The Moon In The Water by Ameena Hussein
Sunday Leader - Reviewed by Yasmine Gooneratne
Emeritus Professor of English at Macquarie University, NSW. She has received many international awards for her contribution to literature.Her third novel, The Sweet And Simple Kind (Perera Hussein, 2006) was shortlisted for both the 2007 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the 2008 Dublin IMPAC Award.
At the heart of this unforgettable novel are two secret words, so secret that grown-ups usually shy away from revealing their meanings to young children. One of the words is ‘ Death. ’ The three Rasheed children attempt, in the course of their fairytale child-hood of love and family loyalty, to puzzle it out.
Riyaz Uncle has died and Khadeeja Rasheed and her siblings have just been told that they are to go for his funeral. Khadeeja is seven years old and they are not sure if they understand death.
‘ It is when you go to sleep and never wake up. ’ Khadeeja stood with her hands on her hips and surveyed her younger siblings.
‘ Sabrina, open your eyes. ’
‘ I ’ m trying to see if I can die. ’
‘ Don ’ t be silly, Sabi, just because Khadeeja is the eldest doesn ’ t mean she knows everything. She frequently knows nothing! ’ Saif teased his eldest sister, ‘ Death is when you go to heaven. Listen to me, I know ’.
‘ My friend told me, ’ Khadeeja said importantly, ‘ that when your mother dies, your father will marry another woman and she will become your step-mother! ’
The other secret word is ‘ Adoption. ’ Another small boy, unknown to the Rasheed children, and not obviously connected to them, learns the meaning of this word in the cruelest possible way, through isolation, irrational punishment and exclusion:
Khadeeja shrugged, trying to smile. ‘ How did you get to know? ’
‘ Oh! I always knew! ’ Arjuna ’ s voice was stern and strident. ‘ Remember I once told you I didn ’ t have a happy childhood? Well, it ’ s easy when you don ’ t have a fairytale life, there are no secrets. A miserable servant asks why she has to look after a Rodi child, someone who is lower than she is. A drunk father says why should he spend his money on a child not his own. An insensitive teacher accidentally whispers the secret to another teacher and pretty soon the whole school knows. A bitter uncle asks loudly if bastards will inherit property which is not their birthright. So I knew alright.’
Ours is a society in which charity is a much admired and much-lauded virtue. Prosperous citizens have many good and proper reasons for wishing to share with the less fortunate some of the good things of life with which they have been blessed. The accumulation of merit is one such reason with which Buddhists are familiar. The satisfaction that accompanies the giving of alms is a sensation enjoyed by everyone who can afford the exercise, whatever their religious inclinations.
Khadeeja Rasheed ’ s story takes the reader directly into the heart of a subject rarely treated in Sri Lankan fiction the private life of a Muslim family. It is a contemporary tale, as modern as the day before yesterday, relevant to our immediate concerns whether we are familiar with Muslim traditions and beliefs or not. Its human appeal is inescapable, because, whatever the experience we bring to it, shaped by whatever culture, we have all felt the anguish of love betrayed.
It sometimes happens that a favourite or admired work of fiction is inscribed in our memory by a single scene remember the double Glouceste r cheeses with which the sadistic Murdstone tortures young David Copperfield? Remember Mr. Bennet s amused comment to Elizabeth “If any young men come for Mary or Kitty, send them in, for I am quite at leisure ?” Or Matara Hamin e’ s exchange with her daughter in our national classic, Gamperaliya: “ The schoolmaster sent you letters? What letters? What did you do with them? ” “ I threw them away, Mother” “ Threw them away? ” “ Yes into the almirah. ”
The Moon In The Water contains such a memorable moment, which reflects the childhood experience of hand-feeding beloved of every Sri Lankan child who has grown up in a loving family. Except that here the child has been violently discarded by an unloving and dysfunctional family, and thrown upon the charity of strangers:
“ That night, after the Big Man took me home from the bookshop, my mother totally frightened and shivering for what he had done, and what he may continue to do to me took me to a friend ’ s house, Aunty Chitra .
“ Stay the night here putha, ” she told me . “ I will come and get you tomorrow. ”
It was late at night and all their children were already asleep. Uncle Upali was reading in the drawing room and as Aunty Chitra walked past him with me, towards the dining room, he put down his book and took off his spectacles and looked at me.
“ Come here, son, ” he said, while Aunty Chitra gently nudged me towards him. “ Come, son, you sit here with me, Aunty will bring you some dinner. ” He then put his spectacles back on and took his book with one hand while with the other he held my own as I sat on the low ottoman beside him. When he finished a page, he would put the book down on his lap and turn the page, then take it up again and continue reading. He never let go of my hand, you know.
“ After some time Aunty Chitra brought me a plate of string-hoppers, with fish curry, tomato curry, yellow mallung and green peas curry. I still remember the dinner. She stood in front of me and mixed the food with her fingers, she took a little bit of mixed up string hoppers, added some fish, then some tomatoes, mallung and green peas, and rolled them into a tight little ball which she then flicked into my open mouth. They didn ’ t speak much to me, but her feeding and his hand holding continued uninterrupted. After dinner, they put me to bed in their spare room downstairs .”
Why does Arjuna remember that late-night dinner? Why will the reader remember it? Because that tiny scene, seemingly trivial, is the only memory of spontaneous affection that a child will carry into adult life.
“ I never cried again. ”
It is quite probable that many readers of this novel have never had to think deeply about the issues involved in adoption. It is very unlikely that, having read it, they will ever again forget them.