November 25, 2015

Of Chick Lit and Cliches: Zeenat Mahal's Haveli amuses


Even though both Pakistan and India are experiencing a rapid change in terms of interest in South Asian English literature, the field stills remain sparse and dominated by only a few well-known names.

Haveli, one of the more popular ventures of Indireads, a Canada-based independent publishing company, is a novella set in a time period that appeals to both Pakistani and Indian readers. The location of the story, a mansion in Jalalabad, featuring in the book as a former princely state of Pakistan, employs the perfect tone for the readers to immerse themselves in the culture and traditions of the local population.

Set in the 1970s, Haveli’s story follows the life of a bright, vivacious 20-year-old girl named Chandni, who lives with her grandmother within the stately, opulent haveli. Chandni, who prefers to be called ‘C’ over her 'filmy' name, is abandoned at birth by her flighty father. After the death of her mother soon after, she is left in the care of her rather strict maternal grandmother, who Chandni secretly nicknames 'The Broad.' One of the redeeming qualities of the story throughout remains its depiction of these two strong female characters, whose intentions and actions, and the consequences of the latter, help strengthen the plot.

The author, Zeenat Mahal, does a fairly good job of hooking the reader in with Chandni’s snarky, self-deprecating tone. The opening scene in which Chandni is being taught how to properly pour tea brings to mind famous costume dramas along the lines of Downtown Abbey and Emma. The next few scenes seamlessly introduce us to the other side characters, but considering the limited length of the novella, one could say the author tries to cram in too much at first. However, the ease with which new characters are presented doesn’t let us get lost in the plot line.

Fairly early on in the story, Chandni’s personality is revealed through an incident that involves smuggling a ballet teacher, who is tormented by her intimidating grandmother, out of the country. If the reader is in doubt about whether to trust the young woman’s self-proclaimed fearlessness, this provides the evidence.

Unfortunately, the story line doesn’t remain consistent throughout the narrative.  With the exception of Chandni, every new character is introduced with a ready-made set of adjectives. Over the course of the story we do find out more about the various characters, but the stock sentences describing them lend no authenticity to their existence as three-dimensional characters. Some personality traits are reinforced later on, such as the kindness lurking beneath the hero Taimur’s bluster, the villainous intent behind Chandni’s returning father’s plans and the caring nature of her outwardly strict grandmother – but mostly we are forced to take at face value a number of character traits which remain unproven.

The story also falls victim to every cliché in the book when it comes to its main characters. We have the naive, virginal heroine pitted against the world-wise, smirking hero. We even have the blonde, good-looking foreigner who our heroine initially falls for, but whose glib charms are no match for our dashing desi hero. These clichés extend to physical traits as well. There is an abundance of broad shoulders, silky hair and smouldering eyes for the men, and full lips, bright clothes and thick hair for the women. However, an argument can be made for the clichés, which is, their existence depends on their demand. There is a reason writers like Judith McNaught and Danielle Steele repeatedly use these story lines and still manage to retain their loyal fan following. It’s because these clichés sell, and in a Pakistani reader market fairly young in the English-language romantic genre, I’d say we can forgive the author for indulging in these particular ones.

The story does manage to make a few interesting points in terms of social commentary and the representation of the time it is set in. Chandni, who has been home-schooled, understands that she is among the privileged few. There are dinner table conversations that revolve around the political turmoil in the country, which help the story maintain its historical perspective. There are even clever sentences about women and their sari-wearing habits, which help set the story solidly in the location’s culture.

Another aspect worthy of discussion is the complexity of the relationships Chandni has with the rest of the characters in the book. Abandoned at a young age by a father who returns later on to try and win her affections and take all her money, Chandni’s initial desire to please him and her later horror at his true intentions make her a more realistic character. Her relationship with her half-brother Zafar, with the charismatic but gullible Kunwar, and with the hero’s father Baba, who is a loving father figure in her life, helps provide a complex psychological perspective to the story that makes it a very interesting read.

The story is also a very honest representation of the mindsets that prevail in South Asian culture, especially when it comes to the concept of adultery and intimacy before marriage. Chandni’s inner monologue helps us understand how tradition dictates the way young Pakistani girls think of romantic liaisons, even though the book does sometimes suffer from the stream-of-consciousness writing style. There is a way to properly portray thoughts in a manner that engages the reader, and the success of books like Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf attest to this. This book, however, fails to hit the mark in a number of places.

A reviewer could, perhaps, also question why a story which claims to cater to a South Asian audience makes so many references to celebrity figures such as American actress Ava Gardner, literary figures like Heathcliff and Moriarty, or even randomly insert currency values like the British Farthing. Much more apt would have been names like Rumi, Dev Anand and the more locally understood paisa. However, the joy of reading about a funny, snarky heroine is a refreshing change from the majority of South Asian literature these days, which revolves more around politics, religion and death, and less on the fun, romantic concept of young love.

Well-attended literature events, a fast-paced social media market and the advent of the E-book has meant that more and more people are now embracing writers who are venturing beyond their mother tongue to represent their traditions. But, there’s still a distinct lack of quantity to allow readers to sample everything that South Asian countries have to offer. So, while Haveli may falter in a number of places, it manages to both entertain and also simultaneously represent the culture and mindset of a young South Asian woman from the ’70s. It is hoped that publishers such as Indireads and novellas like Haveli will, over time, polish themselves into something that South Asians everywhere can be proud to be associated with
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This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2014 issue under the heading “Romancing a Genre”.