November 26, 2018

Of Music and Mayhem: Nadia Akbar's Freddie Mercury is a disaster heaped with misogyny

It’s very hard to figure out how to review a book this pointless when the characters themselves admit that they are, in fact, completely pointless. Have do you criticize something for being blah when they are so self-aware of their extreme blahness? 

“I’ve been thinking stuff. Things feel different. It’s not normal, the way we live our lives, you know? All the drugs and booze, the endless parties. We don’t do anything worthwhile.”

There are very strong Mohsin-Hamid-Moth-Smoke vibes here: in the slow, steady destruction of our protagonists, in the drug-and-booze obsessed society they live in, in the utter lethargy and worthlessness they exhibit. But unlike Moth Smoke, this story doesn’t manage to get right that feeling of things falling apart spectacularly. Yes, bad things are happening, but that horror and helplessness that prevents Moth Smoke from being utter crap doesn’t exist in this novel. Which is quite sad, since there was so much space to do things right.

An important reason why this book can easily be skipped is because the author has chosen two of the most useless characters ever created to be her protagonists. Nida, a twenty-one year old college student desperate to escape her conservative family, starts a relationship with Omer (the son of a powerful political figure) on her summer vacation. Part of her new boyfriend’s gang of friends is Bugsy, an RJ who gets involved in political turmoil because of an old acquaintance. In theory, they could have been great as the proponents of this narrative, but in execution what we were left with is a pretentious and spoiled hero in Bugsy and a directionless heroine in Nida.

Sure, the story tries to keep it relevant by mentioning drug and alcohol use as well as lots of sexual content, but what you end up with are side characters who feel stereotypical, and protagonists who don’t feel like they exist outside of the stories being told. Nida spends the majority of her time hanging out with Omer, partying and taking drugs and generally having very little to contribute to the story. Supposedly she is falling apart after the death of her brother two years ago, a fact that is tearing her family apart, but because we never spend enough time with her family (the parents barely make an appearance), it’s hard to feel the repercussions through this story. It is implied that it is Nida’s brother’s death that acts as a catalyst for her entry into the word of hedonism and her utter carelessness about what happens to her, but we never discuss the brother or the pain caused by his death enough for it to feel significant. It is the same with Bugsy, who does a favour for a friend who barely enters the story after almost a quarter of our pages, and whose past with Bugsy is explained within a single rushed page. It makes no sense why Bugsy would bother doing the favour, and the fact that Bugsy’s instincts tell him not to but he does it anyway makes him less selfless and more stupid. 

“What kind of envelope, yaar?” I say, breaking out into an instant sweat. My internal alarm is going off, but I’m trying to ignore it.

I guess the only redeeming quality Bugsy has is that he has at least some semblance of agency, in which Nida seems to be completely lacking. Not only does she exhibit a severe lack of motivation, she also suffers from a too-pure-for-this-world syndrome because nothing she does can convince our hero that she is, in fact, an abominably useless person. When forced to read the conversations trying to pass as banter between them, Bugsy would be swooning, and I would be rolling my eyes. There were horrible flashbacks to the time I read Twilight for the first time, with my rapidly increasing bafflement over what, exactly, Edward found attractive in Bella. In romantic love interests that I read, I don’t want to have to resist the chemistry, much less why it exists in the first place. And I’ve read too many excellent pairings to bother having any patience for couples whose attraction to each other is based on, well, god knows what. 

I snatch a quick look at Nida. She looks hot. She’s holding an empty glass and her face is flushed, her eyes bright and glassy, her lips wet and red. Her black shirt is low-cut and tight, curved cleavage on full display. She gives me a huge hug, tripping a little over her heels. 

I wouldn’t even have minded if Bugsy’s sole purpose was to get Nida in bed, because it wouldn’t be lying to the reader about his intentions. But to pretend that he’s so charmed by her, besotted, really, is then tantamount to so many levels of ridiculous. The book ticks all the wrong boxes in trying to explain why these two like each other: most particularly when Bugsy settles on the particular vomit-inducing statement ‘she’s not like other girls’.

“I appreciate that she doesn't pretend to be shocked or scandalized, something most desi girls feel obligated to do when they hear anything related to sex, balls, dick or pussy… She's nothing like the giggly annoying girls that are endemic to Omer's parties.”

This misogyny on our hero’s part seems to be embedded in the DNA of almost all our characters. As a personality trait in a few odd people here and there, it makes sense for a richly populated world to have sexist people to balance out our hero and heroine and their hopefully mature sensibilities. Unfortunately, in this book Nida and Bugsy are just as bad as the rest of the slut shaming population that they choose to hang out with. 

“You girls have it so easy. No job pressure, no money tension. All you have to worry about is what colour contact lenses you’ll wear at your wedding.”

