Zainab Priya Dala’s debut novel What About Meera, is the story of a woman’s attempts to shape her own destiny, and evokes the streets of the Dublin and the Indian community of Tongaat in rich detail. Here is an excerpt from the opening chapter of her book, vibrant, lyrical, and full of black humour.
A freelance writer who has degrees in physiotherapy and psychology, Zainab’s writing has been published in a number of print publications and her short stories have received several awards. She was runner-up in the 2012 Witness True Stories of KwaZulu-Natal Competition. She has lived and worked in Dublin, Ireland, and currently lives in Durban, where she is a psychologist at a school for autistic children.
Salman Rushdie says of her writing, ‘Zainab Priya Dala is a writer who has suffered much for her art and is well worth reading.’
On the day the boy took his first communion, Meera slept with his father.
The father was drunk, playing to Irish archetypes. She was working as a caregiver at a school in the suburbs of Dublin. It was a school for autistic children. She had arrived in Dublin a month before, having taken a hasty decision to run far, far away. Still finding her feet among all the green and grey. And then came the polite invitation to a lovely little milestone, ‘where our child becomes one with the flesh of our blessed Saviour’.
She smiled stupidly at the boy’s mother, a Spanish vision in burnt orange and aqua, bearing a dark blue invitation card. Señora Click-Click and her posse of lisping Spaniards. Her formidable sisters, pronouncing the words ‘Communion’ and ‘come’ with their harsh, sexy ‘Kh’s’.
Okay, I will Khorm to his Khomm-you-neon.
They called him the click-click boy. Everyone did. It was his little clicky signature, in the big bad world. The act of repeatedly clicking his fingers next to his ears whenever he was stressed or irritated, or wanted to irritate.
Mostly he clicked to be left alone. Enough noisy clicking, and nobody tried to reach you or attempted to make you better. There were days when Meera wished she had a clicky signature, but this one was already taken. She would have to think of something else to chase people away.
She was too polite to decline to his mother’s face, when she came bearing the cute little invitation cards with baby-blue and white words telling Meera that he had another name that was not the click-click boy.
She was just standing there when the invitation came. Within a group of helpful professionals. All there to treat and to serve. But never to mend completely. The children could never be mended. As Meera nodded to the beautiful Spanish mother her acceptance of the invitation, she looked across the playground and her eye caught the little click-click boy, sitting on a swing, not swinging, just staring straight ahead into the spaces in front of him. She wondered if he knew about his rite of passage, his new attempt at reaching God. Perhaps a God who did not click fingers to chase people away.
Meera skipped the morning church ceremony. The actual Communion. She didn’t have anything churchy to wear. Things you wore to weddings, Communions … funerals. She only had unfashionable cheap jeans and old, worn-out boots. Some ugly shirts, all thrown together into a suitcase that smelt of incense, because it was the place she had once stored a wedding sari.
Anyway, the church ceremony for Communion was early in the morning. She couldn’t get up so early. Maybe it was a Saturday morning, and maybe she was exhausted. Maybe she was too hung-over; she had been drinking heavily since she arrived in this city. Or maybe Meera had to admit she had been drinking heavily long before that. All she knew was that the mornings were always the worst. Whatever the country.
Meera trudged dutifully along behind her Australian colleague to the big, late lunch, part of a traditional Irish Communion. She looked down at her faded jeans and black button-down shirt, both old and ugly. The Australian
colleague wore appropriate pearls and appropriate camel cashmere, artfully put together to show off her blonde, bouncy curls. She looked like a lady who lunched. Meera had packed away her choppy hair into a rusty-red beret.
Meera’s black trench coat and faded jeans made the two of them look like an ill-matched pair, walking together from the bus stop opposite the Bank of Ireland. The Australian colleague with a thoroughly Australian name, Belinda, assured Meera that she did not look too bad. She was so polite. Polite enough to suggest that maybe they should stop off at Dunnes to get a dress or something.
Meera ignored Belinda. She didn’t have the money to buy anything. Her first pay cheque had flown away in expensive overseas telephone calls and cheap wine. But once at the Communion lunch, the fashionistas of the Spanish contingent would hear nothing of her attire. They surveyed her shaggy appearance as she wound her way into their home ground, up the garden path complete with red-and-green gnome, pansies and discarded Frisbee. They shook their perfect heads. They looked glorious in their bright colours and Mango trends. They stood on the overgrown lawn, nursing interesting drinks in plastic cups. They kissed the air beside each other’s faces and warbled in beautiful tongues. Meera scanned the horizon, looking for a place to hide. There was none.