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Behind the Shadows: a review by Anchita Ghatak

Do you roll your eyes in horror every time you speak to a call centre executive? Emmanuel Sigauke in his story entitled Call Centre takes us into the world of these frontline soldiers of the twenty first century globalised market economy. In a call centre in California, a Zimbabwean is mocked by a customer for his accent and abused as an Indian, a terrorist and then bin Laden. Borders dissolve and identities collide as the call centre employee tries to deal with arrogance and ignorance.

Behind the Shadows is an anthology of African and Asian short stories in English, born out of a meeting between writers, Rohini Chowdhury and Zukiswa Wanner. In March 2011, Chowdhury and Wanner, with the objective of bringing together the two continents of Africa and Asia, sent out a call for stories with the theme outcast, to be interpreted by the writers as they pleased. The writers could be from Africa or Asia, or in the Diaspora, but it was necessary that their stories deal with the theme as experienced by Africans and/or Asians. The result is a collection of twenty one compelling stories from the two continents. The stories are all originally written in English. At present, this anthology is only available as an e-book.

Nandini Lal writes of the melting pot that is the United States of America – where people of different nations and races live together. But does a change of location result in greater acceptance or tolerance? Maybe it does. However, prejudice and ignorance can live side by side with acceptance, protectiveness and understanding. Stereoptypical notions of child-adult dynamics, child-adult relationships and man-woman interactions result in a terrible wrong. Lal’s story is an exploration of the fact that ignorance and prejudice are not just part of the psyche of the majority. Minorities – immigrants in this story - also distrust immigrants from a community or race other than their own.

Behind the Shadows pulls out things not often talked about. Philip Begho writes of tribal conventions that can’t dissolve in urban anonymity. Several stories in the collection deal with traditional ideas about life, health, disease and death and their interaction with modernity. In Maroko Outcast, we see how a self declared progressive man, who has himself railed against the caste system, becomes a prey to deeply ingrained prejudice. In Cape Farm No 432, Jayne Bauling writes of the Leprosy Repression Act of 1892( South Africa), where state intervention in leprosy created a situation where people with the disease were treated like criminals instead of getting the care and compassion they deserved. Himanjali Sankar, on the other hand, weaves an amusing tale about the interactions amongst the world of the dead and that of the living in Granny’s Parapsychological Services.

Tasneem Basha’s story gives the collection its name and talks about wife beating in an Indian South African family. Maryam is battered mercilessly by her husband Yusuf and also treated with contempt by his mother and other relatives. However, Maryam finally decides to put an end to her life as a punching bag and become a person instead. 

Cast Out by Sucharita Dutta Asane focuses on prejudice that is intrinsic to India. She writes of a village that can be accessed by mobile phones and television cameras, yet is fiercely misogynist. Girl babies are routinely killed and buried in the village but neither the villagers nor the television journalists, who occasionally turn up in the village, seem to think that this killing of baby girls should be discussed and something done to stop it. A menstruating woman polluting the temple seems a matter of much greater concern. In a story focused on menstrual taboos, it was disconcerting to see the phrase ‘menstrual cycle’ used to mean ‘menstrual period’. Surely better attention could have been paid to terminology?

The Last Rhino in Mutare looks at the tumultuous politics of Zimbabwe through a little girl’s eyes. Delia wonders about the white women who never gave a thought to the true name of things. Child she might be but she has an astute view of racism. Many events play in the background and Delia makes her own world with Ronald, Gift and Ichabod. Who is the outcast here - a child in search of harmony or the adults who are overturning her world?

The collection introduces the writers in a delightfully lighthearted way. Behind the Shadows doesn’t make any claims of being representative. The use of the terms, African and Asian, nonetheless, raises expectations. From Africa, we have stories from Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria. It is disappointing that Asia is represented largely by India and there are two (one and a half?) stories from Singapore.

This is an anthology that should be read widely. I am not sure how accessible e-books and especially Kindle editions are to readers in Africa and Asia. The unique collective of editors and writers that has put this book together will have to find ways to overcome technological barriers and work to ensure that the book reaches an eager, international readership.

Anchita Ghatak is a development professional who works on issues of poverty and rights. She has also translated  Dayamoyeer Katha into English  as A Life Long Ago.