I could even accept the ridiculous ways in which women are objectified, ogled at or talked about in disparaging terms if the book itself did not take that tone. But because we spend the entirety of our time reading from the point of view of two ridiculously ill-informed, baseline misogynistic characters, it is hard to give the author the benefit of the doubt. Not only are they this hateful towards women, everyone they hang out with seems to suffer from the same germs. 

“She’s some paindu ex-model who married him for his money. I’m sure she’s not too pleased with the downshift. If she wanted to travel economy she would have married her pimp.”

In fact, not only are they misogynistic, most of the people in this novel also happen to be pointlessly mean. I understand characters being disdainful and haughty if they are, say, superior in intellect, or very famous, or at least better in some recognizable manner. But our protagonists have no talents, no spark of intelligence, nothing that makes them stand out from a bunch of other equally unremarkable characters. Which makes it mostly insufferable how they look down on everything and everyone.

He points a finger and clicks his tongue like some idiot, like he’s memorized some shitty movie on how to be an investment banker. A chutiya in a shit brown ill-fitting business suit.

They’re spoilt, privileged little brats, almost all of them, even the ones who could have had some space to become something interesting. Omer, the guy Nida is dating, is from a powerful political family but manages to retain all the one-dimensional personality traits that the author seems to be obsessed with; not only is he mostly drunk and horny, he also has all the intelligence of a mollusc. Sometimes, accidentally, the author will give him some colour, but then he will quickly revert to being an atrocious monster. 

He fails to mention why his house has steady electricity, why there’s no load-shedding for him. I’ve noticed that Omer never uses the word ‘corrupt’, not when we talk about the government, or the state of our country, and definitely never when discussing his father.

In fact, pretty much the only thing the book seems to get right is the politics of the country. Even though the concept of fictional portraits of real-life political figures has already been tackled before by Omar Shahid Hamid and so reading about a caricature of Imran Khan (Mian Tariq in this title) doesn’t feel very exciting. Still, the reality of politics in Pakistan, that level of euphoria in a rally or helplessness in everyday trivial matters when faced with corruption and laziness, are very well-drawn. 

“How do you fix something that everyone wants broken? I’ve come to realize that the real power, the real money, is not in fixing things, but in keeping them broken. On the promise of repair, not on the actual process itself.”

Commentary like this, which focuses primarily on the society, on the culture of the big city and the rich folks, is pretty much the only part of this story that I loved. Unlike Hamid’s tale, which used the social observations as the back drop in which the plot could thrive, with Akbar’s writing it was the city itself that drew me in. I’ve mentioned it before, how Pakistani authors treat cities as characters, and it’s true for this novel as well. I love how Lahore was depicted, with so much personality: the staying up late, the food, the sense of alienation, the demographics, the politics, everything was so well done. For each useless character or scene, there is always a paragraph of smart observations that draw the reader in. 

In fact, I could confidently admit that Nadia Akbar writes really well. There is clearly great command over language, a substantial vocabulary, and lots of confidence in the way she handles her narrative. Unfortunately, it was a narrative about characters I didn’t care about, or else I might have loved this book. I obviously have my issues with the random and completely inane italicization: I mean, someone explain to me why phrases like paindu and jaali are left unitalicized? What even is the editorial policy being followed here? As an editor who goes through hell working in a desi country producing books in English, this fight is a daily battle, so I go crazy trying to figure out what other publishers are doing, and frankly this book is a mess from all angles. Still, if you aren’t bothered by formatting, there’s great writing here. About idiotic characters, no doubt, but compliments where they are due should definitely be mentioned. 


I know they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the cover for this title is gorgeous. So pretty. So many points to the illustrator Shehzil Malik (who also designed the brilliant cover for Amal Unbound), and for the publisher for deciding to go with this one. I still wouldn’t recommend you pick this up though. If you feel really inclined to read about things in the same vein, go check out Mohsin Hamid instead.

October 29, 2018

Of Matriarchs and Marriages: Azkar Abidi's The House of Bilquis had so much potential

The House of Bilquis (originally published as ‘Twilight’ in Australia) is a sort of pointless book, in that its plot doesn’t seek to do much beyond give the author space to hold forth on the decline of the times and so on and so forth. As a commentary on the times it’s faintly interesting, but because its characters feel purposeless and there is no central conflict hooking you in, it was hard to remember why one should keep reading.

An abyss was opening in her heart. It was not just her son’s wedding that made her unhappy. I was a succession of events, all interconnected and related, a pattern of setbacks, rebuffs and hindrances, both within and without, that had formed the fixed idea in her mind that her illustrious family had run out of luck.

