The Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A telling memoir of a woman who grew up in 1950s Kerala

From receiving differential treatment on the basis of her gender to questioning injustices as a little girl, Zuhara paints an honest and persuasive picture of the times bygone.
Zuhara and her book
Zuhara and her book
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There should have been a few pictures of BM Zuhara as a little girl sprinkled between the pages of her book The Dreams of a Mappila Girl, A Memoir. You’d want that by the end of the book, if only to compare the real Zuhara with the one you imagined, reading about the life of a young Muslim girl growing up in the 1950s Kerala. It is up to the reader to decide if it is a story or a novel or a memoir, Zuhara says in her preface, for they are both real and imagined chapters of her life, from the time she spent in Thikkodi, a village in Kozhikode. The original version in Malayalam — Ummakuttiyude kunhikinaavugal — has now been translated into English by Fehmida Zakeer, a writer and translator in Kerala.

I grew up at a time when Muslim girls did not even have the freedom to dream. When I started writing, I had to face a lot of criticism and threats, and I found many limitations imposed on me. Until then, only men had recorded the inner lives of Muslim women. Even though I could not comfort my sisters physically, I have tried through my writings to give them a voice by speaking about their dreams, chronicling the obstacles and difficulties faced by them, and providing a perspective from the point of view of women.

These are her words at the beginning of the book. In the chapters that follow, she slips into various episodes of her childhood, not in any particular order or theme; except that they are from the time she lived in her ancestral house Kizhekke Maliyakkal. The stories look like memories spilling out from the corners of her mind, “coloured” as she says, with her imagination. Zuhara, who won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for her contributions to Malayalam literature in 2008, gives in her memoir, a beautiful account of what it meant to be a girl back in the 50s.

At many places, she points out the differential treatment that she, as a girl, had to endure — there should be no thoughts of higher education once you hit puberty, a desire to have a job would surely invite rebuke, running up the stairs or laughing out loud were a no-no, and leaving home without an umbrella or someone to accompany you was bad. Instead, the only dream you were supposed to have was to get married at the age of 15 to a nice man, and make his needs your priority.

When at one point, Zuhara, after watching a working class woman, announces that she too would earn so she could buy tickets for the movies, her mother gives her a sharp slap. The poor child doesn’t understand why, what did she say wrong. Sadly, the slap had come from a woman, who wanted to learn the Quran after getting married at the age of 15, but on asking her husband, got a bitter response.

BM Zuhara / Facebook

Zuhara, however, had the privilege of being born into a wealthy family, as she makes clear through her remarks about their house, the multiple servants, and the properties and wealth of her family. In multiple places, she also describes how her family has the respect of so many others in the village. When Zuhara moved to a new school in Payyoli, she says she no longer enjoyed the special status of ‘being one of the children from the Kekkele house’. About her old school in Thikkodi, she writes:

Almost everyone recognised us at Thikkodi School; only a few students did not know who we were. Most of the students there were the children of our coconut pluckers or suppliers or relatives both distant and near.

But even as a young child, she could understand the privileges that came with money, and the unfairness of her poor friends being denied the same. When her grandmother complained about the land reforms, which gave ownership rights to the poor who tilled the farms of the rich, Zuhara felt uneasy. She thought of her friend Ammalu and “scores of others who had never had these privileges in the first place”. And when her grandmother said that their woes began after the British left, Zuhara, a schoolgirl who did well in her studies (except in Mathematics), remembered her social studies classes: “about the great troubles endured by Gandhiji, Nehru and others in their effort to get the white men out of the country”.

But of course, it is not all serious musings and adult-like behaviour. Zuhara also paints some beautiful images that only childhood could bring. It is a mystery how she can remember so much, including the incomplete or vague thoughts of a child, and the strange world of the adults she lived with. She admits she was a huge cry-baby, an element that is repeatedly mentioned across the book. Only, sometimes, the maturity of the thoughts seems to be too much coming from a little girl. At the age of six, she notes that Kunhamina, one of the domestic workers of the house, is “delighted at the chance to go into the house and see what was happening”, when someone asks her to take little Zuhara to where her mother was, at the time her grandfather died.

Imagined or not, there is an honesty in Zuhara’s jottings that makes it endearing to read. And Fehmida makes sure the memories stay beautiful in a translated language.

The memoir is also a reminder of the times we have left behind, to not forget the many, many difficulties women went through. The feminist in Zuhara keeps coming out at every instance of injustice towards her gender. When her elder brother says that girls cannot wander around, that they don’t have the freedom that boys do, she shoots back: “so boys can do whatever they want?”

She also notes appreciatively at one point: “I have always considered Umma’s (mother) decision to get out of the house and work in the yard not only an assertion of her independence, but also an indication of the changing times.”

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