Humeirah, by Sabah Carrim — a book review by Vasudev Murthy

The Johari Window is a simple construct created to help understand the relationship of a person with oneself and with others. What parts are known? What are unknown? How do we evolve as thinking individuals in our lifetimes particularly when exposed to radically new ideas that seem orthogonal in spirit to the milieu in which one must perforce exist? Can we exist within, and be quite content? Do we really need someone else?

humeirah

Humeirah, by the Mauritian writer Sabah Carrim, stands out as a particularly courageous story, of looking within for answers. Island cultures tend to be insular, or so we are led to believe, as heterogeneity is difficult to achieve on a consistent basis, and perhaps survival is compromised if there are too many mavericks. If we go with this premise for a moment, it must be an even greater challenge for a mind to strive to be absolutely independent, driven to constantly question and challenge, when the ecosystem around him or her discourages such striving, considering it heretical and socially unacceptable to the extreme. Where does one escape to when there is nothing to stimulate and give answers to often imprecisely described, constantly evolving questions? How does one find release from the strictures of a conservative community that discourages independence of thought and cannot understand why one would want it to begin with? Indeed, how does one escape from an Island? I found the unstated analogy interesting.

In Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence the protagonist spurns a career as a banker in London and takes up art to find meaning in life. He does indeed find many answers and the world ultimately recognizes his genius. This is a quest that we all have – with time, however, we allow that quest to lose its pungency and join the herd.

While Maugham’s protagonist, Strickland, is able to walk away from the traditional and socially acceptable roles of a caring husband and father, Humeirah has much more to grapple with. What if a woman’s maternal instincts are not as intense as other women? What if the desire to be a “good wife” is muted? What if all this is happening within the bounds of a very conservative Sunni Muslim family in a tightly knit social setting? The struggles of an intelligent woman are a million times more desperate and painful to the observer, especially in what appears to be a very tough situation with no escape.

Some seek the madness of music, some find solace in spiritualism, some in art. In this case, the probing beauty of philosophy. And for the vast majority – there are no avenues, a grim testament to the tragedy of wasted lives that wither in time, with no possibility of being nourished simply because of social circumstances dictated by religious or traditional strictures. In Humeirah, there is a glimmer of hope offered. It is not a call to rebellion necessarily – though, by the way, the book is banned in Dubai of all places – , but certainly a subtle appeal to find answers in other passions and find some sort of uneasy resolution to the very baffling question of “Who am I, really?”

One may argue that the author has unwittingly portrayed the protagonist in an overly sympathetic light. Is there something inherently undesirable in conforming to some minimal extent with the needs of those with whom we have a social bond? The withdrawing into oneself and the obsession with questions of existentialism possibly created a rift with other actors in the story who were not gifted with the same intellectual strengths and needs, and were performing traditional roles that had, very possibly, delivered optimum happiness and structure over centuries. Could she be accused of being selfish? Indeed, she was. Great men and women, trapped in circumstances and roles which they abhor, possibly must bear the taunts of being called a bad mother or a cold husband, when they start questioning or exploring their passions. Or being called mentally disturbed, which of course raises yet another series of questions, as to who exactly is normal.

It would be a pity if Humeirah were to be just considered exemplary Mauritian literature. The story has many elements of Mauritius, but the appeal for me was elsewhere. The fact that I knew nothing much about the country did not bother me because the intellectual jousting and the description of internal chaos and conflicts was perfectly universal. It must take courage to challenge the norms of a community (Kutchi Memoms in this case) that would be considered successful in the conventional sense.

The author’s language is sophisticated and fluid and does not detain you unnecessarily in the reading, which in itself is a sign of confident and accessible writing. Only on such a firm foundation could she have been bold enough to exercise her intellect and frame complex questions. To me, a good book need not have answers. To provoke questions is in itself a great achievement.

Required reading for those who seek something new and powerful, yet believable…

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