Onion Tears, by Shubnum Khan. Johannesburg: Penguin, 2011.
I wouldn't advise reading Shubnum Khan's debut novel, Onion Tears, on an empty stomach. The story is infused with the flavours of Indian cooking, which drift aromatically through the histories of its three female protagonists.
Khadeejah is a second-generation South African Indian, whose parents travelled from their homeland to start a family and business in Bronkhorstspruit. An elderly woman, she now lives in a small house in Mayfair, where she devotes herself to her passion (and means of income): cooking. Her daughter, Summaya, works at a travel agency and shares a tiny flat with her only child, Aneesa, who, at the age of eleven, is beginning to wonder about her absent father's whereabouts.
It must be said from the outset that nothing much happens in this novel, at least not in the contemporary time period in which it begins. Much of the action – and the interest – of the story lies in flashbacks, structured thematically rather than chronologically. It is in these journeys into the past that Khan's talent for rich description comes to the fore. Khadeejah's nostalgia for her childhood home, in a Bronkhorstspruit block of flats, is particularly well-evoked, for instance: "The flats were a nutmeg-flavoured, Sunlight-soap and brown-polished memory for them. (And a camphor-scented, blink-in the dark memory)." Their memories are not only filled with charming nostalgia, though – heartbreaking tragedies and hard times are also described in raw detail.
Some of the chapters combine these memories with poetic riffs on certain subjects; for instance, Khadeejah's associations with various smells ("The heavy suffocation of dusty rolls of cloth ... Tobacco smoke, dull in towels and sharp on fingers") or Summaya's response to colours: "Green was the colour of her daughter's knees on a rainy day. The colour of unspoken words fermenting in her mouth."
Another technique which varies the narrative tone is Khan's inclusion of mental lists made by the characters. These range from the practical (such as Khadeejah's instructions for folding a samoosa) to the light-hearted (“Reasons why Indian women get fat legs”), and also include the poignant (Summaya's enumeration of Things Broken-hearted People Remember). Aneesa's list of universal “rules” is particularly touching, especially as she adds to her mental rule book as the story progresses. She starts off with child-like realisations, like “You cannot eat bubblegum and chew food at the same time”, but moves on to more profound universalities, such as "Everyone has faces they hide".
Khan draws her characters with subtlety and senstivity. Khadeejah, the cheeky grandmother immersed in her spices and onions, has hidden depths of complexity, strength and love. Summaya is a masterful creation – she's anti-social, introverted, selfish even, but somehow elicits our sympathy. When she thinks of herself as being one of those who are "left behind on the platform while the rest of the world climbed onto the train to take them Somewhere", one cannot help but be moved.
This subtle touch extends to Khan's handling of some tricky themes – including feminism, race and culture. Summaya is a modern woman who cuts her hair short despite the outcry of the aunties; she bans her daughter from watching ZeeTV soapies that are "demeaning to women". Khadeejah, however, displays a different type of feminism. While she may seem the epitome of domesticity – the conservative granny who spends her days cleaning and cooking – she has carved out a space of independence for herself, partly through her profitable achar-making business. Khadeejah's pragmatic kind of feminism is revealed in an account, from her earlier married life, of how she helped a young wife in her flat block. After hearing the young woman crying after being beaten by her husband, Khadeejah goes to give her some advice. She first outlines the reality of the situation she and the young woman are in: simply, that the men they are saddled with are "dom".
But even if these men are very stupid, we are still stuck with them, neh?” ... We are stuck with them, because what can we do? We never went to school ... We never learnt how to do much besides cook. So we stuck with them.
She goes on, however, to explain that "we are also clever" and suggests that the girl learn how to cook well to ease the tension in her marriage, because a "man's head is in his stomach" and "a man with a full pet cannot hit you". While this may seem outrageously anti-feminist, Khadeejah does not stop at this simplistic but practical solution. She provides the woman with another option. If the abuse does not stop, she says, "then learn something quickly. Learn to sew, to sell samoosas, to do something! Learn to make money and go". To Khadeejah, domestic skills can either make the best of a bad situation – keeping the dom husbands happy – or they can be a means to independence. The woman takes Khadeejah's more radical advice; she later divorces her husband and starts a catering company.
Khadeejah's attitude towards race is also ambivalent. From the beginning of the novel it is clear that Khadeejah is obsessed with all things white, which includes her preference for white rotis and white vinegar. For Khadeejah white signifies not only "cleanliness", but also promises "good-looking children". There is an element of racial self-hatred in her injunction to Aneesa to marry an (Indian) man "so fair that if he stood next to a white wall you would not know where he was". At the same time, Khadeejah is wary of white people – she is embarrassed by their exposed flesh and "open" eyes, but more importantly she is nervous around them because of the contempt she has experienced from whites in the past. She has also internalised the discrimination that she experienced – she distinguishes herself from other cultures, such as Pakistanis, and her constant refrain is "Indian is still Indian". Khadeejah's response to racial segregation is neither justified nor criticised – but is presented in all its complexity.
Similarly, Summaya's negotiation of her Indian and South African identities is dealt with insightfully. On her first and only trip to her “mother land”, India, Summaya feels utterly estranged from the country with which she is supposed to feel an affinity. Interestingly, her experience in India makes her abandon her ideal of "one world culture" and, prompted by the plethora of Indian religions, cultures and castes, she sees that "differences were important". She therefore feels the need to belong to one of these different groups, but her attempts at inclusion into an Indian identity are thwarted by her South African upbringing and lack of Urdu. She finds a vague kind of wholeness in her eventual realisation that bi-culturalism is a viable alternative: "You could be two things at once. You could be and not be."
Despite its insights, this first novel is not without its faults. The straightforward narrative sections of the text are less effective than the more lyrical descriptions, and the story is not very neatly plotted. The shocking climax is not, on the whole, effective – after the detailed and unflinching descriptions of past dramatic events, it is very sparely written, and its consequences are slightly downplayed. It hardly mattered, though – the hopeful conclusion is beautifully realised, and the originality and lyricism of Khan's writing outweigh the book’s smaller faults.