March 18, 2018

Of Sex and Boredom: Hanif Kureishi's Something To Tell You tells us nothing new

Technically Hanif Kureishi is a British author, but he’s a ‘novelist of Pakistani and English descent’ according to his Wikipedia page, which is good enough for me (because authorial nationality is a headache I haven’t began to bash my head up against.) Also because his name crops up pretty regularly in discussions of Pakistani literature, so I was already halfway through his book when I realized he was British. At which point I thought, “I’ve read too much of this crap to not review this now.” 

And here we are.

Of all the Pakistani books I’ve reviewed, only this book came close to creating the level of blahness that Uzma Aslam Khan’s 
Thinner than Skin inspired in me. Not that Kureishi doesn’t write well. He’s a good enough writer, passably entertaining, sometimes. But he’s a writer wasted on his subject matter.
The problem could be that Kureishi took on too much in one go. London in the 70s, young love, drugs, sex, murder and guilt, race and religion, all crop up here and there, but the really interesting nuggets, the smart, incisive commentary on the society, gets lost under all the other garbage. This is mainly because Kureishi’s protagonist, a middle-aged divorcee with a cushiony job, is the equivalent of the uncle at parties who cracks inappropriate jokes, scratches his belly, and stares lecherously at all the girls. Not only is Jamal the psychoanalyst boring and uninspired, he’s also wholly self-absorbed and whiny in the most grating kind of way. 

It occurred to me that I wanted my wife to be a whore, and my whores to be my partners.

In fact, pretty much all the other characters in this story – the vanished love interest, the wild single-mother sibling, the theatre director best friend – are more interesting than our own Jamal, and that’s not saying much since all these characters can easily come off as too zany, too melodramatic, too hard an effort on Kureishi’s part to create ‘complex’ characters. All their lives seem inconsequential and tiresome, an error of huge proportions in a book which rests solely on its characters’ activities. Because the actual ‘mystery’, the back story to Jamal’s current problem, a crime he committed and got away for, fizzles away into nothingness. In fact, for a back story that has Jamal wrecked in guilt throughout the book, it winds up being the most anti-climatic ending ever. 

There’s also an almost unhealthy obsession with sex running through the whole book. By this point I’ve read and talked about sex enough to know that it’s not the topic itself that made me squeamish, but the treatment of it. Hanif’s characters talk about sex as if to say, ‘Look how cool I am! Admire me for I am liberal and know about prostitutes and whips!” Case in point:

“Perhaps my son would, one day, prefer to be blown by a stranger in a toilet, or perhaps he would like to be spanked while being fellated by a Negro transvestite.”

He’s talking about his son. And here’s another example of his best friend talking about his own son:

“Most nights Sam makes love. At the beginning of the night, in the middle, and just for luck in the morning. I hear it, I overhear it. I can’t escape the fluttering moans.”

Dear god, old man. Get a grip. Take a cold shower. That’s basically what a huge portion of the book feels like: awkward, uncomfortable, and like having a conversation with an older relative who is determined to use the words blow job in every second sentence. 

Another constant recurrence, equally irritating, is in the frequent allusions to writers, psychologists, actors, poets, playwrights, etc etc etc. Baudelaire, Balzac, Freud, Proust, Keats, Coleridge, Kafka, Marx, Emerson, Blake, on and on and on; it’s like Kureish needs us to know how much he knows and how well read he is. But instead of being impressive, it stumbles headfirst into pretentiousness. 

A favourite conversation with Valentin concerned moral absolutes and ideas he’d found in Balzac, Nietzsche, Turgenev and Dostoevsky about nihilism and murder.

Kureishi’s description of Jamal’s two friends, Valentin and Woolf, was so reminiscent of the three idiots you find in H. M. Naqvi’s 
Home Boy  that for a second I had a stark, horrible flashback to the cesspit that was that novel. In a similar vein to Home Boy’s overly descriptive homage to shoe styles and flashy, pretentious conversations, Something to Tell You might well have been the inspiration to Naqvi’s endless drivel. 

How I loved being with the unassailable men. Me, the eager little kid, they would patronise as I tried to please them with jokes, tough talk and a swaggering walk. Often Wolf and Valentin spoke in French or German…

I think probably the problem was more to do with the fact that none of the characters held their ground enough for me to care about what was going on in their lives. And once you don’t care about the characters, once you start to forget where your hero’s parents are and what his best friend does and why our protagonist is doing what he’s doing, then the book is a lost cause.

