There Is Very Little Jane Austen in 'Austenistan'

The collection of seven stories is devoid of Austen’s comical satire, her admonishments, her exposure of the duplicity in the men and women who dwell in her novels.

If only Pakistan took matters of state as seriously as its teachers, economists, barristers, scientists, editors, writers and writing coaches take Jane Austen. Austenistan, a collection of short stories written by a congregation of Austen enthusiasts with formidable credentials (all women), is perhaps the reason why the country’s politics has been left to flounder in the hands of rookies. Its sassiest thinkers seem to have set up an Austen task force, with the specific mandate of relocating Elizabeth Bennet, Lady Susan Vernon and Emma Woodhouse to the bougainvillea-frilled avenues and palatial homes of Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi.

The consequences of this geographical repositioning and culture-coding braces one for jaunts through leafy enclaves supervised by spinster aapas, sari-and-sherwani jamborees, Rumi-esque sighs that fill a nargis-scented evening, repartee that sparkles like rose and khus-khus sherbet served in silver goblets. Instead, one is led from one disappointing adaptation to another; one is trapped, not ensnared, by the tangles and quandaries of Pakistan’s ritzy lot; one is left disenchanted by generous curves, glimpses of cleavage, handbags from Hermés, lingerie from Agent Provocateur, and that “Black Amex of accents – British boarding school”.

Edited by Laaleen Sukhera
Bloomsbury, 2017

Clichés abound, and the turn-of-phrase is usually an abyssal dip into stock metaphors and formulaic language. A quote from the novel that has been reconfigured precedes each story, like a helpful hint that dispels all befuddlement before one wades into a marsh of hackneyed sentences. An apt sample of wordy sloppiness is Mishayl Naek’s story Emaan Ever After; a first-person narrative of one Emaan (a deputy-editor-of-a-lifestyle-magazine version of Austen’s Emma, from her 1816 novel by the same name). She, at 32, has a degree in Economics from the LSE (London School of Economics, not Lahore’s Social Elite, in case you’re wondering), a divorce, many friends. She has returned to Karachi after giving the “banking sector a shot in London after uni. More than a shot. I did it for seven miserable years before realising that if I hadn’t failed, I hadn’t exactly succeeded either.”

Smart girl. Other realisations dawn upon her as she sips her power smoothie at her favourite bistro, Xanders. She has been invited to “dinner and drinks for twenty” (people, one assumes; mostly bankers, one hazards a guess). “I allow my mind to flirt with the possibility of an interesting single male, though I know the chances are slim, even slimmer than the girls who’ll be lining up to bag him if he exists. Men at these things are usually aged, often crass, and typically pickled in whiskey.” An exception to these pickled-in-whiskey specimens is Haroon, who “has a few years on me and is considered good-looking by the marriage mart with his tousled salt and pepper hair, defined cheekbones, Scandinavian height, and the gift for finance with which he converted his family millions into gazillions.”

By far, the greatest travesty of Austen’s legacy is to retell her stories by deploying words and phrases sans ready wit, sans gentle scorn, sans clever comment on social mores. Austen’s heroines are often vain or foppish or nauseatingly high-spirited or timid, but they are never trite in articulating their feelings. These are women who think, speak and fall in love with all the flair and eloquence that Austen’s fictional universe demands. Austen’s Emma, for instance, when asked by her friend Harriet why, despite her charms, she was not yet married, replies:

“My being charming, Harriet, is not quite enough to induce me to marry; I must find other people charming – one other person at least.”

The heroines who inhabit Austenistan are incapable of the exuberant dialogues or even the petulant silences conveyed by Austen’s female protagonists. In the first story, The Fabulous Banker Boys, written by Mahlia S. Lone, and narrated from the perspective of Jameela Baig, (Mrs. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice), one is privy to the thoughts of the good matron:

“No matter, they are pretty girls, like I was, and vivacious, she sighed. We will manage something, InshAllah.”

Generations of readers well-acquainted with Mrs. Bennet’s temperament might develop the urge to pinch Jameela Baig, or give her a proper rush of nerves by pouncing on her as she readies herself, and her daughters, for the wedding function of one Momo Mirza’s daughter. They might also be tempted to rewrite the story with a flustered, not deadpan Jameela Baig, as an ode to Mrs. Bennet’s nervous flapping, her constant nagging, her charming pretence, her breakdowns. Consider this exchange between Mr and Mrs Bennet from Austen’s 1813 classic:

“Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves.”

“You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.”

The collection of seven stories – of which five are renditions of Pride and Prejudice – is an insipid attempt at recreating Austen’s world of mild manners and lavish balls. While the backdrop for each story is suitably majestic – a wedding or a cocktail party with twinkling tea lights or the glass cabin of a publisher or the Lahore School of Media Studies – the story itself is devoid of Austen’s comical satire, her admonishments, her exposure of the duplicity in the men and women who dwell in her novels. Even a story like Nida Elley’s Begum Saira Returns, more noticeable than the others simply for not being a mishmash of Pride and Prejudice or even Emma, dwindles into a plot that involves an electric-blue silk sari, and boyfriend-snatching by an older woman from her little sister. An adaptation of Austen’s 1871 epistolary novel Lady Susan, the story’s observations about society’s discomfort with a bewitching widow is reduced to lines like these:

“It seemed that ever since Iqbal had died, many of their society friends had collectively decided to shun her; while still publicly promising to be there if she needed them.”

Austenistan, edited by Laaleen Sukhera, the founder of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan (JASP), drowns out its cynical voice by amplifying the ambient noises – the rustle of silk, steaming silver platters of biryani, LV luggage, planes that take-off to London (or return from it) with a  frequency only matched by travellers in Bollywood. The members of JASP should consider reading Pakistani novelist Bapsi Sidhwa, whose fizzing satire An American Brat, published in India in 1995, tells of the misadventures of 16-year-old Feroza Ginwalla in a college in Idaho. Closer home and in more recent times, Anuja Chauhan, whose best-sellers, in particular her 2013 novel Those Pricey Thakur Girls (often compared to Pride and Prejudice) is a hilarious chronicle of growing up in a large and temperamental family, stumbling upon love, rejecting it with youthful carelessness, feeling a twang of remorse but never admitting to it.

Anne Stevenson’s 1983 poem Re-reading Jane describes a delicious paradox:

To women in contemporary voice and dislocation
She is closely invisible, almost an annoyance.
Why do we turn to her sampler squares for solace?
Nothing she saw was free of snobbery or class.
Yet the needlework of those needle eyes…
We are pricked to tears by the justice of her violence…

It is easy to mimic Austen. It is comforting to disparage her legacy. But it is hard to remain true to her. Harder still, to recreate what only those ‘needle eyes’ could see.

Radhika Oberoi is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.

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