The plot had lots of space to be cool, but unfortunately didn’t manage to quite elicit any of the charm required to set it apart from other books. Set in the 1980’s in Pakistan, it tells the story of Bilquis Begum, a matriarch living in Karachi who is finding it very hard to accept her son Sarmad’s marriage to an Australian woman. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t really seem, to me at least, that times have really changed, because I can pretty much imagine my own mother’s reaction if my brother brought home a foreign wife from his studies, and I’d expect the same disappointment and distrust to surface. In retrospect, what the author does well is give enough complexity to Bilquis so that she’s not just a stereotypical evil mother-in-law. As the head of a wealthy family, widowed and dependant on a swarm of servants, Bilquis’s trepidation stems not only from the fact that her son has refused to allow her to make a suitable desi match for him, but also about the fact that he himself will be living in Australia, leaving her without any support in her old age. This commentary on the times, which feel so relevant even in this day and age, might be the only thing the author managed to do well.

Most well-to-do families sent their young men to good universities abroad with the exdpectation that they would pay attention to their studies. It was also assumed, in an unspoken sort of way, that they might sow their wild oats and do the things that young men must do before settling down. As long as they kept their peccadilloes in the West, no questions were asked. They returned home to sterling careers and arranged marriages and no one was the wiser.

In keeping with this theme of interpretation of society, another important part of the story was the introduction of Kate as Sarmad’s wife, an outsider who could observe the lifestyle of the rich in Pakistan from a wonderfully refreshing eye. As a Pakistani, I’ve always been slightly aware of how privileged certain aspects of our lifestyles are: even in my middle class upbringing, we had five part-time maids, one gardener, one errand boy, and multiple more workers who frequented our house for smaller, more random chores. In the family I’ve married into, we have a full-time help who lives with us, one part-time babysitter for the one single child at home, three maids, one driver, one gardener, and so on and so forth. For Pakistanis who exist in the upper middle class to elite range, this is the reality we live in, because poverty is so rampant, and unions which protect the rights of workers are so non-existent, and people are desperate for work. And so for me, this wasn’t something extraordinary until I realized the obvious lack of such people on my foreign trips. In London, I found out that a family shared one common bathroom. For me, who had always seen one bathroom per room back in Pakistan, the idea of a shared bathroom is amazing and frankly alarming. Which is why it’s fascinating to see this kind of decadence, even in middle-income households, through the eyes of someone who hasn’t lived here.

It was her first trip to Pakistan and everything was foreign. While she had heard Sarmad talking of servants, and she knew about babysitters and cleaners who were still familiar and middle-class figures in Australia, of even the butlers and scullery maids of Victorian novels, she had never experience a life where people did not have to wash clothes, cook meals or clean the house because their servants did everything for them, from the moment they awoke to when they went to bed.

On the flip side of all this great commentary was the plot, which was the primary reason this book didn’t rate very well. Besides Sarmad’s marriage, Bilquis also spends her time worrying about her maidservant, an efficient and hardworking girl named Mumtaz, who is having an affair with the guard next door. Omar, who has come from Karachi and has ideas of Jihad he would like to try out, is also a product of the times, what with the Islamization that had gripped Pakistan in that decade. He spends his time dreaming about fighting for a great and noble cause, and meanwhile being both conflicted and happy about his relationship with Mumtaz.

What made some women wicked and other women virtuous? Was it possible to seduce a virtuous woman? If a man seduced a woman, then didn’t she have to be fundamentally wicked anyway?

The problem was that I didn’t really care what happened to Mumtaz and Omar, or for that matter to Sarmad and Kate. And a book which can’t make you connect to the characters can only survive through the force of its writing, so brilliant as to reduce everything else’s importance. Unfortunately, since that isn’t present here, all we can concentrate on are the other things the book tries to point attention to, such as the social and political climate of the 80’s, and how the wealthy operated in those times. Bilquis’s resentment of her sister’s marriage to a man whom Bilquis considers below their social class is pretty much representative of this system. Modernism, as represented by the wealthy in this book—with their English-speaking habits and their affinity for alcohol—is very disdainful of the poor and the religious, which mostly overlap. So this story operates on two levels: of the idea that time was destroying values, but also how the boundaries between social classes were blurring.

The process of gentrification, Bilquis could see, had begun.

Beyond this lamentation of the changing times, it got increasingly hard not to roll my eyes at the romanticization of the past that prevails throughout the book. In all the conversations I have with my elders, I usually have very little patience for the statements which seek to show how wonderful life was, and how horrible it is now (oh these millenials/this internet/this technology, ruining us all). This book is a sort of summary of all those conversations into one: a sad, whiny little complaint that stretches over 200 pages. The only redeeming quality is that the author makes it clear that it is our protagonist who feels this way, thus keeping it out of the overall narrative. 