He became a made-up father, a collage assembled from bits of the real one. Each of us had our own notion or fantasy of him, while he stood in the shadows, like Orson Welles in The Third Man, always about to step into our lives—we hoped.

By the time we got to page 30, Jamal mentioned his father living far away in Pakistan and I had to stop and think, “Wait, what was the father’s story again?” Mainly this was because I was bored. In some places a randomly placed exceptionally well written passage or sentence would catch my attention-

People have such power; the force field of their bodies, and the wishes within them, can knock you all over the place. 

-but then we would be back to the same old stuff. Even all the discussions about minorities and racial discrimination and the changing social fabric of London, interesting though it was, wasn’t enough to save this book. 

Most whites considered Asians to be “inferior,” less intelligent, less everything good. Not that we were called Asian then. Officially, as it were, we were called “immigrants,” I think. Later, for political reasons, we were “blacks.” But we always considered ourselves to be Indians. In Britain we are still called Asians, though we’re no more Asian than the English are European. It was a long time before we became known as Muslims, a new imprimatur, and then for political reasons.

The problem with this book is that our protagonist is a thoroughly unlikable, incredibly boring character. And while thoroughly unlikeable characters can make for great writing (Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, Amy Dunne from Gone Girl, Dorian Gray from The Picture of Dorian Gray), over here it, very simple put, does not. 


There are too many good books out there to waste your time with this one. If you want, maybe check out Buddha of Suburbia since people seem to love that Kureishi book, but definitely give this one a miss. 

March 14, 2018

Of Arranged Marriages and Young Love: Aisha Saeed's Written in the Stars tackles important things

It’s very hard to review this book because there are just so so many ways to look at this story.

As a desi, I think it’s so important for us to see representation, and as a desi from an upper middle class family, I can tell it’s important to talk about the kind of horrors of arranged marriages that occur in small villages in Pakistan. But as a reader of international fiction, I worry about what the non-Pakistani reader takes away about our country from this novel: do they believe all Pakistanis are intolerant of love marriages and willing to drug girls into saying yes? And in continuing this conversation, isn’t it upon the reader to not expect a book to represent everything about a country, in all of its complexities and contradictions? Is the author to blame if our country is not publishing enough fiction to represent all the different ways of living in Pakistan there are?

And even more: does this book do a good job in representing how helpless girls can be in the face of overwhelming sexism and patriarchy? Or is its heroine a weak character, resigned to her status until the hero swoops in to save her? Is Naila naïve and poorly drawn, or does she represent innocence and a hope that things will get better? Does the short page length keep the reader hooked, or is it a disservice to not give more depth and time to such an important topic?

All these questions and more are worth discussing, but I think what’s most important is that a book like this exists in the first place. While arranged marriage versus love marriage is a pretty old argument which has been rehashed countless times, some aspects of it – the complete lack of agency girls have – are still significant because things like honour killing still exist.

“Life is full of sadness. It’s part of being a woman. Our lives are lived for the sake of others. Our happiness is never factored in.”

Our protagonist in this story is Naila, a Pakistani American teenager in her last year of high school – good lord she is so YOUNG – who is part of a very conventionally desi household. She has to attend lunches her brother gets to skip, she might be two year older but her 15 year old brother gets the driving lessons, and so on. But these are injustices most desi girls learn to swallow because that’s just the way things are. Soon Naila will be going away to college, something she looks forwards to because she will finally be able to spend time properly with her boyfriend Saif.

I hate keeping secrets from her. But how can I explain that I see the world a little differently and my way of looking at the world isn’t bad, not if it means their daughter has found someone she loves, someone who makes her completely and unbelievably happy?

For Naila’s parents, the idea that Naila could conceivably have a boyfriend is beyond the realms of possibility. This particular aspect of the story felt very true to life, because most Pakistani parents are like this. I say most, because there is great variation amongst the types, of course. Some might not care at all, or might actually encourage their children to find their potential partners, while others are ready to kill their own children who dare to fall in love without parental permission.

“You can choose what you want to be when you grow up, the types of shoes you want to buy, how long you want your hair to be. But your husband, that’s different. We choose your husband for you.”

