BOOK EXCERPT

Jane Austen in Pakistan: A new book of short stories brings together two unlikely themes

From ‘Pride and Prejudice’ to ‘Emma’, the aptly titled ‘Austenistan’ relocates Austen’s classics in modern-day Pakistan through a series of short stories.

On Javed’s retirement, the Baigs moved to a rented house in Garden Town, a once-up-and-coming Lahore neighbourhood which the property boom had passed by. Once well-maintained, and as green as its name suggested, Garden Town had since grown decrepit with cobwebs of electric wires hanging from poles and old houses with peeling paint lining the potholed streets. Inside, the drawing room was still decorated with the good furniture she’d brought in her dowry – heavy, carved woods that lasted, along with some crystal objets she’d bought over the years.

The part of the house reserved for the family’s own use had cheaper furniture they’d bought more recently, ranging from modest pieces in less expensive wood to imitation wood. Javed’s salary, and now his pension from the civil service, was a joke, so piece by piece, over the years, they’d sold off all his family land. With all the bills, tuitions and expenses of a family of six depending on a single income, their household budget was too tight to spend on interior decor, let alone buying somewhere new to live.

They’d have had their own property if they’d thought to buy one while Javed was still living in government housing. But property prices in the city were too high now, especially in the affluent new neighbourhood of Defence where their friends lived, with all the modern luxuries of underground wiring, regular garbage pickup, well-designed bungalows, and perfectly paved roads.

The girls’ weddings still had to be paid for and their trousseaus purchased. Times had drastically changed since their own wedding when one could get away with dinner for a couple of hundred people and dressing the bride in a gold-thread-embroidered bridal outfit and gold jewellery.

Nowadays, every component of a wedding was a Bollywood production

They could barely afford their daughters’ school and college tuition. The girls’ private schooling was the one luxury that Jameela and Javed both insisted on for their daughters – Javed because the idea of stupid children filled him with horror, and Jamila because she knew that if they were to make good matches, they must rub shoulders with the daughters of affluent families like the ones that went to the all girls’ Grammar School. It was a necessary expense and one which their birth entitled them to.

No matter, they are pretty girls, like I was, and vivacious, she sighed. We will manage something, InshAllah.

She gazed at the four bent heads poring over their smartphones. Twenty-year-old Jahan was angelic in looks and temperament, docile and good-natured, full of the sort of sweetness that men found appealing. 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.

Her youngest two – Khadija and the sixteen-year-old baby of the family, Leena – were shrieking.

“Give me back my phone,” screamed Leena, clawing the air as Khadija held the phone high over her head “Mama! Tell her to give me back my phone!”

Spoilt by her parents and looked after by her older sisters, Leena wasn’t the most mature 16-year-old.

Curvy, fashion-conscious, and skilled with makeup, even on her limited budget, she looked older when she dressed up. It was proving to be a dangerous combination.

“She’s texting a boy again, Mama. That Dilawar.” Khadija said, referring to a good-looking and thoroughly spoilt young man who had been making his interest in her known recently. A few years older than Leena and the scion of a rich political family, Dilawar drove around town in a brand new Porsche Panamera and had just been expelled from an American college for cocaine possession. His parents, insisting the university had cooked up the charges, felt that it was just as well that he was back since he had to learn the ropes of the family business anyway. In reality, learning the family business meant he had nothing to do and money to burn, so, he spent his time throwing parties and chatting up whichever pretty girl caught his eye. There were lots of takers.

The glowing message read: “What’s the plan? Want to do lunch at Cosa Nostra?”

Hmmm, the catty aunties will see her, assume the worst and she will get a ‘fast’ reputation, thought Jameela. Not one for letting an opportunity slip though, she hit on a compromise.

“Take your sisters with you and you can go.”

Elisha looked coolly at her mother. “You know we can’t control Leena, Mama. She’ll want to take off with Dilawar for a spin after lunch. You know how persuasive he can be and she doesn’t listen to us when she’s all goo-goo-eyed. You need to be stricter with her.”

“Oh, hush,” said Jahan, the family peacekeeper. “We’ll take care of her, Mama.”

“Thank you, Mama, you are the best and the coolest!” Leena purred, throwing her arms around her mother and giving her a resounding kiss on the cheek.

I am cool, Jameela thought, heading towards the kitchen to order tea, when her own phone started ringing. It was nowhere near as sleek as her friends’ latest smartphones but it had been bedazzled by her younger daughters. She heard her sister Aneela’s high-pitched voice at the other end.