“I was thinking that soon there won’t be anyone left except us old people.”
“And our servants,” Bilquis smiled.
“And what will become of us?”
“Why, my dear, we’ll rot.”

Another reason why I liked this author (or publisher, depending upon who decided this) was the fact that not a single word was italicized, in a book filled with mentions of bhujias and koftas and millions of other specifically desi dishes and plants and clothes. Most books by international publishers which are written by Pakistani writers make it a point to italicize words that their expected audience of Western readers would not get, as if to say, here’s something from a culture you don’t recognize, so you don’t necessarily need to understand it. Some will even go so far as to provide glossaries at the end of the book, long lists of words for the anglophile reader. And while the argument of whether this is necessarily a good thing or not can be kept for another day, in the here and now I believe it’s fine to leave it unitalicized, and was glad to see that this book agreed with me.

Overall, this wasn’t the best thing ever. It passed my time, and it didn’t waste it. Some of it was interesting, and a greater portion of it was pointless. Maybe read it if you’re interested in Pakistan in the 80’s? Hesitantly recommended.

October 22, 2018

Of Amateurs and Anthologies: Austenistan is not worth the effort

I think pretty much the only interesting thing about this collection of short stories is the name of this anthology. Austenistan might be an obvious play with words, but it’s still charming and it makes the intent clear–a Pakistani version of Austen’s stories. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much the only time anyone can enjoy anything at all in this pitiful excuse of an anthology, since the stories themselves are just so awful.

Composed of seven stories, you would think at least one of the entries would have the decency to provide good writing, and yet. The foreword from Catherine Jane Knight, founder and chair of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, doesn’t provide any support either. Unlike forewords which talk about the content within, which seek to add on to the material by providing context, or a look at the background which led to the book’s publication, over here it feels like Ms Knight wrote the foreword without actually reading the stories contained within. Not only does she provide a generic statement about the stories prove that Pakistani society reflects Austen’s work, she also uses the opportunity to promote her own Literacy Foundation’s charity work. The blatant campaigning for aid is both irritating and liable to leave a bad taste in the mouth of the reader, even before they’ve read a single story. 

I think pretty much the only thing worth recommending these stories is the fact that our Pakistani protagonists suffer from the same expectations and enforced roles as those imposed on Austen’s heroines. However, that’s more of a blanket statement rather than a compliment to the series itself, since this is a fact undeniable. While our writers manage to bring this point across pretty clearly in how women are expected to behave, what was needed was a more nuanced, better-written expression of this very fact. While the mother in the first story (The Fabulous Banker Boys by Mahlia S Lone) worries about her daughter’s personality in much the same way Mrs Bennett clucked over Elizabeth Bennett’s stubbornness, the rest of the disappointing story ruins the effect of this similarity.

Then came Elisha, her father’s pet, with bucket-loads of independence, spirit, and strong personality. No man likes a headstrong and blunt wife, she thought. However, she had to admit that the girl knew her own mind and wasn’t needy. I must teach her to at least appear more subservient and pliant. 

I think one of the limitations of this anthology was that the writers felt the need to encompass all of Austen’s tale from beginning to end within the short word length assigned to them. While the hero and heroine usually take the space of a whole novel to get together, in these stories they are forced to resolve their issues in too short a time for us to care about them. Lone’s version of Elizabeth Bennett’s meeting with Mr Darcy at a party ends with them having cleared all misunderstandings by the end of the story. On its own, the story could be a great representation of Pakistani society. As an adaptation of Austen’s most beloved title, it fails spectacularly, showing us all the places where the author cannot manage to rise to Austen’s level. 

The second story, an adaptation of Lady Susan (one of Austen’s lesser known works, which was never submitted by the author for publication herself), makes the mistake of being an adaptation. On its own, writer Nida Elley’s Begum Saira Returns could have been a fabulous look at a woman who doesn’t restrict herself to the social constructs within which women are expected to live. Slightly departing from the original work, Elley has sketched an image of a women who has always reached for what she has wanted shamelessly, a character trait that is so rare as to be almost invisible in Pakistani female protagonists. However, the vague morality of our character’s actions get lost in trying to trace Austen’s words and actions in our story. In this case, on its own the story could have stood up on its own two feet, maybe. As an Austen adaptation, it’s no good. 

Rumours began circulating that the young bride was being too flirtatious with some of the other women’s husbands. Of course, nobody ever blamed the man, Saira thought, not considered them capable of initiating these flirtations.

