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The Train House on Lobengula Street by Fatima Kara

“No matter how small the rebellion, the point is to sow anxiety into the minds of the oppressors. Rebellion is the only hope for change…’” (page 298)

Fatima Kara’s ‘The Train House on Lobengula Street’ is a heartbreaking story about family, change and the portrait of Southern Rhodesia in the 50s and 60s. The Kassims are a traditional Indian Muslim family which finds itself questioning the meaning of family with the return of Zora to the train house from Uganda. Zora is Kassum and Razaak’s eldest daughter. This book is the 1st Part of a book series and it gives a clear picture of the past. Sometimes to understand the present the past has to be explored. While culture is what holds them together a mother’s love confronts the goodness of some cultural practices and the changing fabric of a nation questions the will of the people.

The friendships and sisterhood among most of the women in this book holds great importance. Kulsum shows that she resonates with her daughter, Zora, as she weaves her own story and journey of her life as a daughter in law, migrating to a new country, integrating into a new family and her desire to learn a new trade. However, things do not go as planned but through her relations with Nurse, Lakshmi and Mrs. Holmes, Kulsum learns new ways of living. When her marriage with Razaak continues to drift and life throws many stones, it is in these women that Kulsum finds solace and is encouraged to tap into her strength. Nurse teaches Kulsum how to make her own money and Lakshmi encourages her to speak up. Kulsum also hers her moments when the grip of culture sows some doubts on her new beliefs, “‘And now I see that no matter how strong, how brave a woman is, in the end the need to be part of the culture overrides our self worth, our independence and our education. No matter how forward looking, the brutal truth is that without the culture we are nothing.’” (page 296)

Kulsum offers a helping hand to other women like Manjula and Sakina the more she gets empowered and trusts her power. Kulsum begins to question her kismet and her place in this life as a Muslim woman, where she refuses to accept things as they are believing that there is nothing noble/virtuous about suffering. After she starts making her own money, she is motivated to build her house and take her daughters to English school. Kulsum asks the important questions such as, what is so bad about learning English in a country where you need it for survival? She becomes  the voice of modernity, something that her husband struggles with. The struggle with modernity and the freedom of women comes up many years later as she fights for Zora.

The book is set in Southern Rhodesia and Kara digs into the difficult colonial history of the country and its people’s struggle for freedom. Kara shows the power of the organized collective in fighting against white rule. The signs of segregation are as clear as day in the book. The Indian community is assigned its own midwife, so as not to engage with the white assigned spaces, there are restrictions in living spaces among the white, Indians, coloureds and blacks. The money making trades are reserved for the whites (tobacco farming and diamond trading) and everyone else has to either work for them or struggle their way up. While the struggle is clear there are some generational variances in the approach towards ending the oppression . In the same way the old community would not allow their children, especially their daughters to attend English schools, they are reluctant to aggressively resist white rule and ultimately play straight into the hands of the racist regime. “According to Rhodesian laws, Indians are considered white on voting day but as  black at all other times and for all other purpose…” (page 297) The younger generation decides that this must end.

Razaak, Amar, Nurse and Lakshmi are crucial in providing assistance to the Black revolutionaries trying to get rid of the colonialist regime. The power of the collective cannot be understated. Razaak is a hypocrite and a frustrating character, who believes in the political fight for change but refuses to be progressive in his own home. Once again, the power of the collective voice is shown, for it is Amar, Nurse Lakshmi who call out Razaak for his hypocrisy and help Kulsum to effect progressive changes in their home. Kara does not shy away from the segregation within the Indian community. Firstly, the conflict between the Hindu and Muslim communities. Secondly, the caste system, Mrs Barber prefers to only associate with people from her own Brahman caste and religion but Amar refuses to stand for that foolishness. Thirdly, colourism within families and the community, Jubeda is ill treated and isolated by her mother Jee Ma because of her darkness highlighting the cultural bias deeply rooted in an exclusionary history. Kulsum questions Jee Ma’s actions and offers Jebeda love at the same time treating her like a  daughter.

Kara’s voice is powerful. The protagonist in this story, possesses a quiet strength that allows her to change her life and for others around her. There is a slow start to the book and it only picks a good pace in the second half. I appreciate the need to have the reader understand certain aspects of the Indian community they may not otherwise be familiar with, but I found the overly descriptive parts overbearing. Food brings people together, and in her writing it is a key element in bonding the characters. Kara had me salivating for  some of the dishes; bijya, moothia, pera and keer. My sister recently came back from India and brought me a Masala Dabba filled with spices and a tadka pan. Inspired by the book I am about to throw it down in the kitchen with some Indian cuisine! The book is a good read and what a stunning cover!


Book Details

Title: The Train House on Lobengula Street

Genre: Fiction

Authors: Fatima Kara

Publisher: Envelope Books (2023)

Pages: 388

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