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Onion Tears PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 11 July 2011 11:24

Written by Shubnum Khan

Review by Jillian Nicholson

Shubnum Khan’s first novel, Onion Tears signals the arrival of a delightful new voice in the ranks of South Africa’s writers. She has a light and deft touch that she maintains throughout book as she deals with love and loss, trauma and shock and matters that affect many in this country such as racial stereotyping. But this is not a “heavy” book, for it is infused with wonderful descriptive passages, warmth, affection, wisdom and the spicy aromas of Indian cooking. The writer understands that few people are unequivocal in their attitudes and she treats their ambivalences gently.

The well paced story emerges, mainly in flashbacks, from the three central figures, Khadeejah Bibi Ballim, her daughter Summaya and Aneesa her eleven year old granddaughter.

Khadeejah and her kitchen that are at the heart of the novel. Her father, overwhelmed by his burgeoning family, married off his daughters two by two to whomever showed an interest. So Khadeejah shared a wedding ceremony with her sister and found herself the wife of Haroon, whom she hardly knew and who proved to be a moody, erasable husband and a poor provider for his family. She took with her a single piece of advice – to “always ensure that her hair was well combed and her husband’s food was given to him on time.

By the time we meet her Khadeejah is living in Mayfair and is a hard working, resilient widow who hides her secrets well and who survives both emotionally and financially through her cooking. She manages the blows that life has dealt her with philosophical dedication to cleanliness - she “did not like it when visitors left footprints on the doors of her glass cabinet”- and to her cooking which filters through her home and the community around her and is her self-defining feature:

“the way someone exhaled after a hearty biryani provided Khadeejah with a pleasure she never found anywhere else in life. She put her heart and soul (mingled with sadness and lost love) into her meals. People tasted her food and looked at the hunched backed old woman in front of them with new eyes. The felt they knew her through the taste in her food… In her fluffy white rice they felt her kindness; in her strong meaty stews they felt her fierce love and in her milky sweet sarbath they felt her sadness and stayed quiet for a moment after the first sip. She became a part of her food and in turn others became part of her.”


Khan has created an unforgettable character. Through her attention to detail and her own obvious culinary expertise she also gives her readers an engaging induction into Indian cooking so that we look forward to the next taste or smell or shopping expedition to Mohommedy’s grocery shop.

Unlike her mother, Summaya has allowed one central blow in her life to get the better of her. She is unable to come to terms with a lost love and bitterness permeates the life of this single, self-centered mother who fails to give her eleven year old daughter the attention she needs. True to form, however, Khan has created a multi-dimensional character with whom we also feel sympathy as she struggles to survive in a mundane job and support her daughter and as she slowly adjusts her fixed attitudes to the culture in which she has been brought up and which she initially rejects. Her final selfless act towards her daughter is long overdue.

Aneesa, on the cusp of becoming a teenager, is beset by the lack of information that she can extract from her mother about her father who she has been told is dead. With the help of Hoosen, her only real friend, she sets about trying to confirm her conviction that this is not the case. Her search, and her mother’s intransigence, is the main story line that moves the book along towards its final revelation.

Khan’s skill is in her detailed descriptions. In addition to the main protagonists she gives us a number of cameo characters: Fareeda, Khadeejah’s nosy sister in law; Sagren the vegetable hawker; the woman in the flat above who must deal with an abusive husband and to whom Khadeejah imparts her worldly wisdom on how to handle husbands. Along with the smells that drift through the book Khan uses colour to deepen her characterization - for Summaya black is the colour of angry tears, green of unspoken words fermenting in her mouth. Lists are used as another engaging addition to her characterizations - Summaya lists her theories on why Indian women have fleshy legs; Khadeejah on different types of husbands – “domineering ones who slept on high, firm pillows”; and Aneesa and Hoosen draw up a poignant list of life’s rules “Nothing stays hidden, not even the things you bury in the garden.”

Khan has been nominated for several awards for this book which is no surprise. It deserves a place on South Africans’ bookshelves.