The timeless value of a classic book is often celebrated with its pop-culture currency and iconic plot points that stick to the recesses of our mind, whether or not we’ve read the book. The truth is also this: The timeless value of a classic in English is that its importance comes from the language and our aspirational obsession with it. And then Soniah Kamal comes along and subverts it all.
At its heart, Unmarriageable is an unabashed acceptance of our colonization. There is no denial involved in accepting that English is not only a part of South Asian history but a language that many sections of the middle class and upper middle class rely on. At the same time, there is a subtle but firm critique on its being a language of power, a tongue that we hold on to viciously because it protects the gates of South Asian social privilege.
Meet the Binats
Unmarriageable stays faithful to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The only difference is that we’re in Pakistan in the early 2000s. While the west has had many evolutions with feminism, South Asia seems to have mobilised the autonomy of women only by exception, certainly not as a rule of thumb. At first, I wondered why the author hadn’t set it in current day Pakistan, for, barring the exceptions of social media, texting, and smartphones, the story could still very much represent what many women, despite class, are resigned to. Perhaps this is precisely why Kamal set it in the early 2000s, to stay clear of the gimmicks of technology, and not risk a validation of the book solely through the superficiality of a “Facebook version of Pride and Prejudice”.
The Binat family comes complete with an almost caricatured mother, who is obsessed with the fate of her five daughters, especially the two who are over 30. The original Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia embrace a new life as Jenazba, Alysba, Marizba, Qittyara, and Lady.
Mrs Binat, to her credit, carries the weight of our national obsession, our fear of single women, and the consequential effort we take in spending most of our time talking about marriage and suitable grooms. Mr Binat is somewhat resigned to his life with his overbearing wife and five daughters, of whom Alysba is his irrefutable favorite and plays a lead role in the book.
Self before marriage
Alysba, or Alys, teaches English at the coveted British School of Dilipabad. In fact, the book starts right here, with her asking her students to rewrite the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice, an activity she does every year to get to know her students better. Alys is quite the iconoclastic teacher when it comes to her not-so-subtle feminist nudges to her students. She pushes the fundamentals of feminism in her classes, principles that are mostly incongruent with her students’ reality, that of upper-class Pakistani girls who speak flawlessly and hold suitable etiquette and poise in their back pockets, ready to impress the right privileged family and be married by age 17.
Alys exudes all the qualities of a self-assured woman, one who easily identifies the problematic stance of our collective nuptial obsession, and encourages both her students and herself to choose things that make them whole as individuals first. And yet, she cannot escape the land she comes from, a place where at best she can be a drowning rebel.
The Binats, who were once one of the “it” families of Lahore, now live in a small town after being cheated out of their wealth. Mrs Binat only has the remnants of past glory to find matches for her two eldest, Jenazba and Alysba. The perfect opportunity arises when they are invited to the NadirFiede wedding, the biggest event of the season, attracting only the most elite families of Pakistan.
The choice of weddings as the perfect place for flirtations and scandal could not be more appropriate. The celebrations, spread over three days though not back to back, allow for Alys and Mr Darsee to cast spells over and annoy each other at the same time.
Revealing the intricacies of the story would amount to spoilers – since the book is an accurate representation of the original in terms of the plot, the pleasure is in the details. The degree of empathy and humour Kamal builds amongst her characters as they fight for space and individual agency in modern Pakistan are a delight to read.
The irony that the lives of Indians and Pakistanis remain so segregated truly shines through here: The fact remains that the upper middle-class of the two countries face similar problems while inhabiting the bubbles that intersect with class, aspiration, reputation, and marriage. Reviewers from the US have already agreed that they see visible similarities between the two cultures, and acknowledge that the book allows us to see that people are just people, no matter where they live. It is a notion I hope India receives the book with.
It’s a new era for literature, a time where we are trading realities instead of exoticising them, a time where more voices are allowed space to create and influence global culture. This is an age when many young people have the possibility of discovering Jane Austen via a Pakistani writer. There is much to celebrate in Kamal’s Unmarriageable, and, undoubtedly, the subversion of literary authority is one of them.
Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan, Soniah Kamal, Allison & Busby.