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She stoops to conquer: Review of Mira Sethi’s ‘Are You Enjoying?’

In Mira Sethi’s Are You Enjoying? the boundaries between the real and the fictional are enticingly blurry, for, like her characters, the author too wears many hats. Sethi’s current fame as an actor in Pakistani television dramas was preceded by a noted career as a writer and journalist in the U.S. In her debut short story collection, she draws on these experiences to give us six vignettes exploring religion, desire, identity, sexuality and power in contemporary Pakistan. The stories, around 20-30 pages each, are quick, crisp reads that nudge the reader into the everyday lives of the relatable protagonists.

Take the story titled ‘Breezy Blessings.’ One of the most memorable pieces in the collection, the story zooms in on the ordeals of a budding actor who gets a television role which the director describes as being “a little violent. Nothing serious. Just a few slaps.” Mehak is thrilled at her luck until she is confronted with the exploitative side of the industry. When her role gets cut midway without any explanation given, Mehak is faced with a choice — fight or flight?

Minor rebellions

Sethi brings to life the bustling sets of television serials with elan. The “unspoken decorum” imposed by judgmental senior artists, the mildly creepy director, and the random acts of kindness (“I use bottled water in your tea, tap water in everyone else’s,” confesses a set assistant to Mehak) are vividly depicted alongside Mehak’s pain and humiliation.

It is not all glum, though. Sethi’s women are strong, regardless of their circumstances. Sometimes they are evidently so, as the woman who works menial jobs to support her incompetent husband, or the one who ends a brief affair on her own terms. In some stories, it is less straightforward. In one, a single mother chooses to bring up her three kids alone but also frets about them being daughters (“I have not one, not two, but three of you,” she says at one point — “as if her daughters were benign tumors that had to be removed for her to be at peace”).

Intense bursts

And sometimes, that strength needs a nudge to surface, as Syeda Zareena Bokhari finds in ‘A Life of its Own’. ZB, as the matriarch

She stoops to conquer: Review of Mira Sethi’s ‘Are You Enjoying?’

of the wealthy political family is known, meets her match in her daughter-in-law Farah, a respected journalist. Farah had dreamt of a life in New York with her husband Kashif, but when ZB suffers a heart attack, the two return to Kashif’s family haveli in Maujpur, despite Farah’s unease about the family’s “sleepy glimmer of wealth”. Though the initial interactions between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law are coloured by predictable tensions, their relationship takes a different hue when ZB’s brother is named in a police report.

The stories fan across a broad spectrum of social hierarchy, but Sethi is at her best when writing about the quirks of the wealthy and the elite. She cleverly satirises the upper class’s tendency to worship all things Western (education, accents), but stumbles when it comes to the lone story that touches upon religious rigidity.

It is not that ‘A Man for His Time’, the story of a Lahore-based young man from an impoverished background, is flimsy, but considering the existing body of literature on the topic, Sethi’s cautious approach seems tepid.

Minor hiccups aside, Are You Enjoying? is the perfect airport read, to be consumed in brisk, intense bursts. Fans of narrative closure be warned, you might not always find what you are looking for.

Are You Enjoying?; Mira Sethi, Bloomsbury Publishing, ₹699

The writer is a journalist and reviewer. She tweets @navmikrishna

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 12:31:09 AM |

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