A mother sends her daughter away at the age of six and the daughter allows the memory of that parting to fester through her adult life. The Architecture of Loss is just that—a tale of what loss does to relationships. Afroze and Sylvie of the chiffon saris drift apart, leaving a memory of men who pass in the night. Sylvie is a doctor who hands her daughter Afroze over to the mercy of the child’s father, Ismail, who in turn passes her on to the woman he lives with, Moomina, a Malay wrapped in the warmth of cinnamon and dough.
Zainab Priya Dala’s book covers the other worlds of apartheid that one does not often encounter—the woman’s part of it. However, that is kept up her sleeve until the book has progressed almost till the end. What she gives us is that Afroze is called Rosie for short, and her coming of age in Cape Town is a long way away from the incongruously named Brighton, located in the South of Africa far from sea or sand. At the beginning of the story, Afroze returns to visit her sick mother, waving her reputation as a successful architect like a banner of fame and finds that her mother has a little girl called Bibi living with her. Jealousy churns like bile in her throat because she sees in Bibi the happy child at her mother’s side that she was not allowed to be, Bibi with her protective real mother, Halaima, as opposed to the woman who fed and looked after Afroze in the face of Sylvie’s neglect.
Dala tells a story that gradually becomes one of parallels and through her poetry and colourful prose brings Latin American writers to mind. This is especially prominent in the section with Moomina, who wraps the girl around with love because she is a kind of warm coverlet in the bread she bakes or in the life she leads, despite her abusive husband, who is Afroze’s vagabond father. Moomina’s is a story about making old, faded things seem bright and vibrant, as opposed to Sylvie’s ruined bungalow with its dazzling coverlets.
The Architecture of Loss is also about the architecture of language. Afroze is a brilliant student, ‘a silver bullet’ kind of girl rising above a childhood hidden in a museum’s broom closet, while her second mother sells ‘cake sisters’ in the streets of Cape Town. Rosie learns to sketch brilliantly in the closet; her passion for architecture is born there. However, Dala does not establish her as an architect, but through a stream of relationships with men that do not work out. Afroze frets at her six-year-old memory of separation and cannot tolerate men who leave her—a reflection of what she remembers of her mother’s life in her Zulu home, in Brighton.
Sylvie appears to inhabit all the cliches of women seeking lovers wearing wigs and grotesque lipstick to hide the ravages of old age. However, a long way into the story, Dala makes us realise that our reading of a situation may not be the correct one. The giveaway is that Sylvie, actually Silvarani, is a doctor and a woman brilliant at her work, but put down by all the men she encountered, Black or White, who felt that a woman had no right to be either doctor or activist. The apartheid story appears to be very different from the Indian fight for independence, where women of a certain background fought side by side for their rights against the British. The Architecture of Loss explores a hitherto unexposed side to Steve Biko and those who supported him. Expectedly, bodies in the night and police brutality are vividly described, including the police gang-rape of a beautiful Zulu jazz singer. These are the dangers that those who practise underground work, or those who go against the system, encounter.
However, this is not a book about activism or architecture—though Sylvie’s activism is more fleshed out than Afroze’s architectural success. Afroze’s brilliant career only promises to have structure when the end is reached and her work has an emotional context. Mother and daughter’s lives bracket each other and the story of forgiveness comes full circle. For Afroze and Sylvie, no one else really exists, though they pretend to encourage other loves and relationships—Moomina is happily discarded with memories of Cape Town. Thwarted love makes a plastic rose more beautiful than the real roses that bloom in Brighton, and the politics of relationships proves itself to be more entangled than politics themselves.