Review of Zillij by Ameena Hussein

A review of Zillij by Ameena Hussein

Sanjana Hattotuwa

The late review is a blessing and curse, for both author and critic.

For the author, a blessing because it is indication that interest in the text has not waned. A curse because it may well blemish those well-manicured excerpts of reviews already featured on the cover of the book, augmenting its sales.

For the critic, the late review is particularly challenging. It is impossible to divorce oneself from early reviews of the text but at the same time, like a good vintage, a well-aged text brings with it a maturity that helps the appreciation of the fiction more than in the heady days of its first launch.

Zillij, which I picked up a week ago, was first published in 2003. Now in second edition, it is a welcome break to the monotony of pedestrian fiction in Sri Lanka. Ameena Hussein’s collection of short stories are endearing, subtle, seductive in the manipulation of prose, artfully deceitful in evoking they very emotions that the author seeks to critique and, for want of a better term, resonant. Ordinary life is the echo chamber within which these stories resound.

“Zillij is a work of fiction” – states one the first pages in the text, useful in framing our appreciation of the short stories, some of which may otherwise have been read as pithy social commentary. This then is the first observation – Ameena’s training as a sociologist is very evident in her prose. However, sociology and writing are not always complementary – but I digress, since an appreciation of the stories needs to come before an analysis of the author and Zillij as a whole.

The first story, ‘An Ordinary Death’, is our entrée to the world of Zillij. The author, through the voice of the protagonist, finely captures the zeitgeist of a city scarred by suicide bombings. We see here a slice of life in Colombo entwined with terrorism – rich, sonorous and ultimately tragic – a tryst with violence we cannot fully capture in reality, but which Ameena delicately constructs through controlled prose and evocative imagery.

However, ‘A Muslim on the Periphery’ and ‘Beauty’s Mother’ are both unfortunate additions to this collection. In both, the author’s desire to drill a message into the minds of the readers with blunt force results in its very anti-thesis – we simply switch off, wondering whether we are reading an academic tome instead of fiction, confused why the author’s inelegant bludgeon blows stand cheek-in-jowl with the delicate subtlety in other stories.

This delicate subtlety is evident in ‘More than rain’, which brings to mind the wisps of a losing argument a parched earth has with the first droplets of rain. It is annoying to read because that which the story evokes – hot, dusty, humid days that enervate the soul – is precisely what we seek to desperately seek refuge from in the torpid heat of April. The author is at her finest here – delicate brushstrokes of prose evoke earthy landscapes, colours and emotions that capture a wretched existence between drought and rain, inertia and hope. ‘Images of a Short lived Love Affair’’ captures with this very same finesse, the emotions of what is almost an allegorical exploration of desire, love, separation and growth. It attempts to express what essentially cannot – the desires of the heart, the realities of life, a karmic foreplay that by its very episodic nature in the text, progressively frames each image towards a denouement that is both inevitable, we feel, and yet pregnant with meaning.

We see a simpler story in ‘White Girl’. Almost caricature, characters such as White Girl and Muslim Girl jostle for attention in a morass of love and confused identities. White Girl reminded me of Odantje’s Anil, in that she is two dimensional as a character – lacking depth and texture, ultimately fictitious even within the fiction of the text. While White Girl’s dilemma is central to the story, we cannot but help feel greater empathy for Anura, the hapless trishaw driver she falls in love with and for whom she becomes a ticket for la dolce vita in her homeland. Perhaps Tamil Girl, Sinhala Girl, Burgher Girl, Lesbian Girl even, through cameo appearances, may have given this story a more rounded feel – but as it stands, our only option is to follow Anura and leave this story behind.

‘The Glass Block’ on the other hand offers a rich tapestry of human relations. The chiaroscuro interplay of power and helplessness in the story is again the author at her best. Raja, Sudha – characters in the story – are finely drawn, the prose understated, no moral or religious cause expounded. Here we feel drawn into the story, wondering, as with all good fiction, what the fates of the characters are after denouement in the text itself. We are invited to imagine, reflect, think – a gentle humanity as redemption to pyrrhic powers of gatekeepers.

‘The Immigrant’ responds to our voyeurism of ‘White Girl’ and the fate of Anura in ‘Aaamarika’. Following the providential separation from White Girl (who we assume may well be still confused, living in Sri Lanka and doting the local fishmonger), we see Anura on the streets of New York peddling pornography. Like ‘Those Days’, the sociologist overcomes the writer and the author succumbs to the folly of underestimating the intelligence of the reader. The earnestness with which the author tries to paint the life-stories of the Anura and his room-mate enervates the fiction. Instead of evocative fiction, we are entreated to stereotypical pidgeonholes from which the characters can’t escape. America stands woefully diluted as an insatiable prostitute of human dreams (“the dream is still there, it’s just not mine”) and Jayantha and Anura remain the proverbial victims of an Orwelian ‘system’. If Zillij is Ameena Hussein’s attempt at a fictional mosaic of life, the ‘The Immigrant’ is a furmah that should have been rejected.

‘Comfort Food’ is a glimpse back into the author’s gifted imagination, though they dim in the aptly titled ‘The Pain of Imagination’. Here, despite brief flashes of brilliance, is another story that meanders without purpose. Judge Sitteer Ibrahim is finely drawn, his emotions textured and complex – but the denouement leaves readers unfamiliar with ‘Alam al Takhaiyul’ wondering what the fuss was all about.

There are many other stories in Zillij – each seems to have been written at very different times. Some, in moments of quiet self-reflection and confidence, others in moments of insecurity and angst, with a desire to change the world overpowering the essential lightness of fiction with turgid and laborious prose better left for the argot of academe. Contrary to what Anushka Pereira opines (“The author does not force opinion, choosing instead to make quiet observations about the people she writes of”) I find the author’s (unnecessary) insecurity of her fiction and the imagination of the reader severely mitigate the appreciation of a new and wonderful literary talent.

However, if the debris of evangelism in Zillij is cleared by the growth of self-restraint and confidence, there is much to look forward to in future writing by the author. Ameena Hussein is introduced in Zillij as a Sociologist, writer. We hope that in the future, we see instead Ameena Hussein, Writer, sociologist.

Zillij, published by Perera Hussein Publishing House, is available at all leading bookstores.

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