Ten Minutes Thirty-Eight Seconds into This Strange World – Elif Shafaq

The title of the book hints at someone being born and then leaving back for heavens in 10 minutes and 38 seconds. Yet, instead of birth, the book starts at death and contrary to the idea of someone dying within 10 minutes; the dead person is 40 years old!

This book is one of those which give a vivid idea of the society and yet, are extremely personal in nature. It does not comment on anything, nevertheless, it speaks volumes about everything going on in society. Like a background track in a café. One is essentially there for coffee but one can hear things too.

The story revolves around Leila, Tequila Leila, who happens to be a prostitute and is dead when the book opens. Dead and dumped in a trash can, because she was a prostitute. The first part of the book is in flashbacks, as Leila sees them before her brain activity ceases. The second part revolves around the events that happen afterward, with her and with the characters related to her.

The book speaks volumes about friendship and relations that we build over time, referred by Elif as ‘Water Family’. Even though we look after our blood relations, the ones tied by fate, as the ones who would always stay loyal, Elif beautifully says that sometimes water runs thicker than blood. This cannot be truer than in current times and situations. In times when family belittles and disappoints us while one is looking for support, it is mostly the water family, the friends accumulated over a period of time who understand more than the blood. Sometimes the concern of blood is washed away by the support and enthusiasm of these friends.

The story has multiple facets to it and each feels like a cut in diamond, making it sparkle in a splendid brilliance.

The first flashback of Leila takes her to her birth. Her mother was her father’s second wife and she (Leila) was conceived after a lot of difficulty and miscarriages. Somehow the first wife convinces Leila’s father to let her raise the child, instead of its biological mother. Her father agrees and convinces the mother that she will have another child, but does not realize how deep the wound was. Or how this moment, this decision became the cause of her unwinding, making her mentally unstable. Somehow we find this so common in our own society too. Forced decisions of parents, husbands and in-laws without any consideration for the concerned. Maybe that explains the huge number of depressed people in our society.

It also talks about sexual abuse of Leila by her own paternal uncle, and her conceiving because of it. Instead of punishing the culprit or taking some action against him, her family asked her to marry that very uncle’s son. She was first molested by him when she was 6 and had made her shut up my making her feel that she had done something wrong, instead of him. This particular memory speaks volumes about patriarchal societies and the fault in putting the respect of a family onto a lady’s virginity. Even though Leila was not at fault, she was blamed, asked to compromise and made feel dirty. She wanted her family to understand, take her side, do something and instead they were the ones to humiliate her.

Leila runs away to Istanbul and finds herself trapped into prostitution. A society that claims religion and stuff, duped a young lady into selling her body. On top of that, the very society would look at these prostitutes and brothels, and condemn the act, without acknowledging the fact that it was their personal greed that turned an innocent young girl into all of this. They could have guided her better but chose not to, standing at the banks and pointing fingers.

The book also talks about her five friends, who stayed by her when her family had abandoned her and severed all ties. The group was composed of a transgender, Nalan; a helper, Zainab; another prostitute who was trafficked into the city, Jameela; a bar singer, Humera and her childhood friend, Sinan. The book identifies their stories and struggles and how this strange group of people fell together.

The book also emphasizes how someone’s words can change everything for a person, like Leila did the night she was murdered. The client she was hired for was gay but could not stand his ground against his father. It was Leila, and the news of her death next day, that gave the client strength to leave everything behind and pursue a life with his lover. It was also in her death that she gave Sinan the strength to do what he felt was right, without trying to rationalize anything or wonder what the society would think. This act of defiance cost him his job and his marriage.

The book also talks about leftist revolution in Istanbul and how a procession was fired upon, in which Leila lost her husband and hence was forced to take up prostitution again. The protest was a peaceful one, where people held placards and shouted a few slogans. Yet, they were ambushed and fired upon by snipers hiding on top of a hotel building. Some were killed by the bullets and others in the stampede that occurred.

The book is filled with loss and grief. The fact that we are most often misunderstood by our own and supported by strangers; that we deny being wrong yet push people where they have no option but to live dishonestly; the inhumane and inconsiderate behavior of authorities on someone’s death and how friends, if one is blessed to have them, can turn mountains upside down for a friend.

The book is highly relatable and in a society like ours, where we deny even knowing what prostitution is or never tell our kids what sexual harassment is, with sex word being a taboo, it is a must-read. Not only does it make one realize how many vices we are simply neglecting for the fear of rocking the boat but also emphasizes on the impact of our small actions. It is a book that forces a person to introspect into his own behaviors, if he has a conscience that is, and the results thereof.

Enclosed.

Yellow, red, bright blue
pollen didn’t cause her flu
running around, gardens found
it’s feet were not wounds bound
fragrance, air, so longed nacter
transferring pollens for all that matter

But meadows, gardens, all flowers
were all dreams, so farther
a glass wall separating her
she, bound in some ways
Her heart yearned for that butterfly
and she? enclosed within those four walls!

Partiality

Colours, flowers, green meadows
All seemed alien, so remote
Visible through the small window
a life so variable
Here life was dim, streets gloomy
There sun seemed to shine so brightly
Here moments were so restricted
There things flowed so gloriously
There sun shone impartially
Here even dark imparted partiality.