This obsession with marriage might seem weird to a person who hasn’t grown up in this culture, but in desi communities or Islamic ones (and the crisscross between these two is too tangled up to properly make clear, even to our own communities) marriage is seen as a representation of community, of good will. A marriage doesn’t only bring the bride and groom together but also their families. Joint living systems encourage more than two people to have stakes in the marriage, with elders considering it their responsibility to solve disputes, and daughters seen as representations of the family honour. In such settings, it is the right of the elders to choose who will marry whom amongst the young, since the young are considered too naïve and inexperienced to make such a decision on their own. Questioning this system isn’t encouraged.

“My parents knew it was a good match, and they were right. You’ve seen others, your third cousin Roohi, who chose not to listen. Look at her now, divorced with young children. Her parents can’t even leave their home without hanging their heads in shame. Who wants to marry her now?”

I repeat again, this is not true for all families. I know people personally who fell in love, introduced their parents to their respective choices, and are happily married now. I know people whose marriage arranged by their elders fell apart. All these various digressions show that it is the people in the marriage who ultimately matter. But the idea that love marriages end in ruin and unhappiness while arranged marriages lead to ultimate bliss is too strongly entrenched in the Pakistani mindset for it to be shaken by a few youthful ideas.

It is precisely these kind of ideas that lead Naila and Saif to believe that things between them can work out. Unfortunately for the reader, this young relationship isn’t as strong as one could hope. I never shipped these two, and neither did I feel the passion and excitement Naila feels when it comes to Saif. For someone whose existence is the catalyst for this book’s conflict, Saif remains a blurry, vague figure whose only purpose is to want to be with Naila.

“They think there’s only one way to do things because it’s all they ever knew, but they’re not bad people, Saif. They can be reasoned with. One day we’ll show them there’s another way to look at all of this.”

Naila is convinced that she can reason with her parents, that she can convince them to give Saif a chance. Things fall apart when she sneaks away to prom, where she’s promptly caught by her parents, dancing in Saif’s arms. Horrified and disgusted, they drag her back home.

“Boyfriend?” he yells. “My daughter has a boyfriend?” His words reverberate through the house. They shake the walls. I shudder. Boyfriend is a dirty, shameful word.

I vividly remember a time when one of my friends told me that when her mother discovered she had a boyfriend, she slapped her. For my friends and me, corporal punishment was a distant reality. Our parents had never raised their hands on us, and we always believed they never would. But for my friend’s mother, the real life existence of her young daughter’s boyfriend had been a turning point. Moments like those are representative, because they teach you that some issues are bigger than your imagination could conceive. Even though for years and years we are told to sit properly and not laugh loudly and stay away from boys because boys will be boys and it is on girls to protect themselves, the misogyny of Pakistani society is still hard to digest in all its extremities.

“For generations my family lived in this village. People looked up to us. They came to us to resolve their disputes. And now? The respect we built up over the generations, you are trying to ruin all of it!”

Naila’s decision to fall in love with or marry whoever she likes is a representation of her disobeying her parent’s complete authority over her, which is the one thing some families cannot stand. Parental control, a girl’s submissiveness, her lack of interest in her own sexual activity, exhibiting no desires, all these things are tightly bound within the circles of honour. Of course, this is not only the case in Pakistani society but in traditional family norms all over the world, but it is true that we have lesser tolerance for when these circles of honour are broken. Honour killings – known locally as Karo Kari and which anywhere else would be called plain murder – have their name for a reason. In cases repeated again and again and again, we find that women who dare to disobey traditional norms or who attempt to control their own destiny in sexuality, love, and marriage are rejected and killed in brutal ways. In many cases the killer(s) stand unapologetic and even proud, saying that the women’s death is what has restored honour to her family.

“We love you. We want what’s best for you. If we see you doing wrong, we have to stop you. Even if you hate us, and I know you do right now, one day, you will see we did what was best for you. That is what we have always tried to do.”

While Naila’s story never steers that far, it still falls uncomfortably close to the fault line of such a mentality. Her parents, who see what they are doing as ultimately good for their daughter, take her to Pakistan with the sole focus of getting her married off. There, Naila is shown to a various number of families with prospective bachelors without her consent or even awareness. Once she finds out, her attempts to escape are thwarted, resulting in physical violence, drugging her and forcing her into a marriage, and then onto the villainy of horrible in laws, marital rape, and unwanted pregnancy.