Of course, all of the stories feature at least some sort of commentary on the inherent misogyny of Pakistani society, or on the sexism of the marriage traditions we follow. Unfortunately, things that resonated in Austen’s work feel like they lack any depth whatsoever in this collection. This is true even for the characters themselves, who are mostly vain and generally tedious. The wit that is so obvious in Austen’s stories is so very lacking here that it’s like the writers weren’t even trying. Ships that we have all shipped so ardently in Pride and Prejudice or Emma barely elicit any sparks on these pages. In Emaan Ever After by Mishayl Naek, we already know she’s going to end up with Haroon, the Mr Knightly to her Emma, but in this format, the feeling that this is the guy we want our heroine to ultimately end up with is barely there. That might have something to do with the fact that Emaan, like all the other characters in this story, sounds like a vapid, highly spoilt, and ultimately boring character for whom we care not a single bit. Divorced and living with her father, our Pakistani Emma spends her days using teenage text speak and making bad life decisions. Not impressive at all. 

It was ridiculous that instead of thinking of a career – finally – that might actually mean something to me, I was moping over a boy.

Usually, when I review something I try to concentrate on the work and not the writer, because I’m overall a believer in the Roland Barthes idea of a dead author. Unfortunately, for these stories it’s hard not to see the shallow, one-dimensional characters as anything less than a chance for the author to show off about the number of brand names they know. With the exception of only a few stories, almost all these entries feature at least fifteen different situations in which a person’s wardrobe from the top to the bottom is described in terms of which brands they are wearing, right down to which perfume they smell like. Frankly, it’s all kinds of amazing that this anthology managed to gather so many female writers who belong to the tiny 1 percent of Pakistan’s ultra-rich community. Either that, or there must have been some condition put forth before these stories were submitted that ensured that each and every single of them had some unhealthy obsession with major international brands. Nonetheless, the idea that these are authors born with golden spoons in their mouths is overwhelming and eventually a little chafing: It’s fine to read about the super wealthy in one story, or even two, but by the fifth one it’s hard not to roll your eyes at the description of Valentino sandals or honeymoon plans in Seychelles. The Mughal Empire by Saniyya Gauhar had great potential, imagining the repercussions of the Darcy-Elizabeth marriage on Miss Bingley, whose affection for Darcy had been well known, and who now faces the shame of being so publically ignored for someone whom she considers below her station. This premise had an interesting appeal, but unfortunately the chunks of paragraph obsessed with each item of a person’s clothing managed to turn this into a really bad execution. 

Here, she had bought Erum luxuries that most girls could only dream of: handbags from Hermes, Chanel, Bottega Veneta and Prada; shoes for every possible occasion in an assortment of styles and colours from Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, Saint Laurent, Roger Vivier and Dior; lingerie from Rigby & Peller, Agent Provocateur and Le Perla, and a designer wardrobe from some of the finest stores on Sloane Street.

Some stories barely have anything from Austen novels, using a random line from within the novels to set up a completely different premise and setting. The Autumn Ball by Gayathri Warnasuriya is another story that would have done better on its own, rather than as an adaptation. The problem with being an adaptation is that we then start looking for how it connects to the original. Warnasuriya takes one line about dancing from Pride and Prejudice to sketch a tale of a woman in a slightly unhappy marriage, whose desire to dance keeps getting thwarted by her bore of a husband. As a recently married woman trying to figure out the intricacies of a romantic relationship, I have a warm affinity for stories which feature complex husband-and-wife interactions. Unfortunately, my expectation of Austen’s touch ruined my enjoyment of Warnasuriya’s writing. 

She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, it was all so much more complicated than she thought marriage would be.

This trend of a random line from P&P serving as the basis of a completely new story continues in Sonya Rehman’s Only the Deepest Love–as an aside, I think all these authors should first be told what an adaptation actually means. In this short story, we have our protagonist Samina, who is worried about her younger cousin Sobia’s contentious sex life post-marriage while trying to juggle her own family and work drama. While on the one hand the author brings up a number of important issues, the problem is that she brings up too many topics in too short a time, making it all too fleeting and pointless to actually hit their mark. Gay husband, abusive landowner’s son, privileged and spoiled students, family abuse, second marriages and their effects on children, all this gets mentioned for a period so transitory it weakens the overall narrative. Even the romance feels badly developed and rushed through, making me believe that maybe a longer word length might serve this author better. One major point that this story gained and then subsequently lost was it’s lgbtq+ representation, where the existence of a gay husband and how the wife deals with the revelation of his sexuality could have used more nuanced attention. Instead what you have is an abrupt, hasty ending, as well as a blatantly stereotypical representation of the gay character as a twirly, quirky figure, in what was a remarkable lack of sensitivity to the marginalized group the author was trying to represent. 

‘Sobia’s been fretting all day, Sam,’ Asad said jovially, like an Aunt jokingly complaining about her silly daughter, ‘She was like oh my God oh my God oh my Goddddd, Sam’s sooooooo not going to make it! But I was like tsk tsk, don’t be stupid jaanu, of course she will! And look! Here you are!’ With that Asad did a little twirl, waving his spatula in the air like a wand.