“Jameela? Did you get your cards for Momo Mirza’s daughter’s wedding?” Aneela said, not bothering with a preamble. “You must go. There are going to be so many boys there for your girls, those Mirzas know everyone!

I’ve already heard about two eligible men who are coming from Dubai. One is the son of the Dars who live in that big 12 kanal house in GOR and is visiting from Dubai. The other is related to the Corps Commander of Lahore, General Humbhi, and they’re both bankers. Have you heard?”

“Apa, that’s very exciting, you know I don’t sleep at night, worrying about what will happen to my girls I had to take an Ativan every night this week. We haven’t had any invitations yet because you know what Javed is like. Day and night, I tell him to be more sociable, to make friends who might be useful to the rest of us, but does he listen? No! You know how stubborn he is.”

“Well, my nieces are such pretty girls that they will easily get good marriage proposals, but do try and get invited to the Mirza wedding. I have to go now. Anwar is calling me,” and she hung up abruptly. Anwar, Aneela’s lord and master, owned a supermarket known for its array of imported, or smuggled (depending on who you asked), goods. The whole fashionable world bought its supply of smoked salmon, brie and Dove soap there, but the society set still turned up their nose at him for being a glorified shopkeeper He was doing very well off their money though, and Aneela was more than satisfied.

“Javed, sweetie,” Jameela cooed, sounding quite like Leena, “such eligible boys have arrived from Dubai for the Mirza wedding! You must make sure we are invited so they have a chance to meet our girls.”

Javed was sitting in his study clicking on his massive, outdated desktop computer. He hastily minimised his browser window to conceal the pornographic site he had been on. Jameela knew about his pastime, but shrugged it off. She had far too many things to worry about.

“Why must I get us invited?” he asked wearily. “These boys are here to attend a wedding, not to meet our daughters.”

“Jaadu, how can they like our daughters if they don’t get to see them? I’ll bet all the other women have had designer ensembles made for their girls for this wedding. It’s so competitive nowadays. Never mind, I know we can’t afford that, I’ll take something old from my trousseau and reapply the embroidery on new fabric.”

Javed winced at being reminded of their straitened circumstances, but Jameela rattled on.

“They are such lovely girls,” she continued, “that they will stand out from the others You must go and meet Mirza and congratulate him. He will definitely invite us then.”

Javed held his ground, “I don’t want to cosy up to him just for an invitation. If only you were as interested in the girls doing well in their studies as you are in them getting married, they would not need to depend on finding husbands to provide for them....” His voice trailed off as his irritated wife slammed the door shut in exasperation.

The next day, Javed returned from his Friday prayers as chicken qorma and chappatis were being brought to the table for lunch.

“Guess who I just met?” Javed said, coming into the room with a spring in his step, clearly feeling quite pleased with himself.

“How do I know?” muttered Jameela, still sulking from the night before.

“Jehangir Mirza with the two boys from Dubai, they were at the mosque for Juma prayers. I went to the mosque in his neighbourhood, hoping to run into him. Aren’t you pleased?”

“Hmmm, did you congratulate him?” Jameela said, not daring to hope.

“Not only did I congratulate him, but he also asked me if we received our wedding invitation He gave it to our neighbours, the Laeeqs, to pass on to us.”

“Those Laeeqs! Always so sneaky, I’m sure they kept it on purpose Their daughter Shazia, bechari, is so plain compared to our girls.” Jameela said. “Even though she’s the only daughter and will inherit property,” she added with a tinge of resentment.

He produced a thick cream envelope containing a stack of gilt-edged invitation cards from behind his back with a flourish.

“Oh, Jaadu, you’re the best,” squealed Jameela. “Girls, girls, look what your father has brought!”

The girls trailed into the room The youngest two were giddy with excitement, and immediately started discussing potential outfits. Their mehndi outfits must be particularly eye-catching. It would be so much fun. They would dance the night away and take a million selfies! Jahan also looked pleased, but Elisha acted cool though she was also excited to be going to one of the year’s biggest society weddings. While they would always have some cachet as a former landowning family, they couldn’t afford to repay anyone’s lavish hospitality, and invitations had dwindled. Jameela was going to make sure this wedding wasn’t a wasted opportunity.

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Fabulous Banker Boys’, by Mahlia S Lone, from Austenistan, edited by Laleen Sukhera, Bloomsbury.

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