September 02, 2016

Of Widows and Second Marriages: Musharraf Ali Farooqi takes on an important topic but fails to deliver


“A woman’s reputation is all that she gains in this life. And this talk of a proposal of marriage, isn’t it also a little too late in the day?”

This is an important book to read - even if the execution isn’t flawless - because it tackles such an important topic. The problem with Pakistani literature is that there is such limited output in the English language that when a book comes along discussing a widow’s prospects of a second marriage and society’s stereotypical responses to it, it is important for us to sit up and take notice.

Musharruf Ali Farooqi takes on interesting figures, I’ll give him that. In Between Clay and Dust his characters include courtesans and wrestlers, figures in history that describe a particular time and place, but this time around the protagonist is more socially relevant, someone whose status can be discussed time and time again. Mona, the widow in (the very originally named) The Story of a Widow, is a person upon whom a whole society descends to voice their stereotypes, prejudices and horrified opinions about how and with whom she should spend her time.

“Don’t expect the whole world to gather around and offer its blessings for every choice you make in your life. It doesn’t work like that.”

Mona’s decision about a second marriage sends the whole family into a tail spin, with daughters and relatives and family friends all ready and willing to comment upon the absurdity of the proposal. After her husband’s death, Mona’s life consists of gardening and walking and hanging out with her neighbour and family friend Mrs. Baig, but when a tenant at Mrs. Baig’s house, Salamat Ali, sends over a marriage proposal (after frequently spying at Mona in a frankly worrying manner), everyone goes batshit insane.

“I don’t know what you’re doing, prolonging this circus. Why didn’t you say no to this man straight away?”

A major portion of the story is about Mona’s relationship with her daughters. In a lot of societies, divorce is talked about more in terms of the children than the divorcee themselves, irrespective of the child’s age. In this story Mona’s daughters are married with children of their own, but that doesn’t seem to matter because in societies like ours that are less individualistic and more community-oriented, it is the children’s needs that come first. Mona, who has spent her whole life with a husband incapable of being pleased, is now ostracized for thinking about her own needs above others.

“It would have been different if Daddy had died young. Everyone knows it’s difficult for a young woman to raise kids by herself. Everybody would have understood that you had done it for us! Now, however-“

Basically, the concept in Pakistani society is that once you’re married, all your hopes and ambitions must bow down to the whims and existence of your husband and children. No matter whether you’re living together or divorced, widowed or separated, no step of yours must be taken in ensuring your own personal happiness.

Wasn’t I a good mother to them, a good wife to their father? Why is it necessary to prove it to the world, too? If they suddenly die, must I die too?

This is quite a disheartening lesson to learn for someone like me, whose impending marriage has come with its own over-sharing of opinions and advice from overzealous well wishers. This book gets that portion of the story right, even as it describes how complicated the mother-daughter relationship can be, and how even smart, sensible children can become ridiculous and selfish when it comes to matters of their own parents.

Mona’s confusion about the man’s proposal also has a lot to do with how her daughters so vehemently protest against it. Except, why? How does their mother’s remarriage affect them? Sure, if the man was sullen and horrible and they thought it was a horrible match their reactions would make sense. But that’s the thing: they don’t even know him before their knee-jerk reaction is horror and suspicion. This, in a reflection of the real world, makes sense but does not help the characters endear themselves to me. And also, why can’t we have children who are approving of their parent’s second marriage and personal choice and probably happiness? Why is that such an unrealistic assumption?

Was she showing the natural reaction of a child trying to protect the image of a parent in her mind? Were her daughters acting from the jealous regard that their mother’s affections should not be shared with another?

The only character worth rooting for in this novel is Mona’s sister Hina, whose warm regard for Mona and her complicated yet loving way of dealing with Salamat Ali’s proposal makes their sisterly relationship complex and weird. I loved reading about Hina because such relationships are explored so rarely in Pakistani books.

The only thing that mattered was that Hina had stood by her side. Her sister had been there for her all these years too, but her support now gave Mona a feeling that she would be able to cope with anything.

Hina is one of the few people willing to speak up about how utterly horrible Mona’s first husband, Akbar Ahmad, was. This is a point repeated again and again in the way Mona remembers Akbar Ahmad’s tendency to be petulant, miserly about money and an overall failure of a husband.

“You always maintained that he was a good father, but so what if he was a good father? How does that redeem him if he was a bad husband?”

What’s fascinating is that this book provides all the possible reactions to a widow’s second marriage in Hina’s initial response of horror at Mona’s decision to marry Salamat Ali: not because Hina is against the very idea itself but because she can’t believe someone like Mona, who has already suffered through a horrible marriage to an absolute prat would want to go through the whole torturous process all over again.

“You were unwilling to divorce Akbar Ahmad to obtain your freedom, but when a twist of fate has released you from him, you’re thinking-? Of what? Of walking into slavery once again with open eyes? I cannot understand you!”

Even with this particular response of Hina’s, one thing the story slightly touches upon but fails to explore in more detail is the treatment of men seeking a second marriage. Even though our protagonist is Mona and so it is her trials and tribulations we follow, it would have made for a richer experience in the narration if Salamat Ali’s family’s opinions also made an appearance in the story in fuller, greater detail.

The reaction from Salamat Ali’s family only confirmed Mona’s view that while a widow who seeks a second marriage was looked down upon as a harlot in society, widowers were expected to look for virgin brides.

Unfortunately, further flaws which are less easily excused appear as the story moves forward. The book sometimes takes on the tone of a gossip rag in how it discusses the other relatives of the female in their relationship hang-ups. Almost everyone is unhappy or mean or vindictive in one way or another except for our heroine, who alone is misunderstood and trying to do the right thing, which can get irritating. The story is also spiteful towards the characters our protagonist doesn’t like, representing them in unflattering terms, one of which I particular detest when it is used to show a personality flaw – that of using too much make up. This particular writing trick is not only sexist and misogynistic, it is also a particularly minor flaw in an otherwise pro-female story.

Possibly the weakest part of this story telling attempt is the lack of relationship to the main character. As with Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s previous novel, there’s such a lack of feeling associated with the characters. No matter how interesting the story, your distance from the characters keeps you disengaged. So while one can ultimately appreciate how the story is about the choices we make and the right to make them, it doesn’t help that we never really learn to care about Mona or her predicaments.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Mona is not a character you’d particular root for. Not only is she weak and whiny, she also goes around blaming others for her troubles. And yet she’s also soft hearted, prone to moments of brilliant self independence, and genuinely cares for the people around her, so it’s hard to know where she falls on the spectrum of protagonist-reader love. I, for one, have loved the truly selfish, vindictive heroines I’ve read (Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind, Amy Dunne from Gone Girl, Quintana from The Lumatere Chronicles) but Mona verges on the self-pity, which is one thing I cannot stand in my heroines.

There was a pall that had hung over her existence for a long time after Akbar Ahmad’s death. What was it? The sense that her life had been wasted, or that she would not struggle to find happiness for herself as readily as she was willing to sacrifice herself for others?

Recommendation

This book is an important book to read and discuss, because it brings up so many questions, sheds light on so many hypocrisies against the widowed female. And I’m very glad that the book points out that Islam doesn’t forbid widows from remarrying. But I didn’t love reading it. Basically, I liked the idea of it, but the execution left something to be desired. Make of that what you will.