Book Review: Fence

This book review is part of #TSBCReadsIndia, a reading challenge where one reads a book from each State and Union Territory of India. Presenting the fourth of the 36 books to be read — the book from Gujarat — in this literary journey across India.


Fence, Ila Arab Mehta, Rita Kothari,Fence by Ila Arab Mehta is the English translation of the Gujarati original, Vaad (2011) by Rita Kothari. Published by Zubaan Books in 2015, Fence (Paperback, 232 pages) was not my first choice for the book from Gujarat for the #TSBCReadsIndia challenge. But when I came across this review of Fence, it didn’t take me long to decide on this book as my read from Gujarat and order a copy for myself.

I started reading the book almost as soon as I got it, but found it very difficult go beyond the first 100 pages or so. I must have stopped and re-started reading the book at least 4-5 times over a two-month period before finally giving up and putting the book aside.

This was more than a year back, and in that period I read other books and periodically mulled over whether to continue reading Fence or give it up, whenever I saw it on my bookshelf. Last week, when I came across Fence once again, I decided to give it another, last, attempt at reading the book.

It took me three days to read Fence, cover to cover, but finish the book I did. And then immediately got down to writing its review.

Fateema Lokhandwala is a Lecturer of History at a college in a large city in Gujarat. She is bright, hard-working, articulate, young woman, who has overcome a lot in life — poverty, prejudices, religious bigotry, and death of family members. The second of four siblings, she has lost one sister to illness, one brother to the cause of jihad and fundamentalism, and another brother who has gone missing. Fateema’s single-mindedness and focus on her education and prevents her from being brainwashed into becoming a jihadi like her brother.

Even though she does not consider herself to be different from others, she is forced to acknowledge time and again that she is and will always be viewed differently because of who she is, and the religion she belongs to.

“You study here?” the teacher said, looking her up and down.
“Yes, third grade.”
“You come to school in such rags? Hair not combed? Just look at your clothes.”
“Ben, she’s
[Fateema] Muslim,” Minal [a classmate] explained. (Page 6)

She is keenly aware of the sacrifices her parents have made to get her educated, often at the cost of angering their community. Fateema is very grateful for the encouragement and guidance of her teachers and their glowing recommendations, which open doors for her. Literally.

“Madam, we’re here for admission into the hostel.”
“Sorry, we have no places left. Next term please.”
But Fateema didn’t budge.
Manoramaben…said: “Look, don’t waste my time. I have about a hundred applications to read.”
“Madam, my school Principal gave me a note of recommendation.” With this she [Fateema] handed over Gaekwad Sir’s letter to the hostel trustee.
Manoramaben read the letter. “All right, fill up the form.” [Page 79]

All Fateema wants is to own a house and live harmoniously with others, irrespective of caste, community or religion. She wants to break all barriers of suspicion between Hindus and Muslims and is optimistic that this can be done only when everyone lives together and are not ghettoised. Fence is the story of an ordinary girl, whose choices and optimism make her extraordinary.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The underlying theme of Fence is Fateema’s search for a place to call her own. It is also a search for her identity and her wish to be a part of larger society by breaking barriers or fences that exist between communities without losing her own identity. It is a theme that resonated with me and I think will resonate with many readers.

I could relate to Fateema for she is someone we have all known or come across at some point — earnest, sincere, direct with a penchant for some plain speak, and sometimes preachy. I felt her pain at being judged for being a Muslim and also her resigned acceptance that this mistrust cannot be done away with easily. Like this instance when one of her students, a Hindu, asks her:

“Ben, you are a Muslim, aren’t you?”…
“Yes?”
“And yet, you look like us, talk like us.” His voice betrayed disbelief. (pg.3)

I also felt Fateema’s sense of disbelief at her interview for the post of Lecturer in History, where she is asked certain questions because of her religion, and not because of her subject expertise: Miss Lokhandwala, you are a Muslim. How do you propose to teach the Mughal period to the students of your college?” (pg.214).

I also found Fateema to be quite preachy, and someone who consciously interacted with others based on their caste: “Mr. Joshi, you’re a Brahmin. Talk like a Brahmin. Speak with respect to a woman” (pg. 187). Ironically, this is exactly what Fateema wants to get away from and avoid — being viewed and judged for the community one belongs to. The book is a reiteration of every clichéd generalisation we have about communities and people.

And therein lies my biggest problem with Fence — the clichéd characters that populate the book. The struggling parents, the kind and understanding teachers, the stern but loving hostel warden, the helpful librarian, the childhood friend who drifts away, the older sibling led astray… I could almost predict how the characters would develop !

While I agree that the author is entitled to develop the characters and write the story the way he/she perceives it, I cannot help wondering if the book would have been better with a slightly different story line and, maybe, a reversal of roles. What if it was Fateema who got brainwashed into becoming a jihadi? What if her brother was the ‘good guy’ and followed the trajectory that Fateema has in the book? The twist in the story, I feel, would have turned the book from a predictable and boring read to an exciting one.

Looking back, I wonder if this is the reason why I could not proceed with reading the book. That, and the rather patchy writing with some good portions and some not so good portions also were not easy to navigate. Since I haven’t read the original, I’m not sure whether the translation alone is to blame.

Fence is perhaps the only book I have liked and disliked in equal measure and has therefore left me with mixed feelings. In that sense I am on the ‘fence’ with regard to recommending this book as a read for you. 🙂


Notes:

  1. Shortlisting and finally choosing THE book from Gujarat for #TSBCReadsIndia turned out to be long, and a frustrating, process. I was keen on reading a translated work as my Gujarat read, but didn’t find many recent — one of my criteria for this reading challenge — translations to choose from. I could have picked a non-fiction title, but decided on reading Saraswati Chandra, a classic, instead. Till, Fence came along.
  2. If you need more details on #TSBCReadsIndia, please head to the TSBC blog, or you could leave a comment here which I’ll be very happy to answer.
  3. If you want to know more about The Sunday Book Club then you can read more about it on my blog here or head over to the TSBC Blog.

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