The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif

A queer brown mixed-race woman in apartheid-era South Africa befriends an oppressed  Indian  housewife.

Yes, no cause is left unturned in Shamim Sarif’s  The World Unseen.  But Sarif has a lightness of touch that has the story chugging along briskly;  you soon forget this one could be a text for  Oppression 101 as you follow the fraught courtship of  Amina and Miriam.

(The cover shows a scene from the film of this book; Amina and Miriam are played by  Sheetal Sheth and Lisa Ray respectively. )

Pretoria, 1952, is a place where it is ” an offense for Blacks to eat in the same place as Whites.” Amina, who is of Indian descent,  runs a restaurant that flouts this rule, for she holds herself answerable to no-one, not even her family or the authorities. Besides running a restaurant (in an illegal partnership with a Colored man), she drives a taxi, and works at odd jobs mostly involving manual labor. And she’s lesbian.

Before I get on with the story,  it might be useful to note that under apartheid, the  South African population was classified into four groups: Black, White, Indian, and Colored. The Colored group included people of mixed racial descent. (According to Wikipedia,  “these terms are capitalized to denote their legal definitions in South African law”; I use these terms in the latter  sense. )

Miriam left India to marry a South African Indian who has internalized  apartheid so deeply that he no longer questions it.  Omar runs a store in a small town outside Pretoria, follows the laws of the land implicitly, and is happy to toss in his own racial biases additionally, for instance telling  Miriam that Blacks “would steal anything.”  So in Omar, we have a person who is discriminated against due his color perpetuating the very same injustices against others.  IDIOT!!!

The couple have two children, and that, more than anything else, has Miriam reconciled to her husband’s unconcern for her well-being.  Then Miriam meets Amina, and realizes that she might have another shot at happiness. But the penalties for pursuing this relationship are very high, and besides, there are children to consider.

The World Unseen works as well as it does because of two factors: excellent characterization, and unobtrusive, elegant prose that builds up genuine suspense as to the lovers’ fate. And Sarif achieves the near-impossible by taking on a topic (apartheid) that has been covered by many writers, and presenting it with such passion that this system still shocks the reader.  We all know how cruel and senseless apartheid was, but Sarif also shows its essential batshit craziness. When a policemen tells Amina she’s breaking the law by seating Blacks and Whites together, she replies that there aren’t any Whites in the restaurant. Then Officer Stewart says,

“…This is an Indian area. And Colored. …That means no Blacks.”

“They work for me.”

“And that is fine by me,’ the policeman replied…”But they shouldn’t be eating with you. It’s illegal.”

The 2007 film of the novel was directed by Sarif herself. Incidentally, Omar is played by Parvin Dabas,  whom I last saw in Monsoon Wedding.  Here’s the UK trailer for the film (Sarif is British btw).

The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif

The Women’s Press Limited, 2001

Genre: Literary Fiction ***

Iam entering this review for the POC challenge, as well as the GLBT Reading Challenge.

Seventeen and Sikh after 9/11: Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

Buy now from Amazon!Seventeen-year-old Samar has never thought about “Isms,” but 9/11 changes all that. When Samar’s long-lost uncle visits her New Jersey home a few days after the attacks, the two are pursued by racist taunts and shouts of “Osama” from boys who’ve known Samar since kindergarten. For Samar is Sikh, from an Indian community whose religion (Sikhism) requires its followers to not cut their hair; Samar’s uncle hence wears a turban.

Samar’s mom Sharan, an atheist who has long been estranged from her family, has always taught Samar that race and religion are inconsequential—good grades and good decisions lead to success in America. But 9/11 rams Samar’s “happily assimilated Indian-American butt… into the cold seat of reality.” Samar no longer believes Sharan’s wisdom, but wonders about her too-convenient ignorance of her roots. Is she a coconut—a wannabe white person, brown on the outside but white inside?

As Samar tries to explore her Sikh heritage, her social circles come undone. Mother, BFF, boyfriend—every relationship seems to sour as Samar wonders what her ethnicity could mean to her. Samar’s boyfriend Mike, for instance, pretty much tells her to pass as Hispanic:

“When I first met you, I thought you were Mexican.”

My voice comes out as a gravelly whisper. “But I’m not. I’m Indian-American, just like my mom… and Sikh, like my uncle.”

“Who has to know?” he says.

I look out the window on my side.

“Me. I know.”

What is the cost of assimilation? What are the penalties for not conforming with the norms of the majority culture? Is there more than one way to be American? Meminger spells these questions out in as many words, and her clean prose and unfussy approach are perfect for Shine, Coconut Moon’s weighty themes. When Samar decides to learn more about her religion, she doesn’t go to some generic wise crone, but Google. She finds answers to her questions about Sikhism in a chatroom (her handle is JerseyCoconut). I can hear hundreds of Indian-American teens sighing in gratitude as they read this book. Someone out there actually understands! All adults aren’t idiots!

Meminger’s agenda for her work is evident from about the fifth page. In no way is my observation a criticism—I’m glad, glad, glad to see a YA novel tackling this topic head-on. And for all its apparent simplicity, this tale is beautifully nuanced. Sharan is a single mom, a self-confident rebel who turned her back on her heritage for understandable reasons—uber-controlling, parochial parents. When Samar starts looking to her past, Sharan is bewildered, and cannot help viewing her daughter’s actions as a betrayal of her hard-won independence. (Yay, an Asian mother who isn’t an arranged marriage-promoting kitchen goddess of spice!)

The novel has too many layers to unpeel in this review, but I must mention the author’s quiet rebuke of those who refuse to ‘see’ racism because they consider themselves color-blind. Shine also has many interesting subtexts. For instance Samar’s class is reading The Great Gatsby, and the reader can’t help but compare that story of the failure of the American dream against the present moment, notably Samar’s realization that her own American dream—the assumption that race does not matter—may not be completely true.

I cannot stress strongly enough that Meminger never champions the primacy of religious identity over other loyalties or affiliations. Sharan’s rejection of her heritage is presented as a reasoned and hence valid decision; Samar is now making a similar informed choice. Meminger’s ultimate vision is for Samar to possess the knowledge and the courage to choose her identity—whatever shape that might take.

And what could be more American than that?

(This review appears in the current issue of Eclectica magazine.)