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Posted on 2 May 2024 in Fiction | 0 comments

SHUBNUM KHAN The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Shubnum Khan’s magical debut set on the east coast of Africa features a djinn, a house, and a story that reaches down the generations. 

A djinn, according to various encyclopedias, is a creature created by Allah from smokeless flames. It has a subtle body and is usually invisible to humans, but it can change shape at will. Like us, it has feelings, can love and hate, and when it dies it is accountable to Allah.

Shubnum Khan’s djinn lives in Durban in Akbar Manzil, which, ‘for a long time … was the grandest house on the east coast of Africa’. In 1932, when we first meet it, it is not happy:

It whimpers and murmurs small words of complaint. It sucks its teeth and berates the heavens for its fate. It curses the day it ever entered this damned house. It closes its eyes and tries to imagine a time before it came here, before it followed the sound of stars from the shore, before the world turned dark and empty.

Something, however, is changing. A family moves in and the djinn watches them and, eventually, comes to love one of them.

By 2014, when most of this story takes place, the djinn is still living in Akbar Manzil but the family has gone, the house has changed hands many times, and when it fell into disrepair the local municipality had it converted into apartments. People moved in and quickly moved out, saying that the house didn’t ‘feel right’, there was ‘scratching at doors’ and it was ‘like the house was watching’. The house itself is still alive. It ‘creaks and groans and shifts on its foundations’ as its rooms remember past times; smells in the kitchen ‘look down drowsily’ and ‘whisper to each other’; and the house, like the djinn, reacts to everything the people inside it do.

Fifteen-year-old Sana, who has recently moved into an apartment in the house with her widowed father, is more than usually sensitive. She feels things ‘moving around her’, sees ghostly shapes and mists, and knows that the house has secrets. The djinn watches her as she explores abandoned parts of the house, discovering things that puzzle her and slowly learning their secrets, and it remembers and relives the past as she does. The house, too, watches her, and turns ‘in horror to the djinn as it realises what is happening’.

A feeling of heat begins inside the djinn, slowly at first and then like a flame it spreads red hot and burning … The house howls. It begs the djinn to stop, to reconsider. To keep the last of their secrets.

The djinn and the house are not the only ghostly presences in Sana’s life. At birth she had a conjoined twin who died when they were separated. Now her twin is a spiteful presence she cannot ignore, constantly trying to get Sana to join her.

She feels her sister’s space around her the way some feel a phantom limb, except this is a phantom sister.

‘If you feel so bad, you should kill yourself,’ her sister whispers in her ear when she is unhappy, and on one occasion she tries to take Sana’s hand as they stand at a cliff edge, encouraging her to jump.

Her sister looks over the edge at the rocks below. ‘I’ll show you how then. Come here. Don’t be scared. All you have to do is climb up and take one step. It’ll be over in a moment.’

‘You’re not real,’ Sana tells her sister, ‘you’re just part of my imagination.’ ‘If only it were that simple,’ her sister responds. ‘You can’t go anywhere without me, silly,’ she told Sana when Sana and her father had moved to Akbar Manzil – ’I’ll always find you.’

Of course, The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years is a book of magical realism. Sana’s life with her father in the house he insists on calling ‘home’ is full of very ordinary meetings with the other residents, all of whom slowly reveal their idiosyncrasies and parts of their own histories as the story progresses.

All are Muslims from Indian families but they have lived in South Africa for years.

Razia Bibi is a cantankerous old woman: ‘One sour lemon, always complaining-complaining,’ says Pinky the maid. Razia frequently uses her ‘well-worn pointing finger’ to accuse Fancy, who has a beloved but noisy parrot called Mr Patel, of causing trouble.

Sana meets her first as she rages at Fancy for letting that ‘Hindu bird’ take ‘God’s name in vain’ in ‘a decent Muslim house like this’; but Razia Bibi finds fault with everything, especially the fact that Sana’s father has taken up cooking.

She knows the new tenant is trouble when she discovers he abandoned a farm to move here and become a cook. She has never known a man who cooked for a living and this makes her wary. Why were these men trying to do things they weren’t supposed to? The world must be kept in balance. Girls must marry at eighteen and men must have stable jobs as doctors or accountants. Everyone knows it.

Razia Bibi is also openly racist, despising non-Muslims, Muslims of a different sect to herself, and ‘Black people, or worse, white people’; but she reveals a softer side when she starts to teach Sana to cook some Indian foods.

Fancy, (‘Her Majesty’ from ‘the Great Upstairs’, according to Razia Bibi) has secrets and has a sharp tooth when sparring with Razia. So, too, does the mysterious and exotic Zuleikha, who ‘lives in a tower at the top of the house’ and has a grand piano in her room.

Pinky, who is ‘mainly forgotten and mostly ignored’, has taken to talking to herself and ‘referring to herself in the third person. As if she and her are two different people.’ She and Sana watch romantic movies together and Sana notes that Pinky ‘says that love in real life is an unpractical thing. It slows people down and makes their brains wonky.’ Sana disagrees. She has discovered that when she sees two lovers together, she sees them ‘suddenly transformed into one person with one shape and all their ends and trailing edges joined to form a single perfect outline’. Sana often sees people as shapes.

The most important person in the house, the one who chooses the tenants, is ‘the old man’, the Doctor. He likes to talk to Sana, and he tells her how he was born in South Africa, grew up in India, studied and lived in Ireland and ‘wanted to become Irish’, but returned to Africa to fight in several civil wars, which was where he lost a leg in an explosion. Sana, who is an awkward, lonely young girl, finds him easy to talk to.

Shubnum Khan threads the magical elements of the book into the realism of her characters, revealing, too, in Part 2 of the book, the story of the family that the djinn first saw move into Akbar Manzil: Akbar Ali Khan, his wife Jahanara Begum, their two children, Soraya Bibi and Laddoo, and the Tamil labourer’s daughter, Meena Begum, who disrupts this family’s life. The djinn sees Sana delving into this history, and the house watches it all ‘with a peculiar kind of horror’, feeling this ‘reopening of history like fingers digging into a wound’.

In Part 3 of the book, Sana discovers a long disused attic.

The opening of the attic has unhinged the djinn.

The girl has stirred up too much from the past and now it is restless, full of longing and ache. ….

In its deepest grief the house begins to fall apart; the rafters tremble, the walls begin to crack. Blood runs from the ceiling …

Sana finds things that begin to tell her part of the story, but there are still puzzles; conspiracies to be revealed; startling revelations by the Doctor, and some terrifying and dramatic events, which complete much of the story. For the djinn, ‘Its time for walking is over. Change has been building and now it is here, the final pieces falling into place.’ Only one final surprise is needed to complete the circle, and the last pages of the book provide it. The final scene is then given to Sana and her father, and Sana thinks of her dead mother:

She sits next to him. ‘You know when we first came here you said you thought she would like this place?’

He nods.

Sana looks at the house. ‘I didn’t agree. I thought she would have said it was too old and dirty. But now, now I think, maybe you were right, maybe she would have said it had character.

In The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years, Shubnum Khan has beautifully crafted a rich and exotic tale of love and loss, steeped in the sort of magic that is found in The Arabian Nights.

Shubnum Khan The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years Oneworld 2024 PB 320pp $32.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.

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