Ummath by Sharmila Seyyid – Review

Book: Ummath
Author: Sharmila Seyyid
Trans. by: Gita Subramaniyan
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Pages: 352; Price: Rs 499

Hold Sharmila Seyyid’s Ummath (A South Indian pronunciation of the Arabic word ‘Ummat’: A large community in your hands and let me safely wager that you will not put it down till you finish it with the poems tagged at the end of the book. And the poems serve as a perfect dessert to a sombre meal.

Ummath is an honest account of a Tamil Muslim woman who has seen so much. The writer has seen the relentless juggernaut of Sri Lankan Civil War that left the country and community (ummat) poke-marked and forever scarred. The narrative of this book is not based on what she felt or experienced. She has internalized her angst and agony into the larger ambit of the country, community and conflict.

On this count, this book is different from the Somalia’s ex-Muslim Ayan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. Why I’m clarifying this because some casual readers and reviewers have compared her with Taslima Nasreen and Ayan Hirsi Ali. Though she’s very much like them, her book has a humane side. It’s not overtly sentimental.

Sharmila has raised questions about the utility and futility of ethnocentric demands like Eelam. A civil war of three decades can alter the socio-psychological landscape of a country and its people. The world saw this happen in Sri Lanka. ‘Conflicts always change the matrix’, Che Guevara’s cryptic observation can be comprehended in the context of Sri Lankan society, pummeled by the civil war.

Juxtaposed with this, exists the Sri Lankan Muslim community. Being a part of this community (ummat), the author has picked up the gauntlet and penned the narrative like a pugilist throwing his punches bare-knuckle. She has exposed the patriarchal mindset of the followers of the religion she’s part of.

Nowhere in the whole book has she baulked at revealing the reality. ‘Being a dispassionate spectator, I chronicle the events better, Sharmila seems to have chimed in with Alex Bannister’s famous quote. The book ends with her poems which show the sensitive side to her personality. Gita Subramanian has translated them into contemporary English and made them even crisper because yours truly understands Tamil and he didn’t find the original Tamil poems to be so full of impact as Gita has made them to be. So, hearty congratulations to the skilled translator.

Translating poetry is far more difficult than translating prose. Gita has translated the prose and poetry with equal eclat and elan, making her endeavour really echt. The readers must read Sharmila Seyyid’s poem, Tell-tale signs. It’s an exercise in defiance. ‘Brilliant’ is too pedestrian a word to describe the force of this verse. Finally, she’s a believer who is up in arms against the obscurantism in her faith.

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