Fateema opened her diary and began writing: “Jihad as mentioned by the Prophet is a war against injustice and oppression. Islam means peace and surrender. Islam does not recommend killing innocent people. The Prophet released hundreds of slaves from bondage and sent themback to their native land.”

Book: Fence

Author: Ila Arab Mehta

Translator: Rita Kothari

Publisher: Zubaan Books, 2015

Genre: Fiction

No matter how much the situation might have changed (or not) in terms of women’s property holding rights, nothing takes away the fact of deprivation and marginalization women still face across the world. Even today, renting a house if you are a single woman and trying to have an independent life is difficult, unless of course you can negotiate with your financial prowess. The inheritance laws are blur and the avenues and access are limited.  And imagine if you are a woman who belongs to a minority or marginalized community, who wants to stay in a cosmopolitan, believing in the same democratic and constitutional rights of equality and equity? Will it be easy?

Needless to say, we often read newspaper reports of the gated communities and housing societies which deny rights to stay to people belonging to a particular community, caste, city, origin. We are so scared. So what if you dreamt of having your own piece of sky with dignity?! There are invisible fences and barbed wires all around.

‘Fence’ by Ila Arab Mehta (translated by Rita Kothari) is a story of Fateema, her dreams and her belief in multiple possibilities. Fateema Lokhandwala, the second born in the impoverished family of 4 siblings and parents, almost scraping to make ends meet. Fateema, however, is full of optimism. Fateema, as one friend of mine had once pointed out to me, “a differently sounding name”, not the Amars and Sheetals we get to meet and share our space with, is no different from any other girl in her dreams and ambition in reality. Neither is her family. Khatijaben, Fateema’s mother is a feisty woman who wants her daughter to study, to become someone else, their hope of turn-around of the daily grind of poverty. Fateema is a bright girl, who truly believes in the poem, which Gaekwad Sir teaches:

Holding a hand in a hand
Joining a heart to a heart
On the path of progress
We shall fly away

Fateema feels herself as much a part of the small village in the once princely state in Gujarat and as the brightest star of Navprabhat High School that no fence exists in her mind. Her best friend is Chandan, the daughter of an austere Jain family. Majeedbhai and Khatijaben are also not the parents one would like to believe to be associated with a name like ‘Fateema’. They refuse a life of security promised by a few people in order to keep on sending their daughter to school. Fateema comes to Ahmedabad to study and on her way to buy her house one day where she can have her own piece of sky.

It is there that Fateema faces the Fence, every now and then, be it in the suspicious eyes of the local police who may summon her at any pretext or the absolute denial of a property agent to even show her a house. Once an apologetic dealer, tells her of his limitation, others will be afraid of Fateema and her likes, to buy a flat in the same complex. “She may eat meat, she may prefer sacrifices, have non-vegetarian dishes, have different festivals.” In reality, they had already created a story about Fateema. Her trials do not end, even in her own family, with her sense of logic and history, she is an outsider.

“Hand in Hand, heart to heart” 

Fateema still believes that is possible. How else could she have met Manuben or Manoramaben (Fateema addresses her as Manuben remembering Manuben in Sabarmati Ashram working with Gandhi, something that melts the warden’s heart). She was the warden of the hostel Fateema stayed in, during her college days. She was always protective of her, shielded her and kept extending her stay and this is the humanity Fateema came to believe in; her right to exist as she is, with all others. Her dream home had to be with each other and not in a ghetto, and not a place where there is categorization, the labelling of “people like her”, the politics of “us and them.”

There are instances where Fateema’s Gujarati (though Fateema is as much a Gujarati, born and brought up in Saurashtra) Hindu friends and students wonder asking her- “are, you are Mohammedan? You are like us only.” At this, Fateema amusingly wondered, “Can it not be the other way round? They are all like her!” At this point, I couldn’t help but go back to Chimamanda’s ‘Americanah’ where her American room-mate was disappointed to see her taste of music and her hold on English language, as Chimamanda, didn’t fit into the story they made for her.

Ladies hostel was not her choice, that was not the independence she wanted for herself. History liberated her, she believed in multiple stories.

‘Fence’ seems so real to me. It is something I can understand and relate to very well and so can anyone else; be it the women leading the “Pinjra Tod” Campaign, where they believe that no one has the right to dictate a moral code to them. 

‘Fence’ belongs to Fateema and all of us. When can we free ourselves from these borrowed sense of identities and scared souls creating fences to safeguard these “false friends”??


Featured Image Credit: Cover image of the book

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