MIRAGE, Bandula Chandraratna’s debut novel, was long listed for the Booker Prize in 1999. Set in an unnamed Muslim country, it tells the powerful story of Sayeed, who works as a porter in a sprawling hospital. His lodgings are in a dusty shack that contains the few essentials for survival. His village, where his brother Mustafa lives with his two wives, is hundreds of miles from the city. Once during a visit home, he is staggered to learn of a marriage proposal that his family has arranged for him. They cajole and press him until he agrees to see the woman in question, a young widow named Latifa.
Thereafter, matters quickly escalate until one day he finds himself heading to the city, newly wedded wife in tow. Life in the city is harsh and Latifa finds it difficult to adjust to city life, living in Sayeed’s poky shack at the edge of a vast desert. One evening they go out to see the city sights with Hussain Hasmi, Sayeed’s friend, a young rakish ne’er-do-well. From then on, events move swiftly to their tragic and perhaps inevitable conclusion.
Written in prose of breathtaking simplicity, the book is a Shakespearean tragedy set in modern times. It contrasts the rigid inflexibility of Islamic codes with a rapidly modernising world, something totally alien to the twilight world of harems, the religious police and stoning by death. The dramatis personae—the long-suffering Sayeed, the shifty Hussain Hasmi and the tragic Latifa—have the same feelings and desires as others of their ilk but are bound and held by the weight of tradition, which is like an albatross round their necks. And looming all over the book like a colossus, lies the desert, a symbol of longing and hope¬—something forever denied to these living dead, who keep rattling their chains in a vain effort to break loose to discover their freedom.
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