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New Orleans to Bengal, Novelist Fatima Shaik tells her story
By Ranjita Biswas
Her forefather sailed from the banks of the River Hooghly in West Bengal to explore greener pastures and landed up in America's southern city of New Orleans. Two generations later, noted American writer Fatima Shaik, 60, came back to Bengal earlier this year in search of her roots, as the subject of a new documentary by US-based award-winning filmmaker Kavery Kaul.

Whether or not Shaik managed to trace her long-lost family back to a remote village in Hooghly district she is not saying - that's because she can't speak about it till the film is complete - but how she got interested in making her maiden trip to India is indeed a fascinating tale.

As a child Shaik knew that her surname was 'different' even though New Orleans is a melting pot of diverse people - whites and blacks, Hispanics, immigrants and long-time settlers. As she writes in a guest post on her website: "The New Orleans telephone book annually hit our wide, wooden front porch with a thud in the 1950s and 60s. Every year, I rushed to bring the book inside and look for our last name. The result was always the same - only one Shaik family lived in the city and we were further isolated by my father's first name, Mohamed."

Mohamed Shaik, an airplane mechanic during the war and a teacher later, often talked to his daughter about her grandfather, Shaik Mohamed Musa, who had come from eastern India, married a black woman and made New Orleans his home. He spoke wistfully about wanting to connect with 'India' and discussed it with his two sisters, Haleemon and Noyemon.

That memory stayed with Shaik, even as she worked as a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and PEN/America. Then tragedy struck. Her city was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and her father passed away - both taking away with them a piece of herself. She writes: "The hookah, the papers my aunt Haleemon kept, and more washed away. But I still have my grandfather's diamond stickpin and a few photos. And I have family stories."

After her father was gone, the urge to find out about her long-lost family connection stoked her. But it was not until she met Kaul that the idea of the documentary was born over a casual chat about Kolkata and the Hooghly.

Shaik's is a distinguished 'voice' in contemporary American south. Her writings deal with the effects of segregation in the coloured community in the US. Talking of her own experience, she says, "I lived in legal segregation until my teen years. Plus, attitudes were slow to change. As an intern reporter in Miami, I once covered a story where the interviewee (not knowing my race) casually used the N-word in the conversation. Because the story had nothing with race or politics, my struggle was to present him in a good light and not as the racist he was. I decided to just write about his achievements. But the photographer who had accompanied me saw that I was visibly shaken. Neither he nor I spoke about what happened, but we both knew it was upsetting." Perhaps because she was young then she did not protest though "I would speak about it now," she asserts.

As a fiction writer with an interest in the past, Shaik has studied the history of her people, which is reflected in her works. 'Melitte', nominated among the 'Best Books for Young Adults' by the American Library Association (1998), is about Melitte, a slave girl in a poor (white) farmer's house in Louisiana. Though she is ill-treated by her employers, and by 'Madame' in particular, which even prompts her to plan revenge in a diabolical way, she forgets everything as little Marie arrives. "That she was Madame's child did not matter. Those nights she became mine Madame and Monsieur thought they were giving out chores, a slave watching a baby, like a dog watching sheep. They did not know what we already knew. We had a human bond...," Shaik writes.

As the story progresses, the fact that human beings are the same, as is their yearning to be loved and respected as people, comes out with understanding.

Asked whether segregation, legally abolished in the US after the Civil Rights movement of the 1950-60s, still exists, albeit in more subtle ways, Shaik says, "The segregation that exists in the United States comes on two fronts. People segregate themselves socially with friends and business associates of their own race. And attitudes of racial superiority continue to promote poverty and joblessness for people of African descent and other people of colour."

She cites figures from a report in the 'Huffington Post', an American news website, which revealed that African-American women earn 64 cents to every dollar earned by a white man. (Wage Gap - 1/29/13). The depravation is even greater for the Hispanic women. They - and their families - have fewer opportunities for advancement and are simply paid less money due to their race (and gender).

Exploring other nuances of segregation is Shaik's 'Mayor of New Orleans', a compilation of three evocative novellas. In 'Climbing Monkey Hill', a coming-of-age story of a sensitive black girl, which is a part of this collection, she writes: "It was cause for embarrassment if black children climbed on the Monkey Hill, even after they had integration. The boys and girls who ran from their nearby homes to play in Audubon Park after school did not arrive with their freedom only given by the law." To this scenario belongs Levia, a free-spirited black girl who wants to climb the hill anyway to see how her city looks from up there. "These days she cared less about what people thought and more about what she was feeling," Shaik continues.

It was her mother and aunts who sparked the desire to write in her. She says, "My mother and aunts were writers, and were graduates of Xavier University of Louisiana in the early 1940s, a rare feat for black women in those years. While they wrote plays that were performed on the radio and at college, once they graduated it was impossible to be employed as writers in the Deep South. They became schoolteachers in the segregated New Orleans Public School system. But they encouraged me to write every day and to pursue my career as far as I was able to," she elaborates.

Post the Civil Rights movement, Shaik observes, women writers such as Sapphire, N'tzoke Shange, Gloria Naylor and Alice Walker focused on contemporary black women's issues in their works. While they are continuing to pursue these themes, others are looking at other themes, particularly history. This is reflected in the writings of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, Lalita Tademy, Rita Dove and Natasha Tretheway. While Toni Morrison is one of her favourite women writers, Shaik has "also had the privilege to enjoy some wonderful writers from other countries" like US-based Indian writers, Jhumpa Lahiri and Bharati Mukherjee.

Shaik believes that today "both black women and men writers are aware of the need for women's empowerment and there is little dissention between them on who should lead the charge, as was the case in the 1960s".

According to her, people have come to realise that women should not only have a place but voice in their circumstances and that women's empowerment needs to be the goal for men and women both. "It's like having a lamp in a room. One lamp provides light but two lamps make the room much brighter," she signs off.

—(Women's Feature Service)

News Updated at : Saturday, July 6, 2013
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