The Cornerstones Literary Consultancy Prize 2018, for most promising Bath Novel Award longlisted manuscript:
MISHA HUSSAIN for Sakthi (Strength)
PRIZE: a place on Cornerstones Literary Consultancy’s 18 week online course Edit Your Novel the Professional Way
Misha Hussain is a British-Bengali human rights journalist who grew up in East London and later in Preston. Misha’s reportage covers topics such as female genital mutilation, ‘breast ironing’ and forced marriage. Prior to becoming a full time journalist Misha worked as a consultant in aid and development for Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the United Nations and the World Bank.
Misha’s novel Sakthi (Strength) is the story of a teenage British Muslim girl who must discover the truth about her mother’s death to escape a similar fate. Set in the industrial north of England, tackles the complex relationship between Asian Muslim parents and their British-raised children in “an unapologetic commentary on identity, religion and gender issues in the context of Brexit, Islamic radicalisation and the #metoo campaign.”
Read the opening pages of Sakthi (Strength) by Misha Hussain:
I smiled all the way through me mam’s funeral, and if it hadn’t been for the rain masquerading as tears, the mourners might’ve thought I were callous, or half mad. I were neither, just glad another woman were free of the shackles of life, and men. I’ll come clean, in our tradition I shouldn’t have even been there. It’s men who carry the body to the grave, a man who leads the prayer, and men who do the burial; as if women were too fragile to deal with the grief of death, despite enduring the agony of birth. But Meghna were stronger than any of the men who put her in the ground.
It chucked it down in Shaleton that day and me wellies sank deep into the clay. The hearse pulled up alongside a messy, flooded part of the cemetery, where simple markers lay so close together you’d think it were chock-a-block in the afterlife. Only a handful of people had shown up, hardly enough to get the coffin out. Father asked some randoms visiting the next grave but one to be pallbearers.
“Who died?” they asked.
“Sakthi’s mother,” someone replied.
The imam leading the service were a tubby little man. His wife fed him well, too well. His plain white tunic stuck to his belly in the wet, showing rolls of fat that questioned his piety. A rough, dark spot dominated his forehead where it had struck the Earth five times a day, everyday for the last forty years. His orange beard dyed with henna flapped in the breeze. He let his arms drop to his side, looked towards the east and began the janaza funeral prayer.
“Allahu Akbar,” he said, and launched into a passage in Arabic with an off-putting Northern twang.
Nobody had a scooby what he were on about, but they still followed his actions like sheep.
His words weren’t welcome in my brain. Every nerve and synapse were jammed with memories, some sweet, mostly bitter. Pressing me eyelids tight, I pictured washing her body hours before, top to bottom, left to right, as is custom. Above the neckline, she seemed peaceful. Her jet-black hair pleated and tied in a bun, her eyes tranquil. I traced the ridge of her slender nose, across the cleft in her chin, and down her neck to her chest. Here, her smooth, brown skin became rough and discoloured, the ribs a patchwork of blue and black. Running me fingers over the bruises, I could hear them screams again. The coroner said she’d died quickly, and without pain, but nothing could’ve been further from the truth. Every day alive inflicted a new flesh wound until she bled out like a sacrificial lamb.
The men stood shoulder to shoulder in a neat line behind the imam. They lifted their hands until their thumbs touched their earlobes and then folded them in front of their paunches. When the prayer finished, they turned their heads to the right and then to the left to send their blessings to the Noble Writers, angels who sat on either shoulder recording their deeds.
But Father treated the angels with contempt. His sullen eyes never once looked at them, nor the sky. They stared at the open coffin. As the men brushed their palms over their faces, he leant forward, drew a long, hard breath and gobbed on mother’s corpse. Only the imam brought his hands down in time to witness the treachery. He didn’t say anything. Me blood boiled as I fought to control me sense of betrayal.
Father took the body out from the wicker casket with the help of Titash, our only male relative in the country. They lowered it into the grave making sure the head faced Mecca.
How I wished I could lie beside her. To be her light as the last rays of sun were blotted out. To keep her warm when the hard, winter frost spread through the ground. And, when enough time had passed, when the creeping ivy had wrapped its scraggly fingers round her headstone, and the weeds had swamped her grave, to have a word with the earthworms that turn death to life and say, no, leave her be. Here lies a great woman.
Father picked up a spade and thrust it into a heap of topsoil. But before he could throw it in, I burst through the line in a fit of defiance, grabbed a handful of soil and threw it over her body. Inside were a locket with a picture of us together, which landed in such a way nobody could see it were there. Father wrenched us back into place.
“It’s your fault she’s dead,” he said.
I broke free and ran, I ran as fast as me little Bengali legs could carry us, away from this charade.
Near the gates, police officers had cordoned off a number of graves that had been defaced. Nazi swastikas in red paint loomed large across all but six stones, which each bore a single letter of the alphabet spelling out – BREXIT. The fetid stench of beer and urine made us retch. I covered me face with me orna and made for the exit where Mrs. Finch, our elderly neighbour, sat in her wheelchair. She crossed herself one last time. When she had said her goodbyes to Meghna, she squeezed me hand and I pushed her back up the hill.