Sadia Abbas’ debut novel, The Empty Room, is set between the years 1969 and 1979 during which time power changed hands four times in Pakistan – from Ayub Khan to Yahya Khan to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Zia Ul-Haq. The country witnessed a nine-month civil war that killed, brutalised and displaced hundreds of thousands of East Pakistanis, the formation of Bangladesh as an independent country, and a general election whose results were believed to be rigged and sparked violent protests that resulted in thousands of casualties.
In an interview about The Empty Room, Abbas referred to this time in Pakistani history as “a decade which is often overshadowed by the horrors of the Zia years but in which the foundations of what Zia was able to do were laid.” Her novel follows two deeply different families in Karachi who are brought together by a marriage, and whose lives are upended by a tragic clash of activism and state-sanctioned brutality.
Abbas’ debut novel is that rare book that is valuable for both what it says and how it says it. It opens the morning after a wedding in a bridal room where Tahira and Shehezad feign sleep until their room is unceremoniously invaded by Shehezad’s family. Abbas pares the scene down to a few simple details which establish the inequality Tahira’s marriage will be defined by. From that first scene, Abbas’ every sentence carefully moves us towards a deeper understanding of societal and familial norms and pressures in the seventies among Karachi’s wealthy families. Tahira is dismissed from her own room and instructed to bring tea. When she asks where the kitchen is, she’s told “You’ll find it.” Abbas chooses to propel the novel forward without lingering – a choice that works because she constructs domestic scenes with an exactitude that doesn’t require explanation.
Little is offered by way of welcome or comfort to Tahira as she struggles to blend into a family that strives to be simultaneously dismissive and cruel to their new daughter-in-law. Her trunks are raided, and her best clothes and jewellery taken away to add to the dowries of Shehezad’s sisters. Her own dowry is sent back to her parents with a demand that it be replaced with offerings fit for a shurfa (aristocratic) family. Though seemingly part of the same family, the difference in blood allows Tahira’s in-laws to treat her with contempt and suspicion that she will turn Shehezad against them.
Resilience and wisdom
Our first clue to what the novel holds is embedded in the book’s dedication that says, “for the women of my mother’s generation of whom so much was asked.” Recently, the Pakistani writer Mehr Tarar wrote an essay about why the Pakistani women in her stories were survivors and not victims. Speaking about her maternal grandmother, she wrote, “Bobo came to be the first representation of what a woman in early 1970s was in my world: an outwardly old-fashioned traditionalist, but equipped with more resilience and wisdom than most men around her. The power of adaptability to achieve the impossible.” Tarar’s words can be borrowed as a summary of Tahira’s steadfast strategy of tolerance, compromise, and tact, to weather her marriage and her life in Shehezad’s family home. She’s afraid that her family’s reputation will be irreparably tarnished if she leaves – after all she has younger sisters who will need suitable matches in the future. With her marriage and later, her children at stake, she resolves to hold her tongue through every taunt that insults her family, the dowry she brought, her family’s new money, her parenting, her clothes, and anything else her in-laws can think of.
Tahira’s parents had negotiated their daughter’s right to continue painting after marriage, but her in-laws are loathe to grant her this time alone. That she’s allowed to paint is partly because her husband wants to establish a degree of independence from his family’s meddling and partly because painting is an art her in-laws can show off and use to their social advantage. Shireen, her mother-in-law, attempts to reframe the entire enterprise when forced to give in, by saying she would like to have a talented daughter-in-law at last. Tahira’s painting becomes then, a meditation on how fine art can be considered a suitable use of a woman’s time like learning to play an instrument she can perform in front of guests.
Hope and masculinity
It is Tahira’s calculated reticence that weaves through the novel as her brother pressurises her to return to painting and her best friend, Andaleep, avoids her because she can’t bear what Tahira puts up with. The silence keeps her safe and gives her marriage time to evolve into something other than what it starts out as. One of the most satisfying aspects of The Empty Room is the nuanced portrayal of Shehezad. Abbas doesn’t attempt to explain his misogyny away as a by-product of his upbringing. Instead, she allows him to hold contradictions within himself, to exist at the intersection of familial pressure and (admittedly limited) self-awareness.
Waseem, Tahira’s beloved brother, embodies a different masculinity – kind to his family, and determined and brazen in his politics. He’s a socialist who supported the rise of Bhutto’s socialist party only to witness student suppression, corruption within the government and American interference in the nation. His distress allows a glimpse into what it must have been like to be a young person in Pakistan who had hoped that better times were around the corner. “We thought we were being sophisticated and strategic,” he says, “So what right do we have to be in despair? And I ask myself: how dare we be surprised?”
Straddling the public and the private, The Empty Room is a novel about what is possible within social constraints, and what is improbable or doomed under an oppressive regime. Abbas’ remarkable novel captures family life in a Karachi household as well as a decade in Pakistani history that changed the country forever.