Land for Fatimah by Veena Gokhale, Guernica Editions (Canada), 2018

 

Veena Gokhale’s second book but first novel is a bridge spanning cultures and languages across South Asia, Africa and Canada. It is about the separation of vulnerable populations from their ancestral land through bureaucratic systems set up to work against Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The ubiquitous forms, documents and multifarious “schemes” add a legal veneer over the rights of those who belong “to their land, not the other way around,” and for whom the buying or selling of land is an incomprehensible “abstraction.”

Regardless of whether it is a small slum in Andheri (Bombay) or Fatimah’s village of Ferun – the Aanke people’s family farmland in the fictional country of Kamorga (Africa) – the decisions made by Bombay’s district municipality or Kamorga’s central government are irrevocable. Shanty huts are bulldozed to build colonies, and ancestral land is taken over for cocoa production. Promises for compensation are made and broken as a matter of course. Hopes are built and shattered, filling generations with powerlessness: “When land is abundant . . . communal rights can exist more easily. But as it becomes more scarce, individual rights advance.”

And flowing stealthily beneath is the deep animosity of the Kakwa against the minority Aanke people displaced from their land into the settlement of Madafi. Originally from West Africa, the Aanke do not belong, not in Kamorga, one of the many countries “collapsed into AFRICA.” Among all Kamorgans, there is an unspoken code: “support your own people against a foreigner.”

Working to relieve some of the stress within this environment are well-intentioned multinational non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as HELP (Health, Education and Livelihood Skills Partnership). These organizations are tightly bound by complex protocols that clearly identify the “regulars” with identity cards who can be served, and the “irregulars” who are supposed to be turned away. Although exceptions are made for IDPs, HELP offices in Toronto and Kamorga can never agree upon recognizing the Aanke people as IDPs since they are believed to have received compensation for their land. HELP staff therefore do their best to serve the “irregulars” who show up “the day after and the day after . . . lining up on the verandah, spilling up into the sun-roasted compound, waiting patiently for hours and days on end.”

The list of names at the beginning of the book helps the reader in keeping track of the slew of characters. To name a few: Anjali Bhave Bhagat, acting Executive Director of HELP’s African regional office, who provides a central perspective to the novel; hard-working Mary Iwu (Anjali’s maid) and her son, Gabriel; Elizabeth, Anjali’s loyal assistant; Fatimah Ditta and her immediate and extended family of Aanke farmers; Grace Madaki, the iron-fisted chairperson of HELP; and Hassan, the charming and unforgettable contractor hired by HELP. The fictional language they speak is Morga, Kamorga’s national language.

Whereas on the one hand, Land for Fatimah is about the poor and the dispossessed, it is also about the plight of foreign or local NGOs: “Community Based Organizations, Charities – linked to religious groups or otherwise, organizations spun from trusts, organizations linked to universities and other institutions” that do not amount to more than “drops in an ocean of need.” Forced to categorize people, they end up helping some while ignoring others. Although a few of these organizations become corrupt, “some wrong-headed, others merely inefficient,” almost all of them are “well intentioned.” In actual terms, there is not much that they can change, but it is difficult to imagine life without them.

Land of Fatimah provides a rare insight into the day-to-day challenges faced by these organizations. Set against the backdrop of busy city streets with swarming Matatas (privately-owned mini-vans) and the all-consuming dust of African countryside, this novel makes a great read.

“high density settlement – view from gilbert hill, Andheri Mumbai” (CC BY 2.0) Madhav Pai
A second com

A Second Coming, Canadian Migration Fiction
Edited by Donald F. Mulcahy, Guernica, 348 pages

One of the best stories included in the twenty-four chosen by Thomas Mulcahy, editor of this intriguing anthology, has the chilling title, “Mephisto in the Land of Ice and Snow.” Written by Eileen Lohka who was born in Mauritius and who teaches French and Francophone literature and cultures at the University of Calgary, the story vividly captures the running theme of this anthology: that there is an emotional and sometimes physical consequence for emigrating, for leaving behind the familiar home country.

Canada is a land of opportunity, a multicultural space that welcomes immigrants, though the more financially comfortable life they may build can come with a cost. Kamla, the narrator of the story, arrives in Alberta as an 18-year-old from her native village, after reading a want ad for schoolteachers. She proudly becomes a Canadian citizen and changes her name to Camilla. Eventually, the “frozen prairie” becomes her inner landscape, and she remembers her village nostalgically: “I catch myself dreaming about cascading bougainvilleas, pulpy lychees, sensuous mangoes, turquoise seas and the spicy aroma of the Grand Bazaar we call the Port Louis Market.” She reflects further: “Memories assault me, paralyze me. I wonder why my children seem so bland to me, so much like everybody else. Why they never ask about my childhood.”

This kind of feeling of not being at “home” even with one’s children or relatives seems to be a shared experience with some of the characters in the stories of this anthology. Although the longing to be reunited with parents, grandparents, cousins and the original place of birth overwhelms the characters, it does not defeat them.

Another story that stands out is “Fantastic Falafel” by Veena Gokhale, a writer from Bombay who came to Canada on a Journalism Fellowship in 1990, and eventually settled in Montréal. The main character, Keshav, a retired engineer living in Mississauga with his wife and daughter, bumps into Vaman, an old friend who is also a retired engineer, while having his morning coffee at Tim Horton’s. They renew their friendship, and Keshav is flooded with memories of his childhood in India. Though Keshav is satisfied with his life, he finds that his born-in-Canada daughter, Veena, tires him as she criticizes his old ways. He wonders if she is a product of the Canadian education system that promotes critical thinking. Eventually his old friend Vaman reveals a secret to Kheshav that makes this story touching.

A more spare and haunting story is “Leokadia and Adam” by Ron Romanowski, a writer and poet from Winnipeg. Leokadia’s son is at her deathbed with his father Adam and his sister Basia and brother Wojtek. He reflects on his mother’s life and how she had published a book of poems in college back in Poland, but in Canada, had put aside her dream of being a poet in order to earn a living for her family. She had become the owner of a Winnipeg deli that sold kielbasa and sausage. In her last moments, her son recalls the Polish mystical legend of the snow white mountain goat, the Bialy Baran that appears only to the dying to ease their passage to the other world.

“Nick and Francesco Visit Canada” by F.G. Paci, author of 13 novels, is a humorous story that relates how a retired Canadian teacher with a smattering of Italian from his childhood in Italy, agrees to shepherd two eccentric men from Italy, invited to appear on a CBC game show. How they react to Canada is part of the whimsy of this story.

Other interesting stories are “The Motorcycle” by Licia Canton, previously published in an Italian journal, Rivistalunaspecie; and Michael Mirolla’s quirkily nightmarish tale “Above El Club El Salvador” that appeared in an issue of the literary magazine, Event.

Mucalhy explains in the Introduction that the anthology was also meant to include essays, memoirs and creative non-fiction on the subject of emigration/immigration. However, the abundance of material available made it a necessary to create two volumes: this anthology of fiction and a companion volume of non-fiction, also edited by Donald Mulcahy, Coming Here, Being Here.