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. His reportage covers topics such as female genital mutilation, ‘breast ironing’ and forced marriage. Prior to becoming a full time journalist, he 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 my mother’s funeral, and had it not been for the rain masquerading as tears, the mourners might have thought I was callous, or mad. I was neither, just glad another woman was free of the shackles of life, and men. I’ll confess, in our tradition, I shouldn’t have even been there. It’s men that carry the body to the grave, a man that leads the prayer, and men that do the burial; as if women were too fragile to deal with the grief of death, despite enduring the agony of birth. But I’ll say now without fear of refutation, Meghna was stronger than any of the men that laid her to rest.
It was a squally day in the north and my wellingtons sunk into the soggy clay underfoot. The hearse pulled up alongside an untended stretch of the cemetery, where simple grave markers were laid in such close proximity that you would be forgiven for thinking it was overcrowded in the afterlife. Only a handful of people attended the funeral, barely enough to get the coffin out of the trunk, until some kind men visiting another grave volunteered to be pallbearers and help with the burial.
“Who died?” they asked.
“Sakthi’s mother,” someone answered.
The imam leading the service was a small, rotund man. His wife fed him well, even too well. His plain white tunic, stuck to his belly in the wet, displaying rolls of fat that questioned his piety. A rough, dark spot dominated the centre of his forehead where it had struck the ground in prayer five times a day, everyday for the last forty years. His orange beard dyed with henna flapped erratically 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, before launching into a passage in Arabic, which he delivered with an off-putting northern twang. Nobody understood what the words meant, but they still followed his actions.
The words found little welcome in my brain, every nerve and synapse was gridlocked with emotion, memories, some sweet, mostly bitter. Pressing my eyelids tight, I pictured washing her body just hours before, top to bottom, left to right, as is custom. Above the neckline, she looked peaceful. Her jet-black hair was pleated and tied in a bun, her eyes tranquil. I traced the ridge of her slender nose, across the cleft in her chin, down her neck and followed the collarbone to just above her chest. Here, her smooth, brown skin became rough and discoloured, one of the breasts bore a long, deep scar and above the ribs was a patchwork of black and blue. Running my fingers over the bruises, the screams replayed in my head, painful, muted. The coroner said the death was a quick, painless affair, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Every day she lived inflicted a new flesh wound until eventually she bled out like a sacrificial lamb.
The men stood shoulder to shoulder in a neat line behind the imam and followed his every move, lifting their hands towards their heads until their thumbs touched the lobes of their ears and then folding them neatly in front of their stomachs. When the prayer had finished, they turned their heads to the right and then to the left to send their blessings to the Noble Writers, angels that sat on either shoulder recording their every good deed and sin.
But Father treated the angels with contempt. His sullen eyes never once looked at them, nor the sky, but fixated on the open coffin in front of him, and as the men closed their eyes and brushed their hands over their faces, he leant forward, drew a long, hard breath through his nose and spat on mother’s corpse. Only the imam, whose actions were fractionally ahead of everyone else’s, brought his hands down early enough to witness the treachery, but he made no remark, nor did he express disapproval. My blood ran cold and boiled with anger at the same time, as I struggled to suppress my real feelings.
Father removed the body from the wicker casket with the help of Titash, our only male relative in the country, and lowered her body into the grave ensuring that the head was turned towards Mecca.
How I wished I could lie beside her in that deathly hollow. To be her light as the last rays of sun were blotted out, to keep her warm when the hard winter frost permeated the ground all around, and, when enough time had passed, when the creeping ivy wrapped its scraggly fingers around her headstone, and the weeds overcame her grave, to reason with the earthworms that worked so diligently and say, no, leave her in peace just a little while longer, for here lies a great woman.
Father picked up a spade and thrust it into the heap of topsoil beside the grave, but before he could throw it in, I burst through the line of men in a fit of defiance, grabbed a handful of soil and threw it over her wrapped body. Inside the handful of earth was a locket with a picture of us together, which landed in such a way that nobody could see that it was there. Father seized me with his powerful arms and wrenched me back into place, but I broke free and ran, I ran as fast as my little Bengali legs could carry me, away from this charade, this joke of a funeral.
