‘We are not survivors but everyday semi-privileged women’: Laaleen Sukhera, editor of ‘Austenistan’

An interview with the editor of a fictional tribute to Jane Austen set in Pakistan.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that it is impossible to talk about Jane Austen without quoting Jane Austen.

Pakistani journalist Laaleen Sukhera, who runs the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan (JASP), decided to follow tradition. She saw Lizzy Bennets, Emma Woodhouses and even Lady Susans all around her. And so Sukhera, along with six other members of the JASP wrote seven short stories about these modern-day Austen heroines, sporting Chanel and sipping champagne under a shamiana.

That was the birth of Austenistan. Some of these stories seem more fact than fiction. The editor – and one of the contributors – of the anthology, Sukhera founded JASP in July 2014 and, two years later, realised that these “real” stories were waiting to be told.

Situated in Pakistan, from the 1980s to today, the stories star heroines ranging from an independent-minded young woman intent on rescuing her sister from snorting cocaine in a room full of young men to an Islamabad-based bureaucrat’s daughter who dare not look for love ahead of status. Written with elán, the stories are breezy, often breaking down to simple text to keep the narrative light and steady. And as satirical writer Moni Mohsin’s blurb on the cover put is: “A piquant morsel at a time, this is Austen with garam masala.”

That’s because, despite appearances, these are not exactly straitjacketed relationships we’re talking about. In Austenistan you will meet a young woman married to a gay man, a single woman falling in love with a divorcee, a divorced woman looking for a one-night stand, and a mother of one rekindling a romance with her husband. You could call them complex women defying stereotypes in search of their Pemberley.

“Despite being married...”

“Pakistani society right now is all about second marriages. They are especially big on the minds of middle-aged men. What is mindboggling is that they still think they are very much eligible and, despite being married, are always on the prowl,” said Sukhera, giggling over how marriage is an obsession that refuses to die down in the subcontinent. “It has been 200 years after Jane Austen’s death and yet her characters resonate with women across Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Texas and even London.”

“It is sad but true. It is still ‘shaadi pakki’ over tea trolleys, betrothal between cousins is still a thing and misogyny, unfortunately, refuses to die in twenty first century Pakistan, just as it all was during Regency England,” said Sukhera, who was introduced to Austen by her English aunt, Helen, at 13.

Among the seven stories, the first four follow the arc of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Lady Susan, and Sense and Sensibility, respectively, while the other three are spins on Austen’s quotes and charisma. Mahila S Lone’s The Fabulous Banker Boys gets Mr Darcy suited up as a Dubai-based banker, while a daring dowager goes to a wedding in Lahore in 1989, seducing her sister’s lover and her potential son-in-law in Nida Elley’s Begum Saira Returns.

“Austenistan is our homage to the writer. I personally think if she were alive today, she would have been a blogger which is what she is in my story, On the Verge,” said Sukhera. Her protagonist Roya blogs about Page 3 parties, where she encounters rich heirs lusting after her. There’s hope, though, as she finally meets a man who is more character than bank balance (though the latter is not exactly low).

“We might not be Malala...”

“We write as we are; not as clichés,” said Sukhera. “We are Pakistani women, Muslim women, who write in flesh and blood etching out our lives beyond a play-by play on major political events. Yes, there is violence and oppression, but this is pure entertainment and the stories are meant to humanise us. In the international media there is talk only of Malala, who is no doubt an extraordinary example and a survivor. We are not survivors but everyday semi-privileged women who want to say so much through humour. We might not be Malala but we too deserve to be known.”

As with many social groups today, the society was born on Facebook, but took flight as over 1,800 “like”s reflected many Austen-lovers in Pakistan. Sukhera has gone on to represent JASP at the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America. She is also a professional advisor at the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation run by Caroline Jane Knight, a fifth generation great-niece of Austen’s. Knight has also written the foreword to Austenistan.

“Like elsewhere in the Commonwealth, classics cease to be unfamiliar or foreign. And being an Austen fan, I felt I had known the heroines all my lives and often turned to them for comfort or witty banter. During our JASP meet-ups we intimately discussed our likes and dislikes, dressed up as her heroines, and discussed her novels, which got mixed up with our lives. To society, we are just ‘mothers and daughters of someone’, but here we found sisterhood over wit, intelligence and independence,” said Sukhera.

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