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On Back Stage

Salma is a consummate storyteller, blending poetry and prose, gossip and history. Lakshmi Holmstrom's admirable translation carries the reader into the sweep of oral, talkative, busy people.

On Back Stage
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The Hour Past Midnight
By Salma (Tr. By Lakshmi Holmstrom)
Zubaan Pages: 478; Rs. 350
Salma’s is not a casual book about lifting the veil and catching a voyeuristic glimpse of the Muslim world. Instead, she pushes away a host of cliches. Salma guides us through the intricacies of women’s layered social structures, where men exist only to provide a choric voice of authority. Rabia’s blossoming youth and sexual urge, Firdaus’s transgression and tragedy, Wahida’s frustrated anger, Zohra’s tenuous balance and the tales of numerous other women reveal how no pan-Islamic formula can bring us to an understanding of female desire and the institutional controls over it.

Arranged along the month of Ramzan and the elaborate culinary practices of ritual fasting, the novel uses food, clothing and domestic space to give an authentic picture of tradition even as it poses questions about its modern adaptability. Sometimes, Salma’s women succeed in opening a path to education, to love, to friendship—at other times they are weighed down by the past’s baggage.

A marvelous cast of characters reminds us of other female fictions like Anjana Appachana’s Listening Now and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Salma uses a village setting, perhaps gathered from her own experience of being a community leader, a sarpanch, in Tamil Nadu. The tales are interwoven like braided hair, distinct yet together. Salma is a consummate storyteller, blending poetry and prose, gossip and history. Lakshmi Holmstrom’s admirable translation carries the reader into the sweep of oral, talkative, busy people.

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