“We’re husband and wife,” he said. His words leave me cold. How can this be a marriage? I am here against my will. He is not my husband. He’s someone I must endure. Nasim is not my mother-in-law; she’s just a warden. This is not a home. It is a cage.

Admittedly, this book takes the route of the extreme in showing how horrible arranged marriages can be. As someone who’s been happily married through the same arranged route, I can say that not all of them are horrible and vicious. A million examples exist around me which refute the statement that all arranged marriages are deadly, but that still doesn’t deny the fact that the opposite of an arranged marriage is viewed with horror and derision, and in some cases as a reasonable cause of murder. Those who dare to marry for love may not always end up killed, but there’s still the societal stigma to face, having to contend with your parent’s betrayal, and the oft-quoted criticism of a marriage made for love: ‘if things go wrong, who will you blame but yourself?’ The logic being, of course, that in an arranged marriage you’ll still be miserable if it doesn’t work out, but at least you’ll have the savage satisfaction of saying that your misery was other people’s doing.

What it all comes down to, in the end, is in the degree of consent of both the parties involved. In the real life situations I have seen, parents are the ones who pick their children’s prospective others, but then these children have the agency to meet these people and talk to them. These kids had the right to say no, and they exercised it, and so what we are witnessing in this book is a subset of the arranged marriage formula which we can call the forced marriage. Unfortunately for us, how this book fails is in showing Naila’s arranged marriage, one which has been thoroughly and completely forced, as the only type of arranged marriage this is. What would have made this story remarkable, and much more balanced, is an example of a marriage that was arranged, but that was also happy. 

“You’re gone, beta. We have to help bring you back. We’re your parents. It’s our responsibility.”

Ultimately Naila’s story is one of agency, and who has it, and who doesn’t. We all of us exercise our agency to an extent and in different ways every day, testing the boundaries which limit us. Sadly enough, even the ‘good’ characters in this book are those who tell her heroine that she must learn to bear the unhappiness of her marriage. Selma, a cousin Naila’s age, tells Naila that she must learn to move on after her forced marriage, while Faiza, a sympathetic sister-in-law, only goes as far as to pat Naila on the head and say something along the lines of “I know it’s tough, but what can one do?”

“Do I want this life? Living here and seeing my husband a few times a year, raising my daughter alone? I don’t know what it was like for you in America, but this is how life is. This is reality.”

When the characters depicted as good do nothing more than accept the system, it makes the situation appear all the more unfair. Unfortunately, such a thing happening would be pretty common in Pakistan, where even those who mean well are unable to understand how such an entrenched system of patriarchy can be fought against.

“It’s good to accept what is. I try not to dwell on what I don’t have. When you get married, things change. I’ve learned over time to accept this.”

In a book that depicts any and every character as being ruthless when it comes to support for arranged marriages, it would have been nice to see people representing the opposite end of the spectrum. The only proponents of the love marriage, Saif’s parents, barely appear for half a page, and are rushed through quickly. In fact, almost all the characters in this book rest solidly on the negative side of the misogyny scale. Not even one major character, with the sole exception of Saif, who’s in it for his own interest, believes that what has happened to Naila is wrong. Within this book of one-dimensional characters, it is ironically Naila’s husband who proves to be the most complex.

“If you think I want this, I don’t. How can I be happy when my wife finds me repulsive? When she will never trust me again? But what can I do? Not only would your life be in danger, we would bring shame to both our families.”

Amin is one of the good guys, but he’s also most definitely a bad guy. Unaware that Naila has been forced into her marriage, he is both upset at her lack of response to his presence, and eager to please Naila in any way he can. He is both charming and considerate in the beginning, giving Naila her space, protecting her from his mother’s slow-boiling wrath. In Pakistan, sons are the apples of their mother’s eyes, and for most mothers it is their daughter-in-law’s rightful place to worship the ground their husbands walk upon. In this case, Naila’s mother-in-law is horrified by Naila’s unending defiance of these societal norms, and determined to make her crack.

