A window into the goings-on in middle-class Pakistani society today.
Pakistani Writing in English (PWE), we are often told, has come of age. Recent years have witnessed a slew of books being published by mainstream Indian publishers and nominated for all sorts of literary awards. In fact, more Pakistani authors are published in India than in their own country. Possibly this has something to do with the fact that English-language publishing remains in its infancy in Pakistan. Possibly, it also has something to do with a certain section of book reviewers and critics hailing every bit of PWE — the good, bad, indifferent — as a modern marvel. That a country so riven by anarchy and disharmony, so perched for so long on the cusp of disaster should consistently produce fresh new talent is seen by many as a sign of hope and renewal. While most writers of PWE have focused on history, religion and politics, a mere handful has chosen to look at contemporary society and a world that is neither edgy nor exotic,
Writing in the vein of Punjabised English raised to pitch-perfect proportions by the malapropism-spouting Moni Mohsin (creator of the weekly spoof The Diary of a Social Butterfly and the wickedly funny Tender Hooks) can be a tough call. Shazaf Fatima Haider rises to the challenge as only the very young and very enthusiastic can. A teacher at the Lyceum School, Haider was prompted by her own experiences in the ‘marriage market’. Outraged by the manner in which prospective in-laws and bride seekers (the Aunty Brigade) inspect a girl, Haider began writing How It Happened to vent her own anger and helplessness. The practice of viewing girls prior to the groom’s family making an offer of marriage — common across the Indian sub-continent — rests on the assumption that women are commodities and therefore can have no real say in their sale or barter. Not only are they expected to undergo the harrowing process of ‘viewing’ in as docile a manner as possible, they are also expected to go along with whatever the family elders decide for them.
In a society as riven by differences of class, caste and community as Pakistan (the dream of pan-Islamism, of one people-one nation having shattered early on during the lifetime of the Qaid-e-Azam himself who had forged a new nation on the basis of religion), the notion of marriage becomes even more complex. For, not only must marriages be arranged by family elders who take into consideration a gamut of permutations and combinations, but also arranged among one’s own sort. And when it comes to a high-born Shia family that takes great pride in tracing the family roots to a small village in undivided India, the idea of girl opting to find her own mate — one who is, horror of horrors, a Sunni — can only be compounded by the fact that he is named Umer (after the second Caliph, Umeribn al-Khattab, whom the Shias regard as a usurper of the power that, according to the Shia view, belonged to Ali, the rightful successor).
While How It Happened provides several hilarious vignettes of the goings-on in middle-class drawing rooms, it also gives the Indian reader a first-of-its-kind glimpse into the Shia-Sunni differences that cleave Pakistani society, differences deep enough and contentious enough to have resulted in the gory massacres and mindless killings of recent times.
While the Pinglish is reminiscent of Moni Mohsin at her imaginative best (‘modren’, ‘Amreeka’, ‘patheticology’, ‘dating-shating’, etc.), Haider scores in her depiction of fresh, real characters: Dadi, the iron-willed matriarch and firm upholder of the tradition of arranged marriages; her nearest living relative, Qurrat, with whom she has a peculiar love-hate relationship; Zeba Baji, the school teacher (and possibly Haider’s alter ego) who breaks family tradition and finds true love and an ensemble cast of aunts, uncles and cousins who have been programmed by Dadi to get married the time-honoured way: ‘correctly and modestly, living their lives the Arranged Way’.