I think I was hoping that the last entry, written by the editor of this anthology, would have been the saving grace of this fiasco, but it was not to be. A story better suited to the capable hands of someone like Sophie Kinsella or Jane Costello falls apart over here: in Laaleen Sukhera’s On The Verge, Roya, who has broken off her engagement to rich but fickle ‘Princey’ (it’s hard to believe that’s an actual name of a character), plans to attend a ball on the day when her fated wedding would have happened. I would tell you what happens next, but the truth is that I didn’t really care, even while forcing myself to read till the end. It was as boring to read as it will be to recount, and masochism is not my thing. Ironically enough, the only character I liked in this story was Myra, the no-nonsense older sister to our air-headed heroine, who barely appears in the narrative. Maybe if we had focused less on our imbecile of a protagonist, and more on female characters who suffer no fools, the story could have redeemed itself. 

Myra had decided to pursue a career early in life and barely got the time to meet men, plus she had almost no patience for fools, which was the commodity largely on offer.

It’s really sad that this anthology doesn’t translate into literature worth reading, because even a casual reader can easily see that Austen’s stories have a very strong parallel to subcontinental traditions, particularly our fixation with families and marriages. Unfortunately, this aspect of social expectation is unable to translate into the sort of biting irony and acerbic commentary Austen had to offer. The writing in Austenistan is awkward and heavily dependent on clich├ęs or slang phrases, in what can only be seen as a ridiculous attempt to make the stories seem contemporary. Punctuation is also a mess, with misplaced commas ensuring that my poor editorial heart is in a constant state of pain. One of my major pet peeves, that of the italicization of the desi word, also happens liberally throughout the book, and while I understand that those things are usually dependant more on the publisher’s style policy, it still serves to irritate me to no end. There’s also the fact that with seven authors and seven titles written by Austen, surely it would have been a smart move to split the stories seven ways in terms of adaptations? Instead we find that the most famous child, Pride and Prejudice, is once again given the most attention. Unfortunately, the reasons for which I loved P&P are completely lacking in this anthology: not only do we not see the kind of complex female relationships that I was exposed to in P&P, what I had to face was a backlash of severe misogyny in a number of myriad ways. And one of my most hated tropes, that of the evil female character being described as indulging in excessive makeup, reared its ugly head quite regularly: 

Emane was a socialite who attended ladies’ committee lunches by day and snorted coke by night. She had ash blonde extensions with a bulbous trout pout and was wearing a sequined Moschino Pepto-Bismol pink mini dress with a crotch-skimming slit that revealed an inch of a Spanx corset. She carried a cocktail in one taloned hand and an Alexander McQueen skull clutched in the other.

Another reviewer put it best when they said that this anthology has the vibe of an ‘unpolished anthology of fan fiction written during a literary club meeting’. Honestly, there is much better writing out there, and not enough time in one’s life to read this kind of atrocious crap. Do yourself a favour, and give this a miss. 

October 14, 2018

Of Dystopia and Desire: Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah is a must read

Literature in Pakistan has seen its fair share of representation in certain circles: books about terrorism and religion are easy to find — and apparently easier to write — since the country can provide such fertile ground for characters and plot lines within these genres to flourish. Much harder to tackle are topics within comedy, horror or, in the case of Bina Shah’s newest offering Before She Sleeps, dystopian fiction. Yet Shah does it with aplomb, her book being a sharp, smart reply to that queen of feminist dystopian fiction, Margaret Atwood, who wrote the 1985 classic The Handmaid’s Tale.

Both The Handmaid’s Tale as well as Before She Sleeps envision a bleak, dangerous future in which sexual reproduction and the rights of women have suffered a harsh punishment. Shah’s book offers another look at the same question posed in Atwood’s story: if, in a male-dominated city the number of women capable of giving birth decreased exponentially, what would they do? In both books, it is the women who ultimately suffer, stripped off their fundamental rights and free will, their worth boiling down to the fact that they possess a womb.

In Before She Sleeps, natural disasters and a nuclear war have laid waste to the land, from which rises Green City, the setting of the story. It is this that sets Shah’s novel apart from other titles in the past, in that the location for this city is South West Asia. While a tremendous amount of dystopian literature has been produced in the West, its trickle to the South Asian regions of the globe has been slow, which makes Shah’s book that much more refreshing to read.