It is in these situations that Amin is the hero. But once he finds out how Naila was forced into this marriage, he falls back on the ‘divorce is shame’ route. And while he can be defended for being a product of his times, he is still more complex than other characters - spoiler alert for further discussion - because that isn’t his only crime. It is in his rape of Naila that he proves his true colours. Convinced by his mother that Naila will leave him, he forces himself on her one night, and then feels regretful the very next day, but what is done is done. When he finds out that Naila has met Saif and is planning to escape, he doesn’t stop his mother from beating Naila up and kicking her out of the house, but does eventually step in when the beating starts to get out of hand. He is also the one who eventually lets both Naila and Saif walk away from the house in one piece. In all these ways, he is both good and bad, and it is up to the reader to decide how far they are willing to forgive him.

In conclusion, a friend of mine asked me why I so vehemently argued against arranged marriages if I myself had gone through the same process. My response was that I’m for the system when it’s a system the girl chooses. For me, the arranged marriage route was convenient because I was too lazy to find someone on my own and too busy to take out time to do just that. For me, it was easier for my parents to find someone for me whom I could later meet and approve of. It was an arranged marriage, done with the consent of both the parties involved. But in places where the girl, after expressing a desire to marry someone of her own choice, is shunned, violated and beaten, in cases of honour killing and excessive parental control and the direct coorelation of a family’s esteem with a girl’s virginity, I find that I’m not such a proponent after all. That is what one would call a forced marriage. It all comes down to the amount of agency we give our girls, and this book shows that in the majority of places in Pakistan, we still don’t give them enough, or even a little. So this might be a weak book, but it’s an important conversation starter, and for that it goes on the recommended list.

March 11, 2018

Of Aspergers and Family Matters: Roopa Farooki's The Way Things Look To Me is a pleasant surprise

I think one of the major reasons I was so amazed that Roopa Farooki’s book was good was because no one ever discusses this author. Ever. I’ve been reading about and discussing and analysing Pakistani literature for a while now, and Farooki is so completely absent from the discourse that I expected this book to be a total bomb. Which is why when I began, and the words flowed together so smoothly, my first impression was that of shock, and my second one of happiness.

The plot and the characters and the narrative are all secondary. First and foremost is the fact that Farooki writes really well. And that’s a compliment only very few Pakistani authors can lay claim to. Her words are effortless; a façade that is so carefully constructed that it only crumbles in a few odd places. Overall, I notched this book one star higher just for the writing. 

Another star was given for the characters, who are complex enough to retain interest. Asif and Lila, older siblings to the autistic Yasmin, deal with their mother’s death and their loss of any parental guidance (father gone in an early death) in completely different ways. Asif, stepping in as the sole caretaker, both perfects and resents his role as Yasmin’s indulgent guardian. Lila, selfish and volatile, completely tears herself away from her family, destroying every other relationship in its wake, but unable to separate herself completely.

Unfortunately, while Asif and Lila, and even Yasmin, make for compelling characters with their own distinct narrative arcs, it is the plot that lets the book down. I did not much care for Yasmin’s documentary filming, about the life of a non-neurotypical, nor was I overly invested in Asif or Lila’s tumultuous love lives. Even though both the siblings have compelling, vastly different personalities, and hence completely different trajectories in how they meet, fall in love, and sustain their relationships, it doesn’t make for a strong enough story to keep me reading for long. Asif’s slow acceptance of his worth and his realization that the gorgeous woman at his work place might be interested in him might be an interesting character study, but it isn’t a great narrative arc. Same with Lila and her blind boyfriend, who gets ten points for representation and not much else.

And while we are talking about representation, we might as well discuss Yasmin, whose Asperger’s combined with her synaesthesia should have made her one of the most interesting characters in this book. Unfortunately her larger than life siblings hold most of the attention, reducing Yasmin’s chapters to a more boring side note. Even though Farooki has tried her hardest to make Yasmin three dimensional, I always become uncomfortable trying to figure out if the representation is actually true. Even though I know that no two non-NT people are the same and I’m all for disability representation, I always need to take a step back and wonder whether the book isn’t using the representation the way people are using feminism and social activism these days, just because it’s in the spotlight. Overall points for representation though.


This is the kind of book that I didn’t love but would understand if someone did. It’s the kind of book you can appreciate, with its comfortable phrases and character building and control over pacing. Definitely recommended.