Near the entrance of the cemetery, police officers were examining a number of graves after the carnage left behind by far right groups in a spate of race hate crimes. Flowers had been smashed off their stems and their pulp lined the top edges of the gravestones where they had met their violent end. Some of the stones had been cracked, whilst others had been entirely knocked down. Nazi swastikas in red paint loomed large across those that remained standing, except six stones all in a row that each bore a single letter of the alphabet, spelling out in no indefinite terms – BREXIT. The fetid smell of beer and urine made me retch. I covered my nose with my 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 finished saying her goodbyes to Meghna, she squeezed my hand and I pushed her back up the hill.
In the small front gardens, rose petals capitulated to the cold and fell from their thorny branches, covering the ground in a quilt of dying red and white. Some brave men and women had donned overalls, taken out the hoe and shovel from the shed and tidied up their lawns before the winter arrived. Mostly the gardens lay untended or paved over with concrete.
There was rain, there is always rain in the north, but every now and then when the showers stopped, the smell of chips and vinegar drifted on the wind across the narrow cobbled streets and served as a reminder of a time bygone. Back then, if you were to listen to Mrs. Finch, Shaleton was the northern heart of the industrial revolution. Blue-collar workers toiled long, hard hours in the textile factories and down the coalmines. Life was tough, but there was work to be had and food enough on the table. When the cotton industry collapsed after the Second World War, the government settled workers from the commonwealth to help revitalise the region, but the project failed.
The wind had changed, and so too did the smell.
Now, the town’s beleaguered skyline of closed mills and dilapidated nineteenth century red-brick terraced houses was abuzz with women in black burkas and colourful selwar kamiz, their plastic bags packed with calabash gourds, taro root and bitter melons from the local Asian store. In the evening, the tang of chicken bhuna, fried tilapia and curried ladies’ fingers wrestled its way up the nostrils as tired shop keepers in kurtas with rumbling bellies followed their noses home, hugged their children, prayed, ate and fell asleep in front of the box.
On the main thoroughfare, pound stores, fast food outlets and betting shops had replaced artisanal stores, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. Homeless lovers lay curled up in each other’s arms under stone archways like arctic puffins huddling together in the cold. In front of them, a handwritten notice begging for change, food or just dignity. Those abandoned by love turned to super-strength beer and song. The drunks bellowed to us as we passed through the central square, for which they received some loose change from Mrs. Finch. Despite the destitution, she maintained an air of optimism. Shaleton had recently been told that it could have its cake and eat it too, it just had to take back control.
“God bless ya, Mrs. Finch,” said one hobo, doffing his cap.
“Brexit’ll change everything’!” said another, glaring at me.
Not everyone was convinced.
Half a year after ‘Independence Day’ there was no cake to be had anywhere, just the bitter taste of division in the poor, northern town. Politicians bowled nationalistic rhetoric full toss to stay in power. Brexit fever consumed the country and the St. Georges Cross hung proudly in patriotic windows like barbed wire demarcating boundaries between the different camps.
The flags largely disappeared as we approached the crossroads on Mill Road, which served as the frontier between the Asian and white communities. One end of the road was patrolled by a group of white youths who called themselves the Mill Crew. The older ones sat on the garden walls drinking Special Brew, whilst the others rode around on the back wheels of their mountain bikes, knocking over dustbins and intimidating anyone that dared to make eye contact.
At the other end were an equally menacing gang of Asian youths smoking B&H blues. They had conservative views on drinking alcohol, but were liberal with their use of drugs. Every now and then, a small, older group within them could be seen walking a way with girls up to a house at the end of our road. Nobody asked any questions, nobody dared. They looked upon the white girls as whores and the brown girls as property. Some days it was hard to work out which was worse.
When we got to our house, the giddy denial at the cemetery ebbed away. In the back garden, a train of Meghna’s saris fluttered on the washing line. The colours vivid, like the hair flower of a girl awaiting betrothal, or perhaps the cry for help of a lonely woman. I buried my face deep in the muslin, wet through from the morning downpour. Meghna was gone, and nothing was going to bring her back.