A Season of Premature Twilight by Fehmida Zakeer
Reviewed by Neera Kashyap
Early in her story, ‘A season of premature twilight’, Fehmida Zakeer sets an impersonal and ironic tone for the reader. With this, she deftly minimizes the impact of the serious issues involved in the narrative: an impoverished fatherless childhood with three other sisters; life in an orphanage; autocracy, fraudulence and sexual abuse in adolescence itself; public attention through a media that fluctuates between two extreme situations of vilification and fulsome praise. But the protagonist Zeenat is bright, very bright. This, too, is established early in the story.
Zakeer’s concession to emotion in the first part of the story is reflected in Zeenat’s observation of the rapidly deteriorating condition of the orphanage where she lives – ‘a gap-toothed roof that creaks and groans in the wind’, the floor mat a ‘green skin….a breeding ground for the insect world’, broken glass, still hanging in window panes, ‘covered with cardboard, torn out from our notebooks, fearing an invasion of snakes and scorpions’, ‘the roof, covered with ancient tiles, resting on a rotting wooden frame’.
This intelligent use of imagery to depict the protagonist’s own denudation of mind and soul culminates in a situation when a torrent of monsoon rain breaks into the building and forty girls are shifted into two storerooms. It is here that the writer prepares the reader for the crisis to come: “To the mosquitoes buzzing at night, our sleeping bodies might as well be one giant creature with several arms spread out over the floor. Not that it matters to them, they just want our blood.’ When the marauders do come, they come in the form of ‘four, no, five black cars, black and long, parked all around the building, like crows clustered around a carcass.’
It is this minimalist style that hooks the reader. When the writer can take the tragic turn of events in her stride, so can the reader. A fraudulent marriage of a girl from an impoverished family results in sexual abuse for a week not only by the ‘husband’ but by a ‘different husband each night’, in a resort in the backwaters overlooking a picture postcard view.
Then comes a delicious sardonic touch: Zeenat is dumped back home; her mother faints, then pleads with the school, and then with the child welfare committee. The media swings negative on this occasion, vilifying Zeenat and her family. Zeenat’s words are terrifyingly matter-of-fact: ‘I am famous…..Every day I learn more about myself from the newspapers and television’. Equally stunning is the media swing when Zeenat tops her exams in the entire district. At a press conference at the collectorate, the media demands justice for Zeenat. The cacophony is again reflected in Zeenat’s mind in images of barking dogs, raucous crows and wailing cuckoos. It is here at the story’s end that there could have been greater comic exaggeration, so far the story having been so evenly toned by the writer with its use of reflective imagery and impersonal observation.
One was reminded of a story, ‘The divine pregnancy in a twelve-year old woman,’ the 2018 Commonwealth short story prize-winner from Asia by Sagnik Datta. In this, God visits the villagers of a particular village in a dream, bestowing one woman among them with ‘His honour’. So a 12-year old orphan girl is believed to have the honour of carrying God’s child, the story building up through layers of possessiveness and anticipation to the climax of the child’s birth. There is, of course, a very sneakily alluded-to lover in the background. The child born, to great all-round shock is a girl, and the 12-year old girl’s end is described with such an exaggerated impunity that it becomes humorous: “Usha continued bleeding even after the baby was delivered. In fact, she bled so much that the blood soon flowed outside her room and down the steps into the courtyard. It would have reached the pond had we not started mopping it up; men with their lungis and shirts, women with their saris. But there seemed to be no end of it, and we wondered how her little body could have held so much blood. After an hour we were tired, and had to call for shovels to dig a moat.’
Reviewer Neera Kashyap's stories 'Supplication' appeared in Out of Print June 2017 and 'Dual Awakenings' in Out of Print June 2018.