The blurb on the back cover of this book states that the author of this book contemplates on the question of identity and ways of being "unsettled". At one level it is just that. Kamini Karlekar writes a factual account of her own 'unsettled-ness. As an Indian woman nearing 30, she is still not married and "settled" in the Indian sense. Then there are these unsettled "clients" (read refugees) that she interviews to determine whether they need UN support or not.
It is refreshing to read Kamini with all her dilemmas and unanswered questions; thankfully she does not simplify issues and dish out ready-made 'self-help' type answers that you can suddenly be who you want to be or what you want to be which seems to be so much in vogue these days (I mean C'mon be honest - Can I go become Miss Universe with my looks and at my age? Mind you I am not under-estimating myself in any way. Let’s just be smart and practical about these things okay?).
This is really my kind of book, it gives me a taste of someplace else other than India and also poses various identity and/or feminist questions - sample these:
On refugees: "How does one even begin to understand what it means to have left home those many years ago, ever hopeful of returning, till eventually all dreams die inside of you as your children begin to grow up in front of your eyes in an alien and unforgiving landscape?..... How can we, ever really know how it feels to live seemingly on borrowed time because your life is temporarily stalled-and in a borrowed space because what was once your place is now no longer safe?"
Interestingly, the most haunting and powerful words (at least for me) come from an early section of the book when Kamini says "The numbness helps, a necessity in this field .... What I cannot feel, I must not pretend or try to understand". And "The truth is, no matter how strong you are, it catches up with you. So one can learn to accept, strategically go numb, but what one really needs to accept is that you can’t escape how you feel about where you are or what you do for a living".
On Identity: When talking about "identity" Kamini makes some interesting observations - the only way the refugees in Sudan and the Sudanese have connected with India is via the Bollywood tearjerkers, the family-drama variety with sari clad pining women who are happy to be "hubservient" and have no compunction about giving up their own identity and individuality. So when she is out working there, the locals expect a challenge from "white" women but with her it’s always "different". A couple of shades darker in complexion and she could be one of them. And although Indian, as one person in the book puts it "they don't believe you come straight from India". She does not conform to their idea of an Indian woman - thanks to their staple bollywood conditioning! They can't imagine a young woman is capable of being on her own and "working in a tiny, forgotten corner of Sudan".
Kamini's lulling into complacency and her later waking up to the fact that although she had taken every precaution to not offend the locals ; she may still need to give up a few simple luxuries like going for a walk alone in the evening, outside of the compound in which she lives.
Her questions such as 'just because I respected their culture and took every precaution to not offend them, how did I assume that they would return the favor...maybe I did offend the men by simply going out. Maybe in their culture a woman is not supposed to step out alone in the evening...if you do, you are an open game'. These questions may seem silly for a city dweller but for her in the middle of a desert in a war-torn country takes on enormous proportions especially when she has recently said good bye to her house-mate and getting used to staying alone.
A neat tight narrative about the author's time spent in Africa in two young nations struggling to get on their feet, a strange place-concoction of traditional beliefs and advent of modernity.
This book is also about fractured identities in war torn countries and otherwise; of questioning the concept of safeguarding 'fragile' women; of a woman working with veiled chauvinists, huge egos, different governments, opportunist-refugees. Kamini is brave in her own way... I'll give her that.
Click here, for Kamini Karlekar's Blog