Sahana Ahmed’s Combat Skirts is a delectable spread of Army life served with slices of subtle, palpable humour and wit.
On the surface, it is a romantic story with a happily ever after feeling, but not of the Mills & Boon variety that many in our generation grew up on. Ahmed’s novel is about the dreams, ambitions, aspirations, heartaches, heartbreaks, joys and private sorrows, trials, and travails that most of us have gone through or experienced in our younger years. Saba Minhas, the protagonist, is a young girl full of verve, vivacity and raring to go in life. It is no surprise that fighting parental pressure, much to the chagrin of her parents, she becomes a student of law, goes to Calcutta, and checks into the AWWA hostel.
It is in the “melting pot” (p.14) of the hostel that her journey to self-actualisation begins after a lot of voluntary inner self-engineering. She feels she is “moulting” (p. 7). From a comparatively marginalised status accorded to her by her parents, she moves with grit and determination to the space where she appropriates to herself the right to her choice, to carve out her own identity, define her destination and be her own person. The title is an evocation of her combative spirit. Saba’s hostel life is a mélange of hilarious situations peppered by catfights, some supportive and some nasty hostel mates. It is interspersed with incidents like a typical fauji welcome given to Saba in the hostel, Saba’s learning of a coded hostel language called Pig Latin, organising ramp walks and a clandestine meeting between lovers across a stenchful drain at night. Such rib-tickling details are like trinkets on the pie called hostel life. Saba is tailed by three suitors. But she gets two out of her way, willingly, for reasons readers will know when they dive into the novel. It is the lean, mean six-foot-two frame of Lt. Adil Singh, with his “lush eyelashes,” “raven eyes,” “cinnamon skin against his olive greens” (p.4), that tugs at her heart strings. Lt. Adil is charm personified: courteous, witty, chivalrous (gives a resounding whack to a man-groping Usha; p. 125). He is all this and much more and he is Saba’s objet d’amour.
Sahana Ahmed has drawn all characters on a wide canvas. The characters are sketched with such artistry, adroitness and deftness that they come out alive and lively. She mercifully spares the reader from encountering caricatures: wooden, flat, or uninteresting. They are all quirky, funny, hilarious, and never for a moment dull. There is no gender stratification, no talking in terms of boring traditional societal binaries. The characters are true to life and relatable because they are heart-born and not brain-sprung. It is as if the author knows them all up close and personal.
The book is soaked in an Army ambience. The language the youngsters speak is a part of it. Sahana Ahmed’s grasp of every nuance of the language used by the young, peppy and happening crowd of Army brats is commendable. If the language seems choppy at times, it is in keeping with the breathless raciness of the people who use it. And it in no way compromises the flowy narrative. In this fast-paced story, the reader also encounters sparkling gems, for instance: “Talent without discipline is like an octopus on roller-skates” (p.162). There are quotes by Camus and Tagore; expressions like “a memento to my monumental idiocy” (p.123) attest to the author’s philosophical playfulness. Sahana Ahmed also uses puns which add to the piquancy of the language. The language makes the characters all the more authentic.
Hostel life makes Saba fiercely independent. Brushing aside snoopy army aunties who convey juicy bits to her mother, she moves on. But the look of “open disdain” (p. 6) of the sentry on seeing her enter the hostel in a combat-print pleated skirt raises her quills like a threatened porcupine. Saba is spurred and designs skirts. Her hostel friends ramp walk wearing them and Saba lifts the Eastern Canopy Ms. Talented 1999 trophy. What stands out is not only her creativity but also her poetic and lyrical skills in the ingenious way she presents her models.
Plot and character are seamlessly stitched in the novel; there are no distracting sub-plots. Through reference to the Kargil War and iconic Calcutta (now Kolkata) buildings, the text breathes out an air of contemporaneity. Sahana Ahmed has an eye for detail and a sharpness of observation that reminds one of Jane Austen. It is no wonder Mrs. Minhas wants Saba to marry Faraaz Mirza Beg and Auntie Mala wants to hook and book Lt. Adil Singh for one of her “white as milk,” “rich” cousins (p. 99) during the course of the train journey. But the theme of love and marriage which dominates Jane Austen is not a part of Sahana Ahmed’s oeuvre.
According to Roland Barthes, “A text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.” When readers gather all the silken threads of the traces scattered throughout the novel, they form a magical pattern that lingers fondly in the heart long after we have finished reading the book.
Combat Skirts can be purchased here.