Why Pakistan is Austenistan and other delights

There is drama, romance, humour, but also cynicism.

 |  Rough Cut  |  3-minute read |   05-11-2017
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There's comfort food and there are comfort books. For me anything by Jane Austen and Agatha Christie is right up there. You can read them any time and it's back to childhood, a less burdened time, a time when you didn't carry so many expectations around, when you didn't have so many worries, or responsibilities. So anytime there is a revisiting, in film or book, of either of their works, I am right there, at the head of the queue. Whether it is Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld's Eligible (a reimagining of Pride and Prejudice) or the latest movie version of Murder on the Orient Express, you can imagine who gets most excited.

So you can forgive my exhilaration upon reading Austenistan, edited by Laaleen Sukhera, which has seven, yes, seven reinventions of Austen's works. If there is one place in the world where Austen's spirit is alive and well it is in the subcontinent.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife — and nowhere more so than in Pakistan and India. So Sukhera, who runs the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan, has set some of Austen's best works as short stories in various cities of Pakistan, commissioning Austenites such as herself to write them. The result? Pure magic. Replace the balls with wedding sangeets and receptions, the dresses with the darzis of Rawalpindi bylanes, the Darcys and Bingleys with a succession of young men recently returned from Dubai or London having added to daddy's fortunes, and the spirited Elizabeth and the demure Jane with an array of beautiful bloggers, inspired teachers, and not-so-flighty fashionistas, and you have, yes, Austenistan, not Pakistan.

So there is drama, romance, humour, but also cynicism. In a reimagining of Emma, the writer says of a former husband, he was more substance abuse than substance.

Someone's ex-wife lands up at her lover's home with a full set of "Louis Vuitton luggage" and the ultimate test of poshness is the Black Amex of accents, "British boarding school". In a revisiting of Austen's curtailed novel Lady Susan, set in 1989, in the hopeful days immediately after General Zia-ul-Haq's death and Benazir Bhutto's ascent (before she married the "slimy Zardari") "aunties" smell of Aqua Net hairspray and Calvin Klein's Obsession.

austen-690_110517070552.jpgAustenistan; Laaleen Sukhera; Bloomsbury

It's a society that is obsessed with class and stratification, with its capital city arranged according to letters of the alphabet that can betray your background in a second. The social setting is delightfully drawn. The drivers and armed security guards trying not to gawk when a fight happens in the parking lot. The beautifully accessorised outfits that look straight out of Vogue - a Sana Safinaz cocktail dress, with a Bottega knot clutch and a cloud of Miss Dior. Or the hypocritical emphasis on chasteness when everyone knows there are "secret swinger clubs and multiple dating apps". Or the men secretly in love with other men but too afraid to come out of the closet. Or the wedding invitations printed in India and the Bollywood songs used for wedding sangeet pratice. Or the Jameel Tanvir Butts of Gujranwala transformed by halal burger fortunes into Sir Jeremy Tanvir of Surrey throwing bold-faced cocktail parties at English country houses where "Missonis airkissed Puccis and Cavallis where Herve Legers sucked in sagging abdomens". There's even a short story around Miss Bingley, that most neglected of creatures in Price and Prejudice, who gets short shrift from both Jane Austen and Fitzwilliam Darcy (I know, I know, I am Team Elizabeth, yet...).

With its sharp social comment on Pakistan today (which may well be India currently), its obsession with appearances (nothing in the world that a tinted moisturiser blush and the swipe of mascara won't resolve) and the choice between women ending up like Miss Havisham and the men "bonking everyone" like Christian Grey, this is one book that is just right for a prolonged reading on an early winter's day. To be followed like one of our Austenistan heroines' favourite treats by icecream and coffee at 3am.

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Writer

Kaveree Bamzai Kaveree Bamzai @kavereeb

Editor-at-Large, India Today Group

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