Review: Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation by Annie Zaidi
The urgent, frantic search for home is a staple of contemporary literary writing. The metaphor is perhaps more compelling than the prosaic reality of scrubbing floors, preserving heirlooms, and living with people. Home is no guarantee of comfort; it is both a place of rest and a site of violence. Even people who despise structure need something to dwell in; if not a myth or a mission, at least a moment’s pause. Home is familiarity and estrangement; home is identity and confusion; home is the desire to make meaning, to drop the mask, to be understood.
Stay with these thoughts as you read journalist-playwright-novelist Annie Zaidi’s new book Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation published by Cambridge University Press. She wrote this work of non fiction after being awarded the 2019/2020 Nine Dots Prize for a 3000-word essay in response to the question ‘Is there still no place like home?’ Sponsored by the Kadas Prize Foundation, this formal recognition gave her $100,000 and an opportunity to work on the book at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge.
“Mom says our roots lie in Muhammadabad Gohna, a mofussil kasba, a village struggling to turn into a town,” writes Zaidi, whose mother is a precious part of her life and a significant presence in this book. “It used to be part of Azamgarh district once and is now in a new district called Mau. A few kilometres away is the village of Karhan, my grandfather’s nanihal (maternal ancestral home). We can trace back fourteen generations here. The uncle who told me this is now gone. Fifteen generations, then. We are obvious misfits here,” she adds.
This book does not locate home in a singular place. It takes the reader to diverse geographies, physical and cultural. In doing so, it reveals the narrator herself as a living archive of stories, dreams and longings, wounds healed and unhealed. Each landscape -- whether it is in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra or Delhi -- comes alive through conversations with locals, anecdotes circulated within the family, and the author’s sharp observations. She gives it a special character. Illustrations by her mother, Yasmin Zaidi, grace each chapter with visual commentary.
The author spent the early years of her life in JK Puram, an industrial township in Rajasthan. She writes, “One of my first memories of the place is cactus. Another is playing in piles of sieved sand that was waiting to be mixed into concrete... Summer temperatures inched towards fifty degrees centigrade. It was flanked on one side by the Aravalli hills, one of the oldest hill ranges in the world. On the other side stood a cement factory.” Her mother served as vice-principal and later principal at a school meant for the children of these factory employees, who were her peers but had life experiences that were quite different from her own.
Recalling that phase of her life becomes an occasion to probe into issues around limestone mining, land rights of indigenous people, linguistic chauvinism, corporate greed, and the misplaced zeal of reformers who judge traditional clothing, dietary practices and mating rituals from their own moralistic standpoint. The author skilfully combines elements of reportage with ethnography and travelogue. This cross-genre experimentation is never jarring because of Zaidi’s firm grip on her material, whether she is citing hard data or conveying subtle insights about the human condition.
Zaidi challenges the construct of ‘Muslim’ as a monolithic category by talking about her own experience. Once an elderly woman was able to pin her down to “Syedwada, a neighbourhood filled with Syed Muslim families... stamped on my face, my accent, my clothes, my gestures, my obvious disconnect with the world outside home.” Another time, she was taken aback when a human rights activist told her, “You must be Savarn Muslim.” Zaidi is not oblivious of the fact that caste discrimination exists among Muslims. What surprises her is the realization that her own family’s world view “could be coloured by caste” She had not entertained that thought earlier.
In the author’s world, there is space to learn from family and strangers, boatmen and historians, poets and gangsters. She paints a vivid picture of the people she encounters in person or hears about from others. If they come from a different set of life circumstances, she uses that moment as an opportunity to reflect on her own position in society based on gender, language, marital status, religion, parentage and property. This inward gaze is missing from a lot of political analysis about the current state of the country, and that is why this book stands out for its sincerity. It is not a rant; it is sensitive and sophisticated.
Zaidi reveals that her mother quit a bad marriage, and her father passed away before she could build a relationship with him. She writes, “My mother says, wherever you can trace your bloodline, that place is yours. Yours as much as anybody else’s. By that measure, the province of Uttar Pradesh is flecked with my blood. Not just Uttar Pradesh, and not just India. Pakistan too. My history is wrapped up with the history of the Indian subcontinent. Mom is Muslim, from the Indian side; Papa was Punjabi Hindu from the Pakistani side.” Using this personal story, Zaidi engages with current debates about nationalism, citizenship and migration.
Was Partition concluded in 1947, or was it initiated? This is not a clever rhetorical question for Zaidi; it is intimately connected to her (and our) past, present and future. The cities she has called home -- Mumbai, Allahabad, Lucknow and Delhi -- are no longer the “sites of synthesis and confluence” they used to be. There is a deep sense of loss and sadness in her heart but she also strikes a glorious note of hope. When hate is being mainstreamed and normalized through political speeches, school textbooks and media propaganda, her book is indeed a statement of courage and beauty.
“The spiritual fluidity of India is one of the things that gives me balance,” writes Zaidi, who believes that resisting majoritarianism is the highest form of patriotism. She says, “It is natural for most of us to be devoted to our own traditions, but also to be open to other spiritual pathways. Hundreds of millions go to temples and dargahs and churches. They would not immerse themselves wholly in the rituals of the other, but would brush against other sacred norms in the belief that piety was piety, no matter where it came from. I myself visit any sacred place that doesn’t shut me out. It only strengthens what I have.”
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He is @chintan_connect on Twitter.