November 04, 2015

Of Love and Marriages: Shazaf Fatima Haider's How it Happened entertains


 “It’s a scandal! Why, a woman only has two things in this society: her ability to bear sons and her reputation! Zeba’s reputation will be what? She will be labelled ‘fast’ and what will happen then?”

There’s something about reading a book that describes exactly what your life is like. Exactly. I’m not kidding around here. I’m a twenty-something Pakistani Muslim currently drowning in the drama that is the process of getting married. This book is about twenty-something Pakistani Muslims drowning in the drama that is the process of getting married. It’s like this book was written for me.

She remained unmarried until the age of twenty-seven, which was considered the point of no return in those days.

I related to this book, and how. Some parts were so brilliant I took snapshots and sent them to my best friend, “We’ve had this exact same conversation!” Some scenes were actual versions of chats I have had with my parents, or with relatives, or with random strangers even. It was one of those experiences where you stop and think, ‘Wait. I’m not the only one?’ and you let yourself bask in the pleasure of that feeling.

“I don’t want to get married for the sake of producing children. I want a companion. I want love.”
“LOVE!” gasped Dadi. “No one in our family has married for love for generations!”

This book is about marriages in the Pakistani community, and the ensuing tug-of-war that is bound to follow between those who are fierce proponents of the arranged marriage path against those who believe in choosing their own spouse. Dadi, the matriarchal head of the Bandian family, has particular opinions about any and every thing in the household, which include very strict ones about marriage. This comes into conflict with her grandchildren’s desire to stray from tradition: Haroon, the apple of her eye, can seemingly not find a single suitable match until the girl from his office catches his eye, and Zeba, our protagonist’s older sister, starts dating a guy of her own choosing, sending their grandmother into paroxysms of terror at even the vague idea of a love marriage.

“She love-married. Shameless creature she was...Her mother tried to commit suicide and her father couldn’t show his face in public again! Such shame she brought to her family.”

Viewed through the eyes of Saleha, the youngest daughter in the family and the main narrator, we watch as mindsets collide, age old traditions against a newer, more ‘mordren’ way of thinking, as their Dadi puts it. Shazaf Fatima Haider spares nothing and no one, talking about the whole process from the beginning to the end: the proposals, the meetings, the events, the post-marriage drama.

“It’s a bad idea to give your daughter-in-law too much of a choice in the matter. What was this idea of inviting her along anyway?” A good Eastern bride didn’t participate in the wedding with the eagerness that Saima was exhibiting. What kind of girl brazenly went with her in-laws to choose her own wedding dress?

While the book leans towards comedy, presenting the marriage process as an ultimately painful farce that one can only live through by laughing at it, a number of important issues manage to hide beneath the funny veneer. We encounter child brides and how it was the norm in olden times to get girls married at a ridiculously young age. We see brazen sexism and misogyny and how ludicrous the process of choosing a life partner based on a girl’s complexion and weight is. The book talks about intolerance and gender discrimination and how daughters were (and sometimes still are) considered a burden while sons are revered and loved.

My grandmother took upon herself the role of the matriarch, the mother of three eligible sons, who more than made up for the disadvantage of six daughters who would need to be married off one day.

Probably the best thing about this book is the fact that so much of it is written purely for the eastern reader. This book has a specially-for-Pakistanis vibe which means that even though desi people everywhere, from India to America to East Asian countries, might be able to relate, it still retains its innate Pakistani feel. The numerous traditions during the wedding process are those that every Pakistani reader will have encountered time and time again, from the Ar-see masaf-

Not one of our female relatives had been exempt from the Scared Tradition: each saw her husband and Representative of God on Earth through a silver mirror placed on her lap during the ceremonial Ar-see-masaf with only a discreet glimpse of the face that was to dominate the rest of her life.

-to the battle against wearing a Sehra.

“Let me tell you now before you protest, you will wear a sehra of roses when you come, I don’t care what you say!”
“Dadi Jan, no! ...No one wears a sehra! A curtain of roses covering my face...What will I look like?...and I don’t want to wear those abominable shoes: the sleem shahees that are curled at the end? I’ll look like a relic from the past!”

