A passport is one way to travel. The other is a book. And what a journey this book has been. In trying to cope with my mild discomfort at reading a book from a culture I know of only in whispers and the stray film, I choose pride. I approach it with the easy confidence that Indian writing in English is among the finest in the world and I have read many books like this before. Of course, I am proved wrong.
Nothing prepared me for this relentless intoxication of words. The Architecture of Loss is a foray into worlds the eye has not seen and spaces the mind has chosen not to go in. If there is something that must not be said, the author does—boldly and in a style that leaves the reader wanting for more.
At the core, it is a story about the resistance against apartheid, the unrelenting underground war and its unsung heroes. Among them is the doctor, a strong woman of Indian origin who has traded her given name Selvarani for Sylvie. To visit Sylvie on her death bed one last time, her estranged daughter Afroze returns. It is a difficult journey for this much-damaged architect who was sent away hurriedly one morning.
The real magic is in the portrayal of South Africa’s people, places and stories. On the steepest hill in Cape Town is the Malay Quarters, home to the people of Malaysia brought as slaves by the Dutch. Here fed and nurtured by her stepmother Moomi and ignored by the cold Ismail, Rosie learns of love, food and living. They subsist within the poor but vibrant Malay community mainly the women who cook delicious food and go into the city to sell their wares each morning. The only woman architect in the city’s leading firm, Afroze holds her own but barely, raging within from her battles and addiction.
In Sathie, Sylvie’s lover, are the fine ruins of an Indian jazz pianist who barters attention for the finer things in life and cannot ignore the stirrings of lust for the doctor’s daughter. There’s Halaima, a Malawian refugee, who cares for the doctor now and in her little girl Bibi—the apple of the doctor’s eye—Rosie witnesses her own cruel displacement.
There are terrible memories too—of abandonment, of the menace of the low slung khaya behind her cottage where the doctor has ministered to wounded men who come in the dead of the night, soldiers in an unseen war. All their stories intersect in a rich retelling of the ancient dance between mothers and daughters. One of the finest books I have read this year. It is a treat for the reader of literary fiction.