Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Beneath My Mother's Feet by Amjed Qamar

Beneath My Mother's Feet is a beautifully written novel which examines the role of women and their expectations in Pakistani society.
Fourteen year old Nazia lives with her family in Gizri colony, a working-class neighborhood in southern Karachi. She attends Gizri School for Girls with her friends Maleeha and Saira and is preparing for her arranged marriage which is to happen soon. She hopes to be able to continue her studies once married.

The story opens with Nazia arriving home from school to find that her father Abbu has been injured at his construction job. In the weeks following Abbu's accident, it becomes apparent that Nazia's family will have a difficult time surviving. At first they are able to subsist on the money her Amma saved from her sewing jobs. But with no one to help support the family things change for the worse quickly.

Amma pulls Nazia out of school to watch her younger siblings, 10 year old Isha and 4 year old Mateen, while she cleans homes in the Defense Housing area - a section of residential homes owned by Karachi's elite. Amma is now a masi - a servant who cleans the homes of the wealthy. The work is hard for Amma so instead of watching her younger siblings, Nazia also begins to clean homes. The work is dirty, exhausting and endless, and pays little.

Nazia wants to finish school but with each month that she is forced to stay and help her mother, her dream of getting an education seems to be slipping away. Further disaster strikes when her jahez (dowry) is stolen, her father loses the rent money and then disappears and her family loses their home. Due to the family's precarious financial situation and the loss of her dowry, her Uncle Tariq breaks her engagement to his son Salam. While Nazia's mother takes the loss of the engagement hard, Nazia herself is not so sure that this is a bad thing.

Gradually Nazia comes to the realization that she has choices and that she doesn't always have to just accept what "fate" will bring her.

When did Nazia have the right to start thinking on her own? Was there some unwritten law that said even when things were going wrong, when the choices that her parents made led to one disaster after another, she had to ride the waves, holding her breath?

She has the choice to continue her studies with the help of her friend Maleeha. She has the choice to leave her life of servitude with the help of a former teacher. Her life isn't necessarily dictated by fate. And so when Nazia helps a servant boy, Sherzad flee from a life of servitude she herself makes a different choice. Although her Uncle returns and arranges for her to return to Punjab with him and his son for their wedding, Nazia decides upon a different path for herself.

Qamar's characters are finely crafted with substance and realism. The central character, Nazia is a teenager who we see is in the process of maturing and thinking for herself. Nazia loves her father. At first she refuses to accept Amma's opinion that he is lazy and deceitful and has shirked his responsibilities as a provider for his family. Nazia considers his situation and his actions carefully before she comes to a conclusion about him. She is intelligent and as she is exposed to the world around her, Nazia begins to realize that she has choices in her life. She matures from a young teen who simply follows her mother to someone who has the courage to made a decision that might be in her best interests but which will also conflict with what her mother wants for her.

Nazia's Amma is also a beautifully crafted character. Amma is portrayed as a long suffering wife who has struggled to cope with a difficult husband. She appears to favour her irresponsible son, Bilal, who abandons the family to look after his own needs but in the end we learn that she really does understand that her son is very much like his father.

"Because Bilal is like his father. Why do you think I work as a masi? Because it was all I could do to protect Bilal from his father. They are the same. No matter how much they mean well, they cannot fight the shaitan - the devil - that lives within. They know what is right, what is wrong, but they always do what they know best. Cheat. Lie. Steal."

Amma is also a woman of extraordinary strength and resolve. She accepts the fact that she must look after her family by herself and she sets out to do this. Even as she suffers one hardship after the next, Amma is representative of the resilience of Pakistani women in a culture that has places certain expectations and limitations on them.

In my opinion an author succeeds when her readers are able to experience an emotional connection to certain characters or an emotional response due to a charcter. I certainly felt that way towards Nazia and Amma as I read about their struggle and their physical suffering. But I also experienced feelings towards Abbu, who is a generally dislikeable character. He always seems to have an angle on everything and his knack for appearing at just the right time was aggravating. We are at first torn between Amma's view of him and that of Nazia. It soon becomes apparent that much of the suffering Nazia and her family experience are due to this man's irresponsibility.

Although most of the male characters in the book are not positive role models, Qamar seems to imply that this is a family trait and not a statement on the men of Pakistan. For example, her friend Maleeha's brother, Hisham, is respectful and treats both Nazia and Maleeha with kindness.

There are many interesting themes that run throughout Beneath My Mother's Feet. The dominant theme concerns the relationship between mothers and daughters in Pakistani culture. The title of this novel is part of a quote attributed to the prophet Muhammad, "The gates of heaven lie beneath a mother's feet.". This well-known saying seems to imply that if we wish to get to heaven we should honor our mother and be obedient to her wishes in all things. This is what Nazia struggles with however. Amma expects that Nazia will do what she asks of her to please her - as a dutiful daughter. Yet as the novel progresses, Amma comes to the realization that Nazia is different and Nazia realizes that she will not be happy with the choices that her mother has made for her. While Amma expects that Nazia will marry because this offers her the best path in life, Nazia feels differently. It is not an easy decision to go against her mother, but unlike Bilal, she does it gently and with respect towards her mother.

"...She asked Allah to forgive her for what she was about to do, and she hoped that Amma wouldn't think she was abandoning her in the same way Bilal had. When the time came, Nazia wanted the gates of heaven to be open for her."

This book would be a great choice for a mother/daughter book club. There are many themes and ideas to explore in such a reading. I've only explored one or two ideas here. Beneath My Mother's Feet is an absorbing coming of age novel for younger teens.

Book Details:
Beneath My Mother's Feet by Amjed Qamar
New York: Atheneum Books 2008
198 pp.

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