Noorjehan by Ahmed Essop
In Noorjehan by Ahmed Essop we have the theme of tradition, marriage, fear, desperation, hope and paralysis. Narrated in the first person by an unnamed male teacher the reader realises from the beginning of the story that Essop may be exploring the theme of tradition. Though the story is set in the late twentieth century Noorjehan is being forced by her parents into a traditional Indian marriage. It is against her will but there is nothing she can do. She is entirely controlled by her parents. As would many young women at the time have been. How desperate Noorjehan is may be noticeable through her letters to the narrator. A man who appears to be blind to Noorjehan’s desires. Noorjehan is in fact in love with the narrator. Something that costs him dearly at the end of the story. It might also be significant that Essop uses the colour green when describing the wall to Noorjehan’s home and the seats in the compartment on the train. Traditionally green has been used in literature to highlight some type of development or growth (usually positive). However in the story it can be seen to represent paralysis. Noorjehan’s paralysis with the situation she finds herself in.
Another interesting aspect of the story is the fact that the narrator when describing Noorjehan. Paints a picture more of her physical beauty rather than of her academic qualities. True the narrator describes Noorjehan as being a ‘gifted pupil’ but this is the only adjective he uses when describing Noorjehan academically. Though he is glowing in terms of her physical beauty. The main focus remains on Noorjehan’s physical appearance. Something which leads the reader to believe that the narrator may be physically attracted to Noorjehan. There is also a degree of isolation along with control in the story. For the main part of the story Noorjehan remains isolated in her parent’s home. She is unable to go anywhere till her suitor arrives. A young man who seems pleased with Noorjehan. Though Noorjehan knows she may never reciprocate the same feeling to her proposed husband. She has lost complete control of her life due to her families desire to follow with tradition versus modernity.
The modernity that Noorjehan seeks is not available to her. She has been removed from her classes and it is as though she is being prepared to be a bride by her parents. Even the narrator tries to persuade Noorjehan’s father that modernity should prevail over tradition. However Noorjehan’s father is left speechless. This too may be important as it is possible that Essop is suggesting that the tradition of marrying young women off to men they do not know is dying. Yet this is of no use to Noorjehan. She is again living in a world in which she has no control or at least shows none till she arrives at the train station. It may also be significant that Essop uses shapes when describing the compartment on the train. He may be simply suggesting that nothing fits as it should or how Noorjehan would like.
The end of the story is interesting for the very reason that Essop instills a degree of hope into the story. Hope that Noorjehan may break away from the shackles that have condemned her to a loveless marriage. While talking to the narrator it is clear that Noorjehan has feelings for him. Though as mentioned the narrator is blind to this. He cannot see that through literature. His teaching of literature and Noorjehan’s absorption of the same literature. She has fallen in love with him. However things do not go as the reader may like. There is no happy ending for the narrator or Noorjehan. She is to live her life alone with her uncle in Cape Town while the narrator is left to regret his inaction or his own personal paralysis that has come due to his inability to court Noorjehan. Forced by tradition to live a life that she does not wish to have, has resulted in Noorjehan removing herself entirely from her home and her community. She is to bravely set out and start life afresh and anew. Never knowing whether the man she loved had indeed loved her too.