Aliyyah Eniath: Voice from the Indies

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The Yard, which took Aliyyah Eniath five years to complete, is born from literary obsessions and personal history, Anupama Rahu writes in this review for The Hindu.

Geography can shape memory in many ways. Sometimes it’s the road we took to school, the room we slept in or the backyard we played in as children that inspire us for a lifetime. And no matter where we are from, this memory makes us one and ensures our experiences become universal. Art captures this most poignantly and that is what draws me to the conversation with Aliyyah Eniath, author of The Yard, a novel set in her home country, Trinidad. History, family legends and a compulsion to tell a good story propel this novel beyond any exotic “Caribbean” labels.

Eniath writes from the perspective of East Indians whose forefathers were brought to Trinidad from India through the British colonial indentureship scheme in 1845. The grandparents in the novel recall working as labourers. Later, Grandfather Latiff becomes an upholsterer and a wealthy businessman.

The yard built by the grandfather keeps the family together, and keeps them religious. This informs the plot to a large extent. It is, therefore, a real entity, alive with expectations, beliefs and teachings, where Eniath’s father grew up too. The story set against this backdrop is about Maya and Behrooz and the dynamics of their relationship challenged by Muslim traditions and East Indian society.

So what does the yard represent for Eniath? “Growing up Indo-Muslim in Trinidad and from a prominent family in the community, there were always religious, cultural and other obligations imposed from within and without. But I’ve always felt independent — a person of the world rather than a person of a particular faith, race, status, etc. We are one and the same.” The ‘yard’ signifies this struggle that we see most in Maya, who finds it hard to cope with the expectations of others. This becomes especially apparent in the emotional conflicts arising out of the tender bond she forms with Behrooz, an abandoned boy who is taken in by the family.

In Islam, an adoptive brother is allowed to marry an adoptive sister. They are attracted to each other but Maya abandons Behrooz and leaves the yard, in search of fulfilment and happiness. But things are not simple. Winding its way through Behrooz’s heartbreak and Maya’s search for fulfilment, the novel ends on a note of redemption and hope. Evidently, their love lends the novel its universal appeal.

The autobiographical element, besides manifesting in the yard itself, also surfaces in Maya’s characterisation. So how much of yourself do you see in Maya, I ask. Eniath smiles in response: “She is a rebellious, wayward child… an exaggerated version of myself… But the family depicted in the book is not mine.” And we go back to discussing the yard, about her compelling need to write about a devout, religious family and how a stranger would feel coming into this space.

It is a personal response to practices that make little sense in today’s world. Eniath explains how adoption is haraam and this is yet another issue she explores in the book. “I think it’s silly that people take something written in the 1400s literally!”

The Yard, which took her five years to complete, is also perhaps an outcome of Eniath’s literary obsessions. We all know how obsessions can lead to something fabulous. In this case, it is Naipaul, Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte who really stayed with her. “Just as Wuthering Heights proves a character unto itself with its dark stairways, storms and sense of imprisonment, so does ‘the yard’ in my novel; and Heathcliff and Catherine face similar cultural and societal challenges as my protagonists.” When Eniath first read A House for Mr. Biswas by Naipaul, the grandeur of “a seemingly unimportant island in the Caribbean” revealed itself to her.

Besides the themes and influences that make this novel a good read and a possible feature film one day, there is one more charming element: the use of the Trinidad dialect. It was also Eniath’s main challenge, I discover, as she explains how she found it difficult to get the dialogues right in the dialect. “My dialogue was very stilted at the beginning and it took a lot of pruning,” she adds. It is the language that shapes the characters and makes them who they are. For instance, in the scene where the grandmother is introduced to Behrooz, she does not agree with her son adopting him. The dialogue goes like this: “I had a neighbour back in the day who adopted a boy. Did everything for the boy since he was young, treat him like she own …” The grammatical incorrectness makes this dialogue what it is meant to be — natural.

The Caribbean has produced many literary greats like Derek Walcott and Naipaul, but the flow of works by contemporary authors is far from satisfactory. Which is why Eniath’s novel is a good sign. We need more publishers and readers supporting talent from this group of tiny islands. Because there are more yards, legends and stories to discover.

One thought on “Aliyyah Eniath: Voice from the Indies

  1. I’ve been raving about this book since I read my first few chapters. I love it. Five years of perfect plot weaving, Eniath tells the story of The Yard like the boss storyteller she is. Looking forward to writing a review for GoodReads and raving further about the book on my Facebook page. I loved Behrooz and Maya and so many other of the characters. I loved it that the storyline was never predictable, the tension masterfully building, the tale exquisitely told. I cried so many times reading this book. The characters and their stories were so real to me. I was in a cafe as I read the last few chapters and had I been home I’d have let loose more than the controlled tears I shed over my coffee. So many turns of irony, so many philosophical questions and observations! Yet told in a compelling story that is so plot driven that the heavy themes don’t hit you or overwhelm you or wave themselves in your face. They flow and hit us in their own time because they are as real as our journey with The Yard’s characters. Did I mention that the writing is beautiful? Ok I’ll stop gushing now!

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