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Family's rise and fall crosses borders

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/6/2014 (1061 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Tasneem Jamal presents a work of quiet, mounting rage and frustration as she traces the life of an ordinary family from humble origins in India to its rise to prosperity in Uganda to its expulsion and eventual arrival in Canada.

Where the Air Is Sweet, Jamal's first novel, is a story of trying to satisfy a hunger that cannot be articulated. It's a story of people held prisoner by the gender roles assigned by their culture, a story of conscious and unconscious racism as seen from the brown face of Africa.

And it is a story about family. Jamal, who was born in Mbarra, Uganda, draws on her own experience and childhood to bring her characters to life. She emigrated to Canada with her family in 1975, and lives in Kitchener, Ont., with her husband and two daughters.

The story opens with Raju leaving his village in India to pursue a better life in Uganda. He starts by managing a small shop for his cousin, graduates to his own shop, a transportation company, a tin mine and eventually a garage-auto dealership.

Repeatedly, the family is seen to be all-important as members shoulder their assigned roles. Men must do whatever is necessary to support the family. Women must always be submissive.

Raju knows his daughter's husband beats her, but still tells her: "A daughter-in-law must know her place in her new home; she must learn to hold her tongue, to follow directions, to obey, to smile even when she is not happy."

Mumtaz, his daughter-in-law, chafes under these restrictions, and thinks of her grandmother and aunts "erasing themselves in the presence of a man."

The family drama of marriage, birth, death, estrangement and reconciliation is played out against the backdrop of revolution in Uganda. When Idi Amin becomes dictator, the country starts on a downward spiral into tribal savagery.

There is no one to stop it. "The world's tolerance for slaughtered Africans is without limit," a black friend tells Raju's family.

The Asians are frustrated because they see themselves as Ugandan -- they have been citizens for several generations, and have made Uganda prosperous. Amin's backers identify with their tribe, not the nation.

Many Asians look down on the Africans, and when an African worker's child is sick because of a mistake he made, Mumtaz's first thought is "Stupid African." She doesn't say the words, but she cannot make them go away. And it bothers her.

Mumtaz realizes Africans have been humiliated. "Maybe they don't believe they are good enough. Not as good. As us. As the British... We believe we are better than them. Don't we?"

Amin expels 80,000 Asians "like trash," giving them 90 days to get out of the country.

After arriving in Canada, the family shares an apartment in Kitchener, while Raju's son Jaafar, who is Mumtaz's husband, returns to Uganda.

Cracks quickly surface in cultural traditions.

Raju's daughter-in-law Khatoun emerges in anger from a lifetime of subservience to attack Raju for the way he mistreated his wife. "Your cruelty killed her," she says, before Mumtaz stops her.

When Mumtaz moves Raju and her children to their own apartment, Raju takes on "women's work" -- making lunch for the children.

Jaafar convinces his family to return to Uganda, but soon they must flee again, and return to Canada for good. The move quite suits Raju, who feels that in Canada, his hunger will be satisfied, as it was in Uganda.

Jamal has woven a large cast of characters spanning three generations and three continents into an engrossing tale of race, gender and family relations with a sophisticated eye to their cultural origins, and an appreciation for life in Canada, "where the air is sweet."

 

Gordon Arnold is a Winnipeg writer.

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Updated on Saturday, June 28, 2014 at 8:13 AM CDT: Formatting.

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