Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Pride and Prejudice 3 Ways: Soniah Kamal's UNMARRIAGEABLE, Uzma Jalaluddin's AYESHA AT LAST, and Sonali Dev's PRIDE, PREJUDICE, AND OTHER FLAVORS

In A Natural History of the Romance Novel, literary critic Pamela Regis describes Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as "probably the best-known canonical romance novel" (27-28). It is certainly a touchstone work in the English-language romance genre. Which makes it fascinating to read retellings of Elizabeth and Darcy's rocky road to romance written by authors from cultures which were once colonized by the English. How do South Asian writers reimagine this quintessentially English story?

Soniah Kamal chooses broad comedy and culturally specific feminist critique in Unmarriageablea modern-day P&P retelling set in current-day Pakistan. Plotwise, Kamal's is the closest of the three books discussed here to Austen's original story, with both characters and events closely mirroring those of P&P.  Thirty-year-old Alysba Binat, the second of five daughters of a formerly wealthy landowner, teaches English at a girl's secondary school in the fictional Dilipabad to support her family, as does her elder sister Jena. Alys struggles not only to instill in her students a love of English literature, but also to show them an alternative to the "Tao of good girls in Pakistan," which is to marry early, start a family without delay, and have grandchildren before you know it" (6). But many of her students are far more interested in when Alys will be married herself than in following her example of pursuing a college education and holding out for a spouse who "believed in sharing the housework, kids, and meal preparations without thinking he was doing a great and benevolent favor" (27).

Valentine Darsee, the nephew of the owner of the school where Alys teaches, hardly seems to embody such a man. At the most coveted event of the Dilipabad season, the Nadir-Fiede wedding, Darsee, who has recently returned from completing his MBA in America, belittles both Alys's looks and her intelligence to his friend "Bungles" Bingla ("Please, stop foisting stupid, average-looking women on me" [68]). Yet Bungles' pursuit of Jena keeps throwing them into each other's paths, and the two argue with intelligence and heat over literature, film, and how to create a Pakistani identity inclusive of an English-speaking tongue. Before he knows it, Valentine is proposing—quite badly, of course—to a less-than-receptive Alys. Valentine's interference in Jena and Bungles' romance, not to mention his role in disinheriting his cousin, Jeorgeullah Wickhaam, from inheriting a share in the British School Group owned by his family.

Yet there's far more to Valentine Darsee than Alys's first impression suggests. And as he reveals his own family's vulnerability, helps Alys' through the scandal of her youngest sister's elopement, and straightens out weak-willed Bungles' love life, Alys has to reconsider.

As a cultural outsider, I sometimes found it difficult to navigate the book's humor. Am I really meant to admire, rather than ridicule, a character named "Bungles"? Are the sisters with rhyming names (Sammy and Hammy Bingla; Beena and Deena Khala) meant to be funny, or are such sibling names common in Pakistani culture? But Alys's frequent critiques of Pakistani patriarchy, as well as her arguments with Darsee about how to square a love of a colonizer's culture with the damages that colonizers' actions have done to one's own, are as accessible as are Austen's own critiques of English patriarchy and her far less radical ones of English social class.

The Binat family in Kamal's novel is Muslim, as are the characters in Uzma Jalaluddin's Ayesha at Last. But while religion served as more of a cultural marker in Unmarriageable, it is central in Ayesha. And its more intriguing character is the male, rather than the female, half of P&P's romantic duo. Khalid Mirza may have been born in Canada, not in India as were his parents, but Khalid is as observant a Muslim as anyone back in Hyderabad. But not everyone in the new neighborhood to which Khalid and his mother have recently moved, a neighborhood in which "the brown and black faces reflected his own," are as committed to Muslim pieties as is Khalid. Which causes some friction when Khalid's mother begins the process of finding her only son a suitable wife. For his part, Khalid is happy to have his marriage arranged: "A partner carefully chosen for him, just as his parents had been chosen for each other and their parents before them, seemed like a tidy practice. He liked the idea of being part of an unbroken chain that honored tradition and ensured family peace and stability" (3). He's actually looking forward to having a wife, hoping that it will help alleviate the loneliness he's felt since his older sister Zareena was sent back to India to attempt to curb her rebellious streak. At least, until he begins planning a youth conference at the local mosque with Hafsa, the daughter of a wealthy local family, and finds himself increasingly attracted to her.