March 07, 2018

Of Greek Plays and Smart Writing: Kamila Shamsia's Home Fire might be the Pakistani book of the year

Home fire is the kind of book you should most definitely read, not only because it’s smart, but also because it’s well written, and that is always a good incentive to read anything. Kamila Shamsie’s writing, so amateur and unpolished in her earlier novels like In the City by the Sea, just keeps getting better and better. And while Home Fire is not my favourite Shamsie work (Burnt Shadows wins hands down), it’s still a very very close second.

It’s supposed to be based on the 5th century tragedy Antigone by Greek writer Sophocles, but it’s ok if you know nothing about the play. That doesn’t detract from the actual enjoyment of this novel, which focuses more on its characters and their motivations, and less on whether it’s a faithful adaptation of the original. At the beginning of this tale, Isma, the elder sister of twins Aneeka and Pervaiz, has just accepted a scholarship to America and finds herself breathing in freedom for the first time since the death of her mother and her elevated status as temporary guardian for her younger siblings. With a missing jihadi father dead in Guantanamo, the Pasha siblings have always lived haunted by their father’s legacy, but Pervaiz’s decision to follow in his father’s footsteps sets off a more haunting chain of events that extends all the way to the British government’s doorstep.

“Grief was what you owed the dead for the necessary crime of living on without them.”

Adil Pasha, the father to our first protagonist, is already dead at the beginning of this story, but his life choices are what lead to the chain of events that rapidly unfold. Divided into five sections, this story is initially told from the point of view of Isma Pasha and her initial meeting in America with Eamonn, the British Home Secretary’s son. After moving back to the UK, Eamoon’s point of view, next in line, involves his meeting with Aneeka, one of the younger Pasha twins. By the time mention of the other twin, Pervaiz, comes up in Eamoon’s part of the story, we are moving into Pervaiz’s point of view, a jump from UK to the heart of the Islamic state. 

He could simply present himself there: I made a mistake. I’m prepared to face trial if I’ve broken laws. Just let me go to London. But he was the terrorist son of a terrorist father... He didn’t know how to break out of these currents of history, how to shake free of the demons he had attached to his own heels.

At this point it’d be unfair to give too much of the story away, especially since it’s already an adaptation of a play. In a session during Karachi Literature Festival held this weekend, Kamila Shamsie said, in answer to an audience question, that she specifically did not use direct quotes from Antigone because she wanted the story to be read on its own. And while of course it’s inevitable that previous readers of Antigone will see the similarities, it is true that this novel, whose weight is supported by amazing characterization and great writing, stands high enough on its own (so as to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize this year).

Everything else you can live around, but not death. Death you have to live through.

Usually I take copious amounts of notes when I’m reading a Pakistani novel because they are useful when I’m later writing my review. With Home Fire, I’m glad I didn’t do that. Instead of stopping and jotting down points every few pages, I tore through this book in a day and a half, and the experience was worth this rambling, incoherent thought process, because some books deserve to be enjoyed without stopping. With Home Fire, there is a certainty that it will be analysed, studied, and scrutinized. It’s the kind of book that becomes the subject of multiple university assignments and thesis topics. But that kind of analysis requires a kind of detailed academic look, and what I’m telling you is a purely reader-based exploration, which focused on the plot and the dynamics and the in-depth characterization, and while the nerd part of me revelled in the deft exploration of race and gender and religion, it was just a very good book. Period.


“For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition.”

This might be one of the best Pakistani novels coming out of the country recently. Read it. 

March 05, 2018

Of Writers and Mediocrity: Lara Zuberi's Torn Pages is the definition of meh

In one of the most awkward things to happen while I was reading this book, I stumbled upon a scene in where our protagonist, aspiring writer that she is, receives the following rejection letter:

“Your English is excellent and your writing is fluent. But your descriptions are way too long. Perhaps you can take some courses in novel-writing or short-story writing? I really do admire your brave attempt at writing a book. You have the writer’s itch, which is great, but my dear, you have a long way to go with the craft of writing. Hoping, that one day you develop into a writer.”

This is uncomfortable to read because while our protagonist’s novel, revised and polished to a shine,
wins awards and good reviews and movie adaptation deals and the whole shebang, I doubt this novel is going to get anything of the sort. Basically, the advice our heroine gets is the gist of this review.

