Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma
Early through the novel one learns a rather strange practice of women giving birth while ‘standing like a mare’, priding themselves that nobody other than the midwives witness the child birth.
An award-winning novel raises multiple expectations, not only on its substance and style but on its linguistic strength in connecting reader with the imagined world of possible realities. At the end, what counts are the lingering thoughts the prose leaves the readers to continue grapple with in solitude. Celestial Bodies, first Omani novel to win the coveted Man Booker prize, ticks all the boxes on being imaginative, alluring and irresistible at the same time. First published as Sayyidat al-qamar, the novel by academic Jokha Alharthi traces an Omani family journey over three generations, through the twists and travails in a country that emerged as an oil-rich Gulf state in the 1960s but was the last to abolish slavery in 1970. Carefully crafted on a historical canvas, it prisms lived experience of three sisters as they swim through changing times that opens life in an Omani village to the world.
For American historian Marilyn Booth, who translated the book and shared the prize, there were surprises throughout. What attracted her to translate Alharthi was the absence of stereotypes in her analysis of gender, race, and social distinction. “Through the different tentacles of people’s lives and loves and losses we come to learn about this society – all its degrees, from the very poorest of the slave families working there to those making money through the advent of a new wealth in Oman and Muscat.” Alharthi weaves individual stories through a distinct but intricate and engaging narrative; while the third-person account deals with the person(s) on whom the chapter is named, the first-person reflections are by only one character, Abdallah – the lone voice in a man’s world who happens to be the husband of the eldest of the three sisters.
Celestial Bodies is set in the Omani village of al-Awafi and follows the stories of three sisters: Mayya, who lay immersed in her sewing machine but marries into a rich family after a heartbreak; Asma, who was at peace with her books and marries for duty; and Khawla, who spent better part of life with her mirror and waited to marry a man who had emigrated to Canada. Undoubtedly fallible but individualistic nonetheless, each has a share in the complicated inter-generational relationships in a domestic drama that connects ‘past’ with ‘future’ through a transitional ‘present’. It is subtle artistry of the author that allows its characters to retain their individuality, but not without being part of a home that has externalities of influences at work all the time which sheds light on travesties of life in Oman.
What makes Celestial Bodies distinct is its proclivity for details captured through varied voices and tones about cultural norms, social customs, and entrenched taboos. What comes out clear is that there is a silent quest amongst women to break free from the shackles of traditions, reflecting inner strength and a resolve to play different. Else, Mayya would not have dared to name her daughter ‘London’ despite sustained criticism on naming the little angel for a city in the land of the Christians. There is defying silence in her response to all-pervasive whisper around the issue, using silence as an act of perfection to guard herself. By creating a bubble of silence around her, Mayya found that nothing could cause her any pain. Alharthi allows her characters to evolve on their own, gaining distinct identity and drawing strength from their well thought-out actions.
Early through the novel one learns a rather strange practice of women giving birth while ‘standing like a mare’, priding themselves that nobody other than the crowding midwives witness the child birth. ‘There is no longer any shame in the world as women have their babies lying flat on their backs, and the men can hear their screams from the other end of the hospital.’ Having herself been born through such a tradition, and cajoled by none other than her own mother about its virtues, Mayya had her baby slide out right into the hands of the Christians in a missionary hospital in Muscat. Symbolic as it may seem, the generational swing towards modernity has its virtues but that do not make life any less turbulent in the long run. Yet, change remains the essential denominator for defying the inherited values in a traditional society.
How change works out across generations is an altogether different subject? Although upholding the banner of ‘change’, Mayya found it hard to reconcile the fact that London was in love. Why would she lock up her daughter and smash her phone? Having not had his share of love as Mayya remained glued to her sewing machine, Abdallah thought she never knew love and so did not know how to deal with her lovelorn daughter. Popping up as some sort of an interlocutor in Celestial Bodies, Abdallah doesn’t assert any authority but shares his vulnerabilities and accepts lack of control over things shaping around him. One begins to empathize with Abdallah who laments: ‘everything remained in its place even if I had no place.’ There is subtle artistry in Alharthi’s writing that lends a mix of psychology and philosophy to the novel.
Celestial Bodies has multiple beginnings, but no end. It is mosaic of complicated human relationships, where one begins to discover oneself by breaking the cocoon of myths and beliefs. Early in her marriage, Asma discovered that marriage was not the coming together of unmade halves (as she had long perceived) who find their other halves and miraculously become whole. Far from being each other’s halves, each one is a celestial sphere complete unto itself, orbiting only along its already defined path. It is through patience and self-examination that one learns that there is an inherent gain in creating enough space in relationships for each to orbit freely. Asma made peace with her better half after realizing that humans are but celestial bodies with a defined course of its own. Any collision or fusion is an act of temporary disruption, one must adjust into and move on.
There is some kind of intuitive creativity with which individual characters emerge from their fallible existence to lend strength to the narrative. Alharthi lets them be, an embodiment of strengths, follies and eccentricities of life. Khawla’s long wait was over following the return of Nasir from Canada. Once she was settled in Oman with her husband and two children, she sought divorce from the one she had only waited to share her life with. Celestial Bodies is a multi-generational saga full of surprises, which also tells the story of a country that is evolving out of its past traditions. Alharthi captures multiple situations in presenting a nuanced understanding of the coming-of-age of a society in transition. A doctorate in Classical Arabic Poetry and author of three collections of stories, Alharthi has the makings of a literary giant that readers will only begin to wait for her next.
by Jokha Alharthi
Translated by Marilyn Booth
Simon & Schuster, New Delhi
Extent: 243, Price: Rs. 499.
First published in The Book Review, issue dated Sept, 2019.
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)