Love,loss and life are the
themes that weave through this
tale of 3 generations
of Muslim women living
in suburban South Africa.
ONION TEARS by Shubnum Khan
Generally speaking, I am not the kind to pick up book by new authors. My formula of a good read has always been to pick up a book after it has won all the awards or become best sellers. So many of these I find stacked up in the book shops that I can easily spend a lifetime just reading bestsellers without bothering to read anything else. That is how it was, until I attended the Durban’s Times of Writer festival earlier this month and heard Shubnum Khan speak about her first novel “Onion Tears”.
Shubnum Khan is a young, pretty girl holding a Master’s degree in Creative Writing and teaches English at the University of Kwazulu Natal apart from being a free lance journalist and cartoonist. Onion tears fulfils her dreams to publish her first novel before reaching 25. Listening to Shubnum made me bend my rule and buy this book…
It’s just the kind of book that made me realize why we should be reading new authors as well. First novel can be like first love. It’s been in the making ever since you started reading your first book as a child. And like first love, there is a lot of excitement and fear. A quality of freshness, innocence and eagerness of the first novel, that will inevitably give away to suave sophistication, once she blossoms into a seasoned novelist. Shubnum has a way with words and can sure tell a good story that makes Onion Tears a good, easy read.
Onion Tears ( published by Penguin Books) is a tale of three generations of Muslim women living in suburban South Africa. Khadija is a hardworking and stubborn first generation Indian who longs for her beloved homeland and often questions what she is doing in Africa. “While some people dedicate their lives to sadness or to love or to their career, Khadeejah threw herself to cooking” to quote from the initial pages of the book “People tasted her food and looked at the small, old woman in front of them with new eyes. She became a part of her food and in turn, through her food, others became a part of her”.
Khadija’s life was all about working hard and adjusting. Her battle with onion epitomises this struggle. As a child she cried every time she had to cut an onion. But she persevered, and “after a few years her eyes stopped burning, nose stopped dripping and the dull ache subsided. Her eyes had absorbed the onion properties and blended into them. May be that’s why her eyes held a watery gaze”.
Summaya, Khadija’s 37 year old daughter is tall, thin, beautiful, and a loner. She is also a working single mother of 11 year old Aneesa, still struggling to cope with all her hurt of it all. “ The hate still ‘clung in her corners of ceilings like sleeping bat’s that shudder their wings occasionally. Summaya could hear them swoop from one rafter to another…multiplying in the dark”. It’s a story where she unravels her own self even as she struggles to reconcile her South African and Indian identities.
Nowhere is the difference more visible than in their view on Zee TV. For Khadeeja it reminded her of her father telling her “never to forget your beloved India. Never forget where your roots are”. She kept her word with a picture of TajMahal hanging in her room, her food and Zee TV. The soapies’s (or serials) entranced and shocked her. In contrast, Summaya hated Zee TV. “Hated that Zee was the global visual representative of her culture. A song and dance culture with heavily lined eyes, glossy lips and a clutter of colours. A culuture obsessed with beauty and fairness. And sex. An entertainment –at – all cost kind of culture.”
Aneesa, at 11, has problems of her own. She believes 11 to “be a stuck in the middle age when one still has memories of having been a child, but adulthood is already a looming shadow. A strange time, watching adults discuss serious matters and children have tea parties. Notice sore little knobs on the chest. When you long for the past but wish the future was here already. A stuck in the middle age really.” In addition, Aneesa has some difficult question of her own. Is her mother lying about her father’s death? Why wouldn’t she tell her what really happened?
Gradually, as the story unfolds, the past merges with the present as the novel meanders through their lives, uncovering the secrets people keep, words they swallow and the emotions they elect to mute. For this family, the scent of tragedy is always threatening. Eventually it will bring this family together. If not, it will tear them apart.
It’s a book that Shantini Naidoo of The Times described as follows. “ It make readers hungry, not just for sensuous food which the writer describes so tantalizingly, but for the characters to find their way”