What Khalid doesn't know is that "Hafsa" is really Ayesha, his across-the-street neighbor, who has been pulled into the masquerade to help cover for her irresponsible younger cousin. A recent college graduate, Ayesha is spending the year as a substitute teacher at a local high school, hoping that her temp gig will turn into a permanent one. Her first meeting with Khalid is hardly auspicious—hearing him declare that he "stays away from the type of Muslim who frequents bars" when her friend tries to set her up with him leads Ayesha to grab the mic at the Open Mic Poetry Slam where they were supposed to meet:

You fail to see
The dignified persona
Of a woman wrapped in maturity.
The scarf on my head
Does not cover my brain.
I think, I speak, but still you refrain
From accepting my ideas, my type of dress,
You refuse to believe
That I am not oppressed.
So the question remains:
What do I see when I think of you?
I see another human being
Who doesn't have a clue.

Ayesha had written her poem with "veil-chasers" (men who think women in hijab are an exotic challenge) in mind, but is convinced that it applies equally well to the "judgmental, sexist jerk" that she sees in Khalid. But since Jalaluddin gives us a dual point of view narrative, readers know that Ayesha has far more in common with Khalid than she, or he, initially believes.

Jalaluddin's humor is not as broad as Kamal's, although her story contains many laugh-out-loud lines:

"When an unmarried man and woman are alone together, a third person is present: Satan."... Khalid found this reminder helpful, especially when paired with cold showers. There wasn't much more that a twenty-six-year-old virgin-by-choice could do really" (12).

And it contains equally thoughtful discussions of cultural identity, although identity here is not that of a post-colonial, but of an immigrant. To avoid racism and prejudice, should Khalid follow his colleague Amir's example? "This political shit is everywhere. The least you can do is stay under the radar. Adopt some camouflage. That's when I did when I moved here. I learned to blend in" (55). Or should he act the one way his mother has taught him to be a good Muslim? Or can Ayesha show him a third way?

I wasn't that fond of the way that the two most powerful women in the story (Khalid's mother, and his female boss) are painted with broad bad-woman strokes, nor with the way that each is humiliated at story's end, while the story's Wickham character is looked upon with sympathy, if not empathy. And the backstory of Khalid's sister's banishment, and her ultimate happiness with it, undermines the novel's questioning of Khalid's mother's single-minded adherence to her own brand of Muslim piety. Yet reading a Muslim romantic comedy is a rare enough treat that I temporarily put aside these misgivings to enjoy the myriad pleasures Jalaluddin's unusual romance offers.

My favorite of the three P&P retellings is Sonali Dev's Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors. Not because it is set in the United States, rather than in another country, or because it features the characters most assimilated to Western culture, but because Dev is the deftest at sketching character and crafting memorable prose. And because her retelling shifts the story in a surprising direction, placing an emotionally clueless female surgeon in the role of stiff, arrogant Mr. Darcy, and a sensual male chef in that of witty but judgmental Elizabeth Bennet.

Unlike Khalid and Ayesha, whose families maintain much of their Indian heritage after immigrating to another country, thirty-two year old Trisha Raje and her siblings have focused the majority of their energy on assimilation. Despite the fact that back in India, her father is His Royal Highness the twenty-third maharaja of the princely state of Sripore, HRH, as his children only half-jokingly call him, insists that fitting in in his new country is essential. And fit in his children have done, helped along by their family's immense economic privilege. Eldest brother Yash is a rising political star in California, elder sister Nisha a successful wife, and Trisha one of the country's top brain surgeons.

Her medical mentor has tried over the years to impart to Trisha the importance of a charming bedside manner, but "Trisha had never understood the big brouhaha over doctors' manners.... A soft touch hadn't gotten her where she was" (Kindle Loc 190, 224). Instead, Trisha appreciates another lesson: to keep your emotions out of your job, something that comes far easier to her than to most other doctors. Trisha's brusque, direct manner and general obliviousness to others' feelings disrupts traditional gender norms more than do her surgical skills. That Trisha inadvertently insults the caterer hired to cook for one of her brother's political events is hardly surprising for a woman whom "everyone [knows has] absolutely no emotional intelligence" (2023).

What is surprising is that said caterer, British born Anglo-African-Indian Darcy James Caine, turns out to be the brother of Emma, one of Trisha's new patients. Every other surgeon has given up Emma's case as hopeless, but Trisha, using a newly developed surgical technique, knows that she can excise the brain tumor pressing on Emma's optic nerve. The only downside: Emma will lose her sight. And as Emma is a visual artist (her "Penile Dysfunction" series one of the more popular of the works she's created), she's refusing to let Trisha operate. And judgmental Trisha is blaming DJ for not convincing his sister otherwise, even as she finds herself growing more and more attracted to his cooking—and to him. (Favorite line: "What was wrong with her? It was like having another person inside her. A person she had no control over. This having-feelings-for-someone business was like being infected