“ Print Length: 33 pages „
~May you live in interesting times~
At the time when history's defining events are taking place, they aren't always recognised as being such defining moments. It takes a bit of hindsight to realise how significant they are. I'm sure that when the first man walked on the moon, there were plenty of people eating their dinner, feeding the dog, going to the office and just getting on with their lives. When Hitler invaded Poland, much of the world was just living their lives, oblivious to the impact of what might come next. Why do I mention these things? Because it's not always necessary for a book set at a significant time to actually be directly about that time. History's defining events can be the back-drop to a book rather than front of stage getting all the attention. Such is the case in Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed's short story 'The Dust Beneath Her Feet'.
The book is set in northern India (it's actually in Lucknow, but that's not clear nor particularly important to know) at the time when India was preparing for Independence. Independence and the Partition of India are essential elements of the story and create the context in which the book evolves but these two major historic events are not the focus - merely the setting. There are hundreds of excellent books in which Partition and the killings that accompanied it are examined and explored in great details, but there's something rather special and refreshing about a book where the impact is in the background.
The Dust Beneath Her Feet is the story of a poor Muslim family and is set in 1946 and 1947. Whilst their country was preparing for the most significant changes in 150 years, the family's lives are lived in a rather small way. They have little in material ways but they have each other. The two daughters Laila and Henna live with their mother Safiyah and their father Aarif and their lives are those of poor servants. The first change to their lives comes when Aarif's employers, an English couple called the Buttles, decide to pack up and leave India and head back to England. As they leave, Aarif's job leaves with them and the family are left without an income. No problem, Aarif will become a teacher. He will "change their destiny".
Aarif is a dreamer, a man with big ideas but small talents who takes the easy option whenever the hard one might have been more rewarding. After he helps rescue a wealthy man from an attack by muggers, he's offered a job in the man's house - a place called Purina Qila - and the plans for being a teacher are dropped. Surely he can work his way up the ladder in the house of Masood Sahib and his wife Alima Begum, get a better role and become a more important man in the household. But Aarif is impatient, he does something that it's hard to believe his employers can forgive and runs away to the Punjab to get a new job, to make his fortune and to 'change his destiny' once again.
~Step by Step~
I'm not sure whose feet the dust is beneath in this book since interestingly the female characters are quite balanced in their page time. Is our heroine young Laila, viewing events through the eyes of a small child, or is it Safiyah, striving to survive and protect her daughters with her husband far away? It's not clear and it doesn't matter. There are some horrible people in this book - there's an evil landlord, there are spiteful children in the playground and Aarif himself is hard to like. In the background hundreds of thousands of people are killing or being killed but it's the small cruelties that impact directly on the lives of the family which stay in our minds. More importantly there are acts of great kindness, some of them quite unexpected, which give us cause to hope for redemption in the midst of disaster. Masood Sahib and his wife are generous to a fault, educating the girls and sending their son, Imran, to walk them to school when racial tensions make their journey unsafe. When things get really hard for the young mother, her sanctuary comes from a Christian family with a disabled son who might be expected to have had more than enough troubles of their own.
~Small but perfectly formed~
'The Dust Beneath Her Feet' is estimated by Amazon to be the equivalent of 33 pages long which might make you wonder how much action can be squeezed into so few pages. I was surprised when I realised how short it was since it feels so much bigger. It reads like a perfectly crafted Haiku, every word there for a reason, no sentence wasted or used unwisely. As someone who's never been susceptible to brevity, I'm dumbstruck by how much happens in so few pages. Half the books I read are barely warming up by the time that 'The Dust Beneath Her Feet' has delivered the goods.
If you like a book where everything knits together neatly at the end, then you may not appreciate this one. I like the ending because of its ambiguity, not in spite of it. Nothing is completed and the reader is left with unanswered questions. When the line is drawn across the map will Aarif find himself in Pakistan instead of India? Will Safiyah be safe if she goes in search of her husband at such a dangerous time? Are the rumours her children have heard about his new life true? And should she take her children with her or leave them with her friends or her patron?
It's the kindness of others towards a young woman who has no husband or local family to protect her that gives this book a glow of reassurance. History shows that many good people did not close their doors or turn a blind eye to the troubles of others caught up in Partition - and many of the world's other defining moments - and this presents a small picture of that alternative reality. A more powerful story might have come if the author had laid on the tragedy and violence with a heavier hand but I'm glad that she didn't. It's the lightness of touch combined with the beautiful prose that makes this short book one whose story stays with the reader for a lot longer than it takes to read.
~Highly Recommended and Potentially a Free Read~
If you would like to read The Dust Beneath Her Feet, it's important to be aware that it is a short story and not a full novel. I believe Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed squeezed more into this short story than many authors will get into a book five times the length and so for me the Amazon e-book price of £1.91 (at the time of writing) is great value. Note that for those Amazon users who are members of the 'Prime' scheme, both of the author's Purana Qila short stories - 'The Dust Beneath Her Feet' and 'A Change in the Weather' - as well as her first full length novel, 'A Deconstructed Heart' can be borrowed for free through the Amazon 'Kindle Owner's Lending Library' although my guess is that if you borrow, you'll like these so much that you'll subsequently want to buy. I received my copies directly from the author who kindly provided them as gifts via Amazon.com. I still don't really understand how she did it, but I'm happy that she did.
If you'd like to know more about Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed and her writing, I recently did a Q&A with her for Curiousbookfans.co.uk which is where a shorter version of this review was first published. She gives some more information about the aunt on whom she based the character Safiyah and writes about how her Aunt's story still haunts her today.
With thanks to the Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed for providing a review copy and for many fascinating email discussions afterwards and to CuriousBookFans for arranging our contact.