Ultimately it is the weddings that one enjoys most during the reading process. For every desi kid who has had to suffer through a super long wedding, complete with seven functions and ten post-wedding parties and three pre-wedding dholkis, this book provides a slapstick version of our experiences. It’s a personal account of every Pakistani girl’s marriage proposal horror story, presented in a manner that makes it funny, and thus, bearable.

The wedding functions that followed were nothing more than a display of wealth, so necessary for the maintenance of the girl’s respectability in the eyes of her in-laws.

This book is, if nothing else, at least a starting point for a much needed discussion about gender politics. And one could argue that other Pakistani authors have tackled the manner in a more sophisticated, mature manner, but that is precisely the reason why this story is so much more important. Its exaggerated comedy and whimsical tone are what make it perfect for younger readers, who will be much more eager to pick this up than, say, Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Pakistani Bride or Nadeem Aslam’s Leila in the Wilderness, both excellent stories in their own right. That still doesn’t change the fact that those stories are what one could categorize as literary fiction, somewhere in the veins of class room syllabi, and this book is more chick lit, something you could recommend to your best friend and talk about in terms of how much you related to it.

“How long have you known her?”
“Since I joined P&G.”
“And how long have you known known her?” interjected Dadi.

What also helps is the comedy. Unlike other Pakistani books, this novel has perfected the art of not taking itself too seriously, which basically amounts to a lot of exaggerated hilarity. There are some actual laugh-out-loud scenes (a compliment I find I can’t give to any other Pakistani book I’ve reviewed so far) and a fair amount of mirth is injected in the proceedings. Even when the topic is a sensitive one, it’s handled mostly in a funny manner, ranging from the subtle-

In those days, the moisture of unshed tears in a girl’s eyes was a sign of beauty. It proved that she was too delicate for the roughness of the tough and wicked world and therefore quite useless and overwhelmed when it came to accomplishing practical matters at hand. This, in turn, proved that they were true nobility.

-to the over-the-top.

“When I bent to serve your Dadi, she took the glass and said, “Yes, yes, she’s very fair. We’ll have her.” Just like that! Can you imagine? As if I were a goat they were buying for Baqra Eid.”

Unfortunately, while it elicits actual laughter in some scenes, in others it fails miserably, giving one the uncomfortable feeling of having to fake laugh at a joke just because it was so desperately delivered. Moments such as these usually occur when the humour slides deftly into areas of blatant body shaming, with various characters engaging in disturbingly vicious commentary on everything from body shapes to hair texture, the biggest proponent being, of course, the grandmother.

“She’s pretty. Not beautiful. A little too thin. Haroon, you should tell her to gain some weight. Men like women with a little more flesh on them.”

But while that’s done for a reason, meant to bring into the limelight the Dadi’s sexist mentality, a direct result of her upbringing in a patriarchal, image-obsessed society, it becomes much harder to swallow when the person involved in the vehement criticism is the protagonist, Saleha. It’s possible that Shazaf Fatima Haider was attempting to give Saleha what she assumed was a true teenager vibe, but it’s hard to tell when there’s no clear way of distinguishing between what is meant to be a rejection of said practises implied through humour and what is in fact an endorsement.

In fact, one could argue that the protagonist is possibly the most ill-portrayed character in the whole charade, one who functions as nothing more than a mouth piece for the novel’s events. Saleha is quite possible the least self-obsessed teenager to have ever lived, because no person in that age group could ever spend so little time talking about themselves and spend so much time interested in their sibling’s love lives.

We Bandians from Bhakuraj were proud of our collective identity, but maintaining this identity could sometimes become a struggle, especially for someone like my sister who had a mind of her own. While she, too, loved to hear the stories of Bhakuraj, she treated them as obsolete anecdotes merely meant to amuse, but for Dadi they were a code of life.