Torn Pages isn’t exactly bad writing, make no mistake. I’ve read enough crap literature, and within its
sub category of crappier Pakistani writing, to be able to recognize it in an instant. But all the things that quote mentioned are exactly what I would say for Lara Zuberi’s work. The writing might be good, but there’s still something missing. The dialogues are stilted. There are plot holes and lack of depth and worst of all, there’s no flow. There is a clear lack of rhythm, a mark in the pages where a sentence which should have ended didn’t end and a paragraph which should have begun didn’t begin. These are the kind of things you can’t teach, but that one learns over time, through hours and hours of voracious reading, learning without knowing what you are learning.

And while I’m sure Zuberi must have put in the hard work, and it’s condescending to assume an author hasn’t, the review is of the final product and not of the hours of labour. And the final product doesn’t deliver. Told from alternating points of view, the plot skips between present and past in a bizarre ping pong. Saman, the writer, is narrating her past through chapters of a novel she is writing, which break the present narrative to take us back to her days of poverty and a rare chance to study in an elite school. Breaking into Saman’s boring present of cook-write- wallow-sleep is Aman, a successful neurosurgeon unable to get over his past relationship with Saman. As Saman writes her story (named The Story of Us, in a valiant attempt to be as cheesy as possible), we are with Aman in a slightly future time frame, where Aman’s wife has given him a published version of Saman’s novel. Aman, shocked and gratified that his past girlfriend’s dream of becoming a writer have been fulfilled, frankly doesn’t spend enough time being horrified that she has written about his past, including being abandoned as a child, in such intricate detail in her book. I’m just saying, if I fell out with a friend and later discovered they had written all the gory details of my past in a book parading as fiction, I’d have a few words to say.

And while we’re on the topic, the biggest hole in this story comes from Saman’s absent, entirely pointless husband. In a hypothetical scenario where my husband was a writer and wrote a whole novel, I would want to know what it was about, but okay, let’s assume her husband isn’t interested. But then her book is winning awards! She’s been interviewed! Her book has been reviewed multiple times! And she has literally written a story where the protagonist has the same name as her, and she’s talking about how she met the great love of her life Aman and how she lost him, and her husband has nothing to say about all this? This is just verging on the absurd.

Even besides the plot holes and writing deficiencies, there are smaller, more irritating things that dot the book. Like the fact that there’s a quote from writers, philosophers, famous global figures at the beginning of each chapter. Not only is this a move I’ve only seen in very amateurish novels (every proper writer worth their salt will put a quote at best in the epigraph, and no more), it also makes the writer’s job harder, because quoting Lahiri or Gibran or Rumi will only serve to highlight the distance between your own writing and those of the experts.

I also take issue with the italicization of the desi word, a problem I’ve discussed in numerous other reviews. This book doesn’t seem to decide what it wants italicized. What is the style policy being followed by this publisher, I really want to know, because why is pakram pakrai italicized but gullak isn’t? Beta isn’t? Dhobi isn’t? I ask again, as I’ve already asked a million times before. Who is the author here?

And finally, a major problem in these poor-as- dirt protagonist stories is the depiction of poverty, and more specifically, poor people. There is a certain condescension authors exhibit in these situations  that grate the nerves. Our heroine, born a dhobi’s daughter, is the holier-than- thou personality who never thinks twice about her situation and her parents’ reality, being blindly grateful for the chance to study at an ‘elite school’. What I want to see are complex people who also happen to be poor. People who are grateful for the chance to study but also people who are selfish and who blame others for their problems and angry and hateful and more than a one dimensional representation of the cheerful poor who work hard and earnestly and eagerly grab every opportunity to become better. Authors of privilege tackling poverty was something I discussed in Bina Shah’s Slum Child as well, but in a post-review Twitter discussion, she pointed out that she had done her research beforehand. It seems more research is required for Ms. Zuberi, before we can finally progress to a point where those are who poor and those who are rich are more than the stereotypical sum of their economic backgrounds.


With most authors whose books I review and don’t like, my general response is to urge them to bury
their pen under a rock in the deepest, darkest well. Lara Zuberi is the exception to this; I foresee good
things ahead, because she does have control over the language. It’s just that she is too aware of her
control, and tries too hard. My advice: relax a little. And for all the readers: keep an eye out for future
novels written by this name.