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Review: Aamer Hussein’s Sweet Rice – A Lyrical Tale Of Empowerment and Reinvention of Self

Posted: May 27, 2021

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A serendipitous find brings past sentiments and becomes a source of the protagonist’s empowerment, in this lyrical prose of Aamer Hussein’s.

Sweet Rice, from Aamer Hussein’s short story collection The Other Salt, tells the tale of Shireen, the protagonist of this lyrical prose of Hussein’s. Her tumultuous struggle to find a new lease of life in her new surroundings forms the central idea of this story. The Urdu associations and culture brims over in Shireen’s conduct, even though she has come far from her native Karachi to make a new life in London. The simmering longing for her roots and her old life, where her wings were not cut by societal expectations, and restrictions imposed by the foreign land, can be felt in almost every line in this musical telling of her life.

Hussein, a Pakistani critic and writer, has parsed his main protagonist and left the readers to discover his flat characters as we parse through the story. The flat characters, Shireen’s husband and her son, are given element and substance through Shireen’s narration and it is deliberate enough to keep the story revolving around Shireen, and not meandering around the other characters who are only minor part of the story. All we get about the other characters, are the borrowed ideas from Shireen and that’s enough to feel the story.  

She was once a doctor in Karachi, who made her own living and earned her respect, but is now reduced to a posh banker’s wife in London. One who throws dinner parties and hosts conversational evenings for her husband’s wealthy friends and colleagues. She is irritated to live cheek by jowl with these people who become the routine in her nondescript life. She finds ways to fill her days. For an upcoming dinner night, she plans on digging into her roots by making a traditional recipe, ‘Sweet Rice’.

A chance excavation of a moth-eaten, mildewed book with frontispiece Naimat Khana becomes a resolution to the conflict / impasse that she was undergoing in the story. Along with a host of ancient objects of sentimental value, she finds her lost treasure which takes her to places surrendered. Shireen gets engulfed in nostalgia.  

“Don’t look back and above all don’t smell or sniff,
it only takes you to places surrendered..”

The recipe book is a turning point and the story of Muhammadi Begum liberates Shireen from her dilemma.

The story within the story and the change it brings

Muhammadi Begum herself lived a fulfilling life by choosing her own destiny. Shireen draws strength and confidence through Muhammadi Begum and both become the source for her empowerment or should I say, the re-kindling of her hibernating empowerment. One women’s empowered state becomes the stimulation for the other to start living and stop complaining. Shireen’s struggle comes undone with the finding of Naimat Khana. Hope sizzles, and for the first time, living in an alien land hoarding a non-entity crown stings a little less.

Hussein offers a peek into Shireen’s mundane life, her difficult choice to relinquish her medical practice in order to attend to the familial relationships and demands. Sweet Rice becomes a turning point and Shireen’s plan on reinventing herself tells a story of women’s triumph over patriarchy and social norms.

Reinvention hides behind ‘Empowerment’

Sweet Rice not only unfolds Shireen’s luxurious yet mundane happenings but also propels a message. Reinvention stays unseen in the matters of empowerment and to empower oneself, sometimes reinvention is necessary and should be grabbed from all corners.

Being a doctor, Shireen doesn’t shy away from trying something new. She is not well-versed in her new endeavour yet the glint of fire is strongly placed and ignited in her heart. A germ of an idea takes birth in her mind. She plans to curate the lost / forgotten recipes of her household and compile the sweat of her grandmother’s into a recipe book.  

She was out of place in the alien soil, and having spent all her years in tending and satisfying the demands of her matrimony and motherhood, she now feels a need to search for her lost identity. She does not snivel or wail to show her internal agony. She does not fly into a fury but her lamentations can be felt through reflections that adorn the story. Her lamentations do not snowball into deep contempt or hatred towards her self-absorbed husband and her son. Instead, they take a new turn.

All because she is open to reinventing herself. She chooses to be her own beacon. She does not restrict herself to be underlined as a doctor but she displays a hunger to walk in unchartered quarters. Had she been rigid and shown reservations to charting her own path, she would still be drowning in deep sorrow. Her satisfaction and happiness would remain a distant dream.

Through Shireen’s tale, we get a new outlook towards empowerment. Empowerment not only means enabling oneself to re-join the workforce or breaking barriers or glass ceilings or even talking and endorsing feminism in every step, but also reinventing oneself and working with focus towards that chosen path. Finding our second-best skill and working hard in that direction is reinvention. Exploring something which is not known to us or falls under our comfort zone, yet having the zeal to learn and unlearn is reinvention.

Reinvention doesn’t mean you cannot go back to your old ways or do something which you have been doing for most part of your life. You can pause, reinvent and go back to your previous job / skill anytime you feel but if there is a conflict or lack of a support system or unfavourable social factors, reinventing to suit the flexibility and your happiness is the choice worth going for.

Shireen has reinvented herself through Sweet Rice and it becomes a goal to assert her existence. Shall we also follow her example and reinvent ourselves?

Photo by Liza Summer from Pexels

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