Published in Dawn, Lahore, Pakistan July 09, 2006
A List Of Offences
Reviewed by Shagufta Yasmeen
A list of Offences has a strange effect on the reader’s mind. It is akin to riding on a small boat facing the ebb and tide of the river. The placid and agitated state of the protagonist, Daria’s, mind has been voiced so naturally that it becomes one with the voices of the innumerable girls and women living in different parts of the subcontinent faced with the same kind of ordeal. Daria is not an individual, she represents a sea of faces – now clear, now jaded – belonging to the victims of circumstances, being tortured by the people they are a part of.
Dilruba Z. Ara’s A list of Offences is an engrossing novel, especially if the reader belongs to the fair sex. It has an aura of a fairy tale as it revolves around a girl who was born with hair the colour of sunlight on the river. In a small village the news of such a birth coupled with the news of the midwife wetting herself in the birthing room travelled to all four corners like wild fire. This fairy tale takes twists and turns and exposes the vicissitudes that life brings for Daria. The theme may be run-of-the-mill, involving the parental love received by the little girl, the protection of an educated father who wanted to save his daughter from a dubious future by making her independent, the backlash of ill-placed love, the marriage that was bound to fail from its very inception, the inevitable tussle for love between wife/ mother-in-law/ sister-in-law. Many novels have been written involving such themes, yet what makes this novel different is its flowing style. Each and every incident has been described poignantly and explicitly.
The story begins in a very innovative way:
A whisper went round the little village of Gulab Ganga during the days around Daria’s birth. It said “Jharna Begum, Daria’s Ammu, had defied God when she refused to give up the thought of having a daughter.” Jharna Begum’s resolution to hold a daughter in her arms took her to a Pir who provided her with a green bottle with enchanted water. It was decreed by the Pir that after bathing in water mixed with the enchanted water for seven Thursdays, she would conceive a girl. Thus Daria came into this world not with a whimper but a bang shocking all those present in the room with her cascade of white hair.
Dilruba has a knack for story telling. She has included incidents seeped in Bengali culture which lend authenticity to the tale. It smells of indigenous flora and fauna and has a subtlety that takes many readers by surprise.
It is a tale of Daria and Ali Baba. The two as different from each other as Gulab Ganga was different from Faringi Para. The sweetsmelling and chaste Gulab Ganga is placed with the immorality personified Faringi Para. The marriage of Daria and Ali Baba is the most paradoxical event. The two families were as different as the two sides of a coin. The Chaudharys were religious people who abided by the norms of their culture and tradition, while the Babas were of dubious origin. Kasim Baba’s parents had been untouchable Hindus, “who had turned Muslim in order to be touchable.” The pious Baba family gave them roof and provided for them. They were repaid by Kasim a long time after their death by drowning; he assumed a change of name, and what name could be better than Baba, a name that would pave his path for the nobility. Thus, Ali Baba grew up in the secular atmosphere of Baba House, where the inhabitants did not clothe themselves and he was not circumcised.
Dilruba Z. Ara’s tale of Daria, Ali Baba and Mizan, the orphan boy who grew up in the Chaudhary household is a tale told many times, yet it retains a freshness. The feelings are age-old, the essence is new. It is a story of a girl who was labelled different at birth and who later on faced mental anguish par endurance.
A novel is not only appreciated for its themes but also the manner in which the story has been executed. There is nothing to read between the lines here, no philosophy has been expounded. No psychological overtones are seen, yet the tale stands on its own strength. It is a story of women in the sub-continent, who were suppressed, are suppressed and will face the same fate till God knows when – a reality one cannot ignore. It is sad that this beautifully told tale has been marred by the inclusion of political venom which is uncalled for. The author has mentioned a prominent political figure’s name albeit incorrectly. There seems to be no need for this political touch, as the story would have sustained itself without the inclusion of this idea.