The immaturity verges on awkward: she’s fifteen years old, and dances the Scooby Doo dance? Teenagers are self-conscious and gauche, and generally don’t act like they’re five when they’re really fifteen. She introduces all her relatives through a bullet list. She has no friends to speak of, doesn’t seem to ever actually go to school, and is allowed to sit in on all the important family discussions. Her passage of developing a crush is described within five pages where she frets, declares eternal love, and then promptly forgets the guy. Where does this happen, I ask you? What teenager isn’t more worried about grades, pimples and the cute guy next door than their brother’s marital bless or sister’s love affair? In reality, Pakistani elders discuss marriage matters in private, upper class children don’t only have school but generally have a hundred hours of daily tuition as well, and friends are pretty much the most important social circle during one’s teen years. The fact that this book gets these basics so wrong brings other, more worrisome aspects, into the limelight. Such as the lack of subversion, a concept that the book keeps at complete arms length. In terms of questioning the status quo, the story represents, but does not probe.

“Haroon should have the freedom to marry someone he likes!”
“You be quiet! Listen to you!...Hussain, look at what your daughter is saying! Good sons let their elders choose their wives for them.”

This book clearly pits the idea of the arranged marriage à la older-generation-thinking against the idea of choosing your own spouse as presented via the younger generation. There’s a certain stereotypical theme that runs throughout the vein of the book: The childless, unmarried, sleeveless-kameez wearing, red-lipstick flashing aunt who works as a fashion editor is the saviour of the young, unlucky-in-love ones. The sister who rebels against arranged marriages reads Lolita and quotes English literature. The grandmother is an ultra-controlling matriarch, the older female relatives are nosy and ill-mannered, and the mother is a warm beacon of comfort and sympathy.

“You mustn’t blame him. He’s done things in a certain way all his life. All of us have, and to change that doesn’t come easily for us. And if it is so hard for us, imagine how difficult it must be for your grandmother, who is so old that she can’t imagine doing things differently. We’re all trying to protect you, in whatever way we think best. You must understand that.”

This book doesn’t even bother attempting to create characters that might be a bit more multi dimensional, instead moulding them all in the same old caricatures of older tyrannical grandmother and younger mutinous feminist. This presentation of figures does a disservice to the multitudes of Pakistani women who struggle to balance their religion and culture with the modern times, both old and young alike.

“What a question to ask! Why, you girls these days know no shame! Asking your grandmother what she talked about on her wedding night! I can tell you, though – there were no love poems! Sensible Bandian women know that this love-shove business is all nonsense. We must do our duty to please God and our husbands. That’s it!”

It’s entirely possible that this expectation of the representation of subversion is too heavy a responsibility to place on the arms of a book that, after all, only seeks to entertain. But that’s the problem with such limited output of literature from a country with such diversity in terms of opinions: we then expect that literature to represent all of us, from all shades of life, with all sorts of backgrounds and thinking. In terms of depiction, the book does an accurate enough job of describing, even if it verges on hyperbole, what the process of arranged marriages is like.

That Dadi was also racist and had a well-developed paranoia of all dark-skinned individuals was also well known to all who knew her.

Only once throughout the novel does an issue like racism get addressed head on, while mentions of fair skin, light-coloured women and references to a milky complexion get mentioned again, and again, and again; a constant reminder of the mentality of the majority of Pakistani society. But while it’s all well and good to talk about such things, the book fails in ever properly addressing these concerns.

The local midwife, who also procured proposals for girls in our village, said it was because I wasn’t fair like milk.

All in all, one can, and I think one should, read this book for the amusing anecdotes, the funny commentary on the marriage process, and how much one can relate to certain parts of the story. Maybe time and a greater quantity of novels will get us to the point where we will be able to say, with confident authority, that our literature is now effectively changing mindsets, and should be charged with the responsibility to do so.

“Ek toh I do’t understand this obsession with contradicting everything I say. Good girls should be seen and not heard. That is how their in-laws like them!”

Recommendation

I had an absolute blast reading this book, but then again, there could be some bias involved. For all I know, I could be bringing my own twenties-female-aspiring-bride partiality to the recommendation, but that doesn’t mean I think anyone would be any less entertained by the material, even if they can’t relate.  The book is both hilarious and horrifying (See list of required characteristics of the prospective bride on page 32: Must be fully qualified to get a good job but must not want to get a job because what are men for?), and a must-read for anyone thinking of getting married, or, more importantly, thinking of getting their child married.  Absolutely recommended.