In Land for Fatimah, we follow Anjali, an Indian woman who as a young girl witnessed the levelling of a slum outside of Bombay, displacing the members of that poor colony. She’s carried that horrible event in her head since, and we now find her working for an international non-profit organization called HELP (Health, Education and Livelihood Skills Partnership) and has taken on a year-long assignment in Kamorga, a fictional East African country. The author spent two years working in Tanzania, from which she drew inspiration for Anjali’s story.
Some stories cannot be contained. They refuse to remain confined to a particular place, whispered by a select group of people. These stories must get out and wander, make themselves known, grab this ear and that. Such was the story of Fatima and the Aanke from Ferun.
Anjali attempts to help Fatimah’s displaced Aanke people find land after their traditional land was appropriated from them. They were to be monetarily compensated, but few ever saw any money. Anjali is determined to help Fatimah get land although it is beyond the scope of HELP to do so. She also has to deal with her colleague Grace who opposes her every initiative (and perhaps harbours a longstanding tribal grudge against the Aanke people) and deal with the inevitable governmental red tape. On the personal side, she needs to make time for her own school-age son Rahul and try to keep a long-distance relationship with her fiance Jeremy going. Her maid, Mary has become close to her as she has a son that plays quite well with Rahul. However, Mary soon learns she has cancer and will not live to see her son grow up. This weighs heavily on Anjali’s mind too:
Anjali hadn’t reconciled to the news; how could she? She continued to swing between shock and sadness. Sometimes the heart lags behind the mind. More often it races ahead and grasps the entirety in an instant, while the mind trails, seeking reasons, cause and effect, harping on the notion that life must make sense.
What I liked about Ms. Gokhale’s writing is her ability to convey the sights, sounds and smells of Kamorgan life, whether it is Mary’s delicious cooking, the fragrant little flower garden that surrounds Anjali’s residence, or the sensations of an Aanke marriage ceremony. The story is never rushed; it unravels at a leisurely pace, for in this part of Africa it is too hot to be in a hurry, and nothing ever happens quickly anyway. At first, I found all the various names, places and people bewildering, but Ms. Gokhale has kindly provided a cast list at the start of the book. I referred to it several times while reading Land for Fatimah.
Guernica Editions (“No Borders, No Limits”) excels at publishing books by authors with diverse backgrounds who have stories to tell that emanate from their own culture, their own experiences. Land for Fatimah is an excellent example. It is the type of book that exists to broaden the horizons of those with an interest in novels with multi-cultural roots, presenting a way of life that may be unfamiliar to us.
In short, a beautiful, reflective story that is sensitively told.
“The story hit many of those bittersweet moments you have when trying to make a difference against all odds. I know anybody who has worked in a developing country or with an NGO will love the book.” – Andra Tamburro, Former Director at Water Advocate
Land for Fatimah by Veena Gokhale
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James M. Fisher is the owner and editor-in-chief of The Miramichi Reader. The Miramichi Reader (TMR) —Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases— highlights noteworthy books and authors across Canada from coast to coast to coast (est. 2015). James works and resides in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane and their tabby cat Eddie.