What About Meera by ZP Dala is one of those books I chose to read because I knew it would take me way out of my comfort zone, and not only that, but show me a slice of life I'm not privy to. Also, please just take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the cover. Just a little bit. It's even prettier when admiring the book in real life.
The blurb on the back goes on about the book being "full of black humour" and goes on about a "woman's attempts to shape her own destiny" but that makes it sound somewhat uplifting. This is, as the title, a story about Meera, an Indian South African woman who grew up on a sugar cane farm in Tongaat, but if I had to think of a subheading for the book, it would be more along the lines of "awful people being awful". And there are many awful people in this book who cross paths with Meera.
Dala digs deep beneath the skin of the South African Indian culture, examining the relationships between parents and children, wives and husbands, and the power structures that exist in communities. This is not an easy read, and truth be told, I found nothing at all humorous. Not even darkly humorous. Just crushingly dark and unrelenting – the way I like my books.
ZP's storytelling flows between past and present, sometimes digressing to show us more about the people in Meera's life and giving you an idea of what motivates them to be ... well ... the awful people doing the awful things.
I'll also have you know that I find this kind of digging under the skin absolutely lush, and some of the imagery is just perfect (like the wedding where the marigolds and human ordure accidentally met) so don't for one moment think I don't like it – I do. Even if the story is heartrending, even if you find yourself shaking your fists impotently at the situations Meera finds herself in.
At first she is passive, accepting an arranged marriage, accepting others' decisions for her, but there comes a time when the cumulative cruelty others mete out becomes too much, and Meera cracks. At first she runs back to her parents, but here she is a woman who doesn't know her place. "Go back to your husband," they keep telling her, but instead she flees to Dublin, of all places, in a desperate attempt to find something for herself.
And for a while it seems that she's doing all right, that is until she has a passionate affair with an Irishman ... which drives her to The Awful Thing. And it is awful. Truly godawful. And I find it difficult to forgive her. But I do have empathy for her. Meera is broken. Her responses are as a result of the brokenness of her upbringing and her desperate attempts to gain direction in her life (and her eventual failure to do just that).
ZP doesn't flinch from ugliness. In fact, she purposefully holds up that cracked, dirty mirror so that we may examine ourselves and how we relate to others. This is not an easy book to read, but I savoured every chapter and the fluidity of the telling that went at exactly the pace it needed to go, even when it digressed to nearly surreal moments that, I feel, did well to express Meera's desperate situation.
If you're looking for hope, for some sort of reassurance of something better, this is not your book. What About Meera is an evocative, dark existentialist fugue that revels in the brittle, broken parts of human nature; it's about the realisation that we are all, in a sense, victims of circumstances and there is no escape. It's about not getting the words to the song right, and being okay with that. And then revelling in the absurdity of life, in its short, nasty and brutish nature.