In Green City, a dangerous virus is affecting the female reproductive system, killing women off in alarming numbers. Desperate to maintain population numbers and protect the women of the city, the Perpetuation Bureau — an oppressive, totalitarian government agency — comes up with systems in which women must take multiple husbands and regular fertility treatments in order to ensure that they produce as many children as possible. Carelessly labelled “Wives”, these women must be shared equally between all the husbands, in what is frankly a brilliant overturning of the traditional Muslim interpretation of rules which allow a man to keep multiple wives.

What’s fascinating about this whole venture is that Shah shows women being treated as queens, and yet they are quite clearly completely lacking in any sort of power or agency. While these women are cared for with a degree of tenderness unimaginable in our current world, a select few of them recognise the system for its viciousness in its usage of women and revolt against the set-up, choosing to go down into secret tunnels — literally underground — from where they emerge to provide a completely different type of service to men.

Instead of agreeing to be one of the breeding communities, the protagonist, Sabine, becomes part of a group of women living in a secret hideout called “Panah” (those knowing Urdu will recognise the word and how it encapsulates the refuge these women seek out). These women emerge at night to provide nocturnal companionship to men in the higher echelons of society. These men seek not sex, but rather, companionship and in a complete overturning of the usual plot lines where sex is usually hidden and shameful, Shah’s story depicts platonic company as that which is disgraceful, and thus shocking, to the society our protagonists inhabit.

The story is told from several alternating points of view. We travel with Sabine as she meets a “Client” — a catch-all phrase for those men who have the money and the authority to be allowed access to these secretive women. We then hear from Lin, head of this group of secret women; then from women within this group; and then the men outside it who know of them. Each person, with their shifting point of view, introduces us to a different aspect of this society and to their own notions about what is and what isn’t good within the system. When Sabine, on one of her trips, gets sick and collapses in a public place, she sets off a chain of events that threaten to unravel all the carefully buried secrets, affecting the lives of all who live in or know of this society of closely guarded secrets.

Shah sets up a fascinating world, rich with detail and intricate in its imaginings. While it’s sad that we never get to read from the Wives’ point of view, the women we do meet — Sabine and Lin and also Rupa, another one of their companions — provide us with a complex, three-dimensional look at their lives and the choices that have led them to where they are. The men we encounter — the powerful society figure who is Lin’s lover in the world, the doctor who treats Sabine after her sudden collapse — provide a different outlook, but unfortunately their characters remain less developed than those of their female counterparts. Amazingly, what Shah does best is create a world that still caters to men — an irony in a time and place where the greater percentage of women are dead because of the fatal virus. Throughout the story, the narrative seems to seek to explain how the system struggled and came up with a solution to retain the population, but there is very little discussion about how the women are taught to acclimatise to the new environment, with only the rules laid out in the “Handbook for Female Citizens” proving to be a harsh guide.

There are some obvious flaws in the story, easily identifiable and harder to answer. The biggest is that there are no mentions at all of people who don’t fall within the heteronormative spectrum of sexuality, and no explanation given for why there are no discussions about gender non-conforming identities. It is understandable that Shah might, basing her story in South West Asia, justify this decision on the fact that multiple sexualities are not as yet part of the mainstream conversations or even considered valid and acceptable in these areas of the globe. But it’s still a weak defence for an author based in Pakistan, a country which officially recognised transgender persons as the third gender in 2009, or whose National Assembly passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act this year. There is also, unfortunately, very little discussion about the disease that lays waste to half the population, or what the rest of the world is doing while this is happening in Green City. But since ignoring the rest of the global population in setting up a limited world is a pretty common trait in many dystopian works, we can let this one go.

As a beginning point for those who haven’t yet had any exposure to speculative fiction, Before She Sleeps is a great read. Not only is it a shrewd look at a dystopia that takes into account South Asia’s complicated history with veiling and segregation, it also allows an interpretation that’s global and a commentary on our overall world structure. For those interested in feminist literature as well as works by women of colour, this should be a must read.


This review was originally published in Books and Authors on 14 October, 2018. 

September 18, 2018

Of Djinn and Duologies: Sami Shah's Fire Boy is a great starter to South Asian Fantasy

I think the most obvious complaint about this book is the ending. For a duology, it offers literally no closure in any of the plots, leaving everything not open-ended, but rather just… drifting. The ending doesn’t even have the decency of a cliff hanger, and sort of just hangs there. It’s as if Sami Shah wrote a whole novel, then flipped it open roughly in the middle and decided to turn it into a duology (which, it turns out, is actually what happened, since according to this interview it was initially written as a single novel, then split into a duology by the Australian publishers. It was later printed as a single novel by the Indian publisher). 

That noticeable problem aside, this is actually a fascinating attempt at South Asian fantasy, and that’s primarily because of the setting. As a Karachiite born and bred, I have an obvious fondness for stories set in this city, but that doesn’t mean just any story will do. Sometimes the writing can be atrocious, or the characters flat and pointless, and then even the setting isn’t enough of a saving grace. That disappointment thankfully doesn’t arise in Fire Boy, because Sami Shah – following in the likes of works by Kamila Shamsie – writes about Karachi like it’s a character. The city is alive, and filled with the most amazing sort of creatures bound to inhabit a place so dark and dangerous. 

And by amazing I meant creepy and familiar, two combinations I have had very limited experience with in the literature world. As far as urban fantasy goes, South Asia has very rarely been the location for such stories. This makes Sami Shah’s novel, which brings literally every desi horror story character into the plot, so very dear to me and my poor unrepresented heart. While the canon for most avid Pakistani readers has been a western setting of elves, orcs, dwarves and white men trudging around dragon-infested lands, Shah ignores all of that in favour of djinns and churails, supernatural entities that one hears of more commonly in Pakistan in casual conversations, or during late night sleepovers. 

Wahid was seven years old when he saw his first djinn.

Keeping the conversation of whether to spell it as djinn or jinn aside for now, this book introduces us to all these paranormal creatures through the eyes of one Wahid, a teenager whose time is filled with hanging out with his two best friends, worrying about his board exams, and thinking about Maheen, a girl he has a crush on. As a protagonist, Wahid is both whiny and funny, sometimes a pointless character and then back to being an active participant in his story, fluctuating wildly between a character I cared about or someone who was only a conduit for the story Shah wanted to tell. Following the tried and tested trope of The Hero’s Journey, Shah throws Wahid’s life into a tail spin when, on his way home from a party, Wahid along with Maheen and one of his best friends Amir, encounters a fatal accident at the hand of a couple of djinn. When these djinn steal Maheen’s soul, Wahid sets out on a journey to get it back, encountering characters such as the Physics professor trying to channel djinn energy or the young street child known as the King of Karachi, all leading him along a path from where he might trace a lost soul, all the while knowing no one will believe him. 

These things happen. They happen all the time, in fact. And they care not a whit whether we believe in them. 

I think an obvious flaw, and one that has been pointed out in numerous other places, is the fact that the women in this story are basically, well, pointless. They exist only in terms of moving the hero’s story forward, and have absolutely no agency. This is not to say that the book itself is misogynistic – Shah makes it a point to talk about violence against women repeatedly, adding to his narrative characters such as the pichal parree, a common Pakistani myth about a witch with backward-facing feet who in this particular story haunts Karachi’s seaside.

“I am what is left of the woman who dies at the hands of men,” she said. “I am her revenge.”

But the point still remains that Maheen, possibly the only female in this novel to serve a function (and even then for barely any significant part of the narrative), only exists solely so that Wahid can go and ‘save her’. Her soul stolen by the jinns (not even because of something she’s done, but as part of Wahid’s relationship to the supernatural) serves only as a starting point for our hero to begin his journey into the underbelly of Karachi, and eventually to the world of the jinn themselves, accompanied by the most interesting of companions. 

“Who are you?”
“I,” said the figure, bowing grandiloquently, “am Azah-zeel. Some people call me Shaitan. But I prefer Iblis.”

It is only by the saving grace of filling of story with a chockful of desi supernatural entities does Sami Shah retain interest. And the brilliant thing about being one of the first ones to write these stories is that you have a lot of leeway in how to manoeuvre your fictional creations. Amongst the common myths that I’ve grown up with in Karachi is the tale of the mithai left uncovered at night in sweet shops, which jinn then come and eat, leaving empty containers for the owners to pack again for the next night. Shah incorporates all these sleepover stories into his tale, making it a part of Wahid’s journey through Karachi in search of Maheen’s soul. 

The brothers protested, explaining that customers were unlikely to frequent a shop in which they would be slapped by invisible hands … The sufi gave this a great deal more thought, and finally told them to make a gift of the finest deserts they made every day to the djinn. The tree had been cut, the shop built and every day they selected the best sweets from their kitchen and made an offering of them.

My only other issue with the book might be that the violence feels gratuitous in some of the scenes. While I’m not averse to a little blood and gore, having read enough grimdark to get used to the feel, it’s always immediately obvious when it’s necessary, and in this story it’s mostly not. In most of Shah’s scenes, the violence goes overboard, with more intestines spilling out and more heads detaching from body than are really needed. I’m not sure why Shah does this, especially in a story that’s so clearly targeting a YA market, but the extended torture scenes could have been cut. 

Overall though, the story is fascinating, both for people who’ve lived in the city, since there are ten million points of reference to life in Karachi, and also for people who’ve never encountered these specific Islamic or South Asian myths. It might not be the best thing I’ve read overall, but it does manage to hit the right notes on a number of occasions. For that, it goes on the recommended list.