled at: discomfort, anger and helplessness dominate her reactions, same as every other girl bound down by a system which allows men to stare whenever they like.

I knew I could not tell Amma or Irfan or anyone about this, even though I felt dirty and sick, and wanted to run to Amma and cry my fear and disgust to her. But I could not. They had enough to worry about as it was. No, this was my own fault – I’d let Salim in without even thinking twice about it.

It even gets victim blaming right; the way Laila blames herself and convinces her uneasy heart to stay quiet after being sexually harassed speaks of a long line of abuse victims who, in order to escape the trauma of what happened to them, internalize the blame. Even though these scenes are small and can escape notice, it is only through stories like this, which seek to highlight all these various aspects of living, that conversations can begin.  

Men just bothered you, and kept you from working, and told you what to do and how to do it, even if they knew nothing about what it happened to be. “Get a man and get a headache,” my mother had said more than once.

What’s interesting is that the Bina Shah doesn’t only comment on the treatment of males and females, but uses it within the plot to give more colours to its characters and their motivations. There are both good and bad male and female characters in this story: while Laila’s stepfather and his friends are up to no good, Haroon the Makrani and Najeeb the bus conductor help her. While Laila’s sister Jumama is the epitome of patience and good will, there is also Maryam with her misplaced intentions and Saleema with her jealousy. Both genders are equally multifaceted, and given their own various intentions for their actions. 

The ‘strong’ female character

 I can’t tell you how sick I am of the ‘strong’ female character trope which equates being strong with an ability to wield a sword. Give me a complex, three-dimensional female character who couldn’t hold a weapon to save her life but who’s both good and bad and funny/selfish/loyal/careless all at the same time, and it’s good with me. And in terms of character growth and female characters gaining agency, this story and its protagonist are a win.

I couldn’t find the words to tell Madam how much I hated the fact that others always seemed to be in control of my fate.

Laila starts out dictated by her circumstances and her religion and all the factors that are working against her, and she seems aware of those conditions, but in no situation does she fold in and give up. She is in turn compassionate and angry and optimistic and defeated; all there are natural progressions in her story, a valid reaction to the places she finds herself. And after a hard life of straining circumstances, by the end Laila finds her voice, sets out to make things right and ends up in a place better than where she started out.

I announced, in a loud, clear voice. “Well, I know how to play cricket, and if I was on your team you would win because I hit the ball so hard I get a six each time.”

Not only does Laila grow, she’s also a feisty, opinionated character who understands the limitations against females and seeks to take a stand against them. Even though the book never seeks to outright make Laila’s fight one against gender discrimination, there is a thread of female empowerment that runs throughout the storyline that makes this book worth reading.

Recommendation

Even though the book gets so many things right, I still wouldn’t say that I loved it, and that’s because it lacked that most fundamental thing upon which rests the goodwill of any reader: a lack of ability to connect. On an intellectual level I can recognize that the book is good, but I never got engrossed in it, never cared one way or another what actually happened to anyone. So three stars out of five for all the smart handling of issues, but not much more. Read it for the intelligent bits, if you will.