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FICTION: WOMEN ON THE VERGE

July 07, 2019

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The Braid, written by French actress, film director and author Laetitia Colombani and translated into English by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, is an interconnected series of three novellas that tell the poignant stories of three women separated by geography and circumstances, but bound by their struggles.

Smita is a Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh, India, whose job is to manually clean other people’s latrines — a line of work passed down to her from generations: “It’s your heritage. A circle no one can break. Karma.” She is married to a rat hunter and, ostracised by society, they live an impoverished life trying to make the best of their circumstances. Smita does not want her daughter to be resigned to the same fate as her and takes the life-changing decision to enrol her in school. This is something unheard of amongst the untouchables but, unbeknownst to her, this decision — besides exposing her daughter to the unadulterated and scorching discrimination faced by Dalits in society — will also change their lives forever.

Giulia is a worker in her father’s last-of-its-kind wig factory in Palermo, Italy. Her family has been upholding the Sicilian tradition of keeping hair after it has fallen out or been cut, in order to make hairpieces or wigs. Giulia is the only child passionate about the family business and willing to carry on the generational profession.

A translation of a French novel tells the tale of three characters separated by geography and social circumstances, but bound by the universal struggles of being women

Sarah, meanwhile, is a partner in a prestigious law firm in Montreal, Canada. She is a textbook workaholic and a cut-throat lawyer whose aim in life is to shatter the glass ceiling. She has sacrificed her family life for her career and maternal guilt is her cross to bear, because “...it cost her more than she cared to admit.” The guilt of bailing on her children’s birthday parties and family trips bears heavily on her, but she has understood early on that she cannot have a flourishing career and simultaneously nurse the dilemmas of a heartbroken mother. So “she hid her tears under a thick coat of foundation and left for work.” But soon enough, her personal dilemmas become a professional impediment after she is diagnosed with cancer.

In each story, a critical moment appears in the lives of the three protagonists which irrevocably changes the trajectory of their lives. For Giulia, it is the moment she finds out that her father is involved in a near fatal accident. As he hovers between life and death, Giulia is left to take the reins of the waning family business.

For Smita, her dream that her daughter Lalita will finally break the shackles of caste and poverty is shattered when, on the very first day of school, Lalita is beaten by her teacher for not sweeping the classroom. This glaring discrimination and public humiliation rattles something deep within Smita’s core and she decides to take a potentially life-threatening decision to escape her village. Her conviction is absolute as she reflects that “[c]ourage is not given solely to those who are well born.”

In Sarah’s case, the writer tenderly illustrates how people who are braving terminal illnesses are often courted with survival stories which prove to be counterproductive. Not only does Sarah have to brave her personal health battles, she also has to feign positivity when people try to fortify her with these stories: “Sarah couldn’t care less about all the stories of recovery people regaled her with now, at every opportunity, tossing them like bones for her to chew over.”

What is artful about the narrative is how it coalesces the disparate stories of these three women, whose circumstances could not be more different from each other. The three storylines are plaited by the common denominator, which is that women everywhere feel like social pariahs in their lives. When push comes to shove, they have to dig deep within themselves for untapped reserves of resolve they didn’t know they possessed.

She had envied her husband’s cheerful, casual attitude. The fascinating insouciance of men, for whom guilt seemed not to exist. They stepped out the front door with appalling ease, taking nothing with them but their caseload, while she shouldered her burden of guilt, like a tortoise labouring under its shell. — Excerpt from the book

Smita’s story touches on the abject poverty and blatant discrimination faced by the untouchables in India. The appalling conditions that they live in are abhorrent to the say the least; they are not allowed to earn wages, and are only allowed to keep what they scavenge — in this case, the rats that Smita’s husband catches, which they eat — and even that is considered a ‘privilege’ of a kind in their culture.

After her diagnosis becomes public knowledge, Sarah is slowly but surely relegated from the crucial, top-tier management of her law firm. She is no longer seen as an exceptional, maverick lawyer, but only as an embodiment of her illness. In this way she has become, like Smita, an outcast: “Cancer scared people, it isolated them, pushed them away ... Untouchable: that was what Sarah had become. Relegated to the margins of society.”

As for Giulia, she must take charge of her family business, but the Sicilian community in which she struggles to prove herself is deeply entrenched in patriarchy and convention. As she tries to establish her ability and credibility in the hostile environment, she is helped in her quest by an unlikely companion: a Sikh, who knows how it is to feel like an outsider in society.

One minor niggle I had with the book was the lack of apt pathos. The circumstances that the characters find themselves embroiled in should induce substantial empathy and tenderness in the readers and, while in some instances that is the case, the writing lacks nuance. The narrative pretty much reads monotonous throughout, which compromises the emotional context of the story. At times, the culturally-specific predicaments of the three women come off as mere tropes since the writer only delves superficially into these issues. Despite that, though, The Braid is a socially relevant, engaging piece of fiction that says something universal about the social struggles faced by women globally and the sheer force of will employed to overcome their stumbling blocks.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications

The Braid
By Laetitia Colombani
Translated by Louise Rogers
Lalaurie
Picador, UK
ISBN: 978-1509881086
224pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 7th, 2019