Mahek Jangda’s debut novel Sometimes Ivory, Sometimes Sand is set in an unnamed, underdeveloped nation, where people still communicate through letters and hand-written notes. They have unique names like Ruff Senior and Ruff Junior, the most prosperous district is called Rahat, and the currency is Rehat.
Women enjoy no rights, and the birth of a girl child is quite expectedly mourned. The reader may be inclined to believe that the novel is set in a backward Taliban-run Islamic country. But, no. The women may spend their days in the kitchen making the best biryani and kebabs for their husbands, but they are not Muslim. They are rather borderline atheists, who hardly ever blame the gods for their plight or look up to the gods to end their miseries. They are culturally diverse and tolerant too – some cover their heads and some wear skirts and savour everything from cakes to samosas to kulchas to kebabs.
The novel follows the journey of two women who refuse to settle into a life of constraints. Twenty-something Laila Jagir is the super-rich daughter of a powerful councilman and has a natural flair for politics. Seventeen-year-old Jasmine Mir’s world has been shaped by her father’s mysterious disappearance and extreme poverty. Brought up by her conservative mother, who prefers to starve her daughter to feed her son, Jasmine has been conditioned to suppress her own voice and not raise it.
Jasmine and Laila are brought together by fate when Jasmine runs away from home to escape her brother’s beatings and to find her missing father, and Laila gets married in a political trade-off.
Jasmine circles the relatively progressive town of Rahat with her father’s frayed photograph, trying to find Fern Tree, the factory where he had worked. Since the search is not as easy as she had imagined, she decides to take up the job of a waitress at a popular cakery in Rahat.
In her naiveté Laila lands herself in an abusive marriage to Raymond Tony. A momentous bill allowing women to be elected into the national council has been proposed and Laila agrees to marry Tony, a councilman and a father of a 10-year-old if he votes in favour of it. Laila, the daughter of councilman Ahmed, is convinced that the life of her countrywomen will change for the better once they elect a woman representative. Tony turns out to be an abusive partner. But Laila undergoes the pain every single night – “like medicine, bitter but essential for her survival in this house” – for the women’s bill, and for the sake of the greater good of the nation. When Tony does not vote in favour of the bill, Laila runs away with Jai Tony, her stepson, whom she has grown fond of, and quite accidentally lands in Jasmine’s closet-sized basement apartment. However, despite Tony not voting for the bill, it is passed. Laila takes it upon herself to find a suitable woman candidate to contest the seat. She sets her eyes on Naya Roben, a successful entrepreneur, who has done a lot for women – from offering skillful training to lucrative placements. Laila also applies for divorce from Tony and seeks the custody of Jai. The court battles get ugly, with her being slut-shamed, and accused of bringing dishonour to her husband’s and her own family. On Jasmine and her lawyer-friend’s suggestion, Laila decides to run for the council herself, but there are hurdles aplenty – no funds for her election campaign, her reputation is at its worst, and self-esteem at its lowest.
On this journey of self-discovery, Laila and Jasmine often come across as too idealistic and naïve, often forgetting to factor in the traps that lie ahead: “They soon discover that politics is a dangerous game and that those in power will do anything to hold on to it.”
Jangda has sketched her characters with care. The plots and the subplots have been woven well, and the book reads like a thriller. It is difficult to put it aside. She succeeds, too, in celebrating the power of women, especially the ones who have set their minds and heart on a worthy cause, the good of the nation, overlooking their own interests.
However, the storyline is often filmy. Jasmine and Ruff, Laila’s lawyer, walk into a trap in a bid to expose a candidate. Like a 1980s Hindi film, five burly men molest Jasmine and beat up Ruff. They are saved only because they had left a note back at the hotel stating that if they do not return by morning, their friends should come looking. Jasmine cannot read and write, (has learnt to take down orders as a waitress), and her posing as a journalist in front of a renowned entrepreneur is bizarre; the tiny nation does not have mobile phones, but an active cab service available in remote locations; a doctor safekeeps a dead man’s letter for six years, and a nurse recalls the name of that patient in a jiffy! In Jangda’s universe, lawyers agree to work for free – since it’s their big first case, and the client does not have money to pay. In this case, the lawyer, who is just out of law school, takes on a battery of experienced lawyers representing the super powerful Tony. A reader may also be tempted to believe that once a woman is elected to the national council – this unnamed nation will rid itself of all its flaws, and become utopian.
Jangda’s writing is beautiful, and holds promise: “The sky, transitioning from its tangerine hues to make way for the moonlight, continuously shifts, its surface coloured sometimes ivory, sometimes sand.”
When you are 26, the writing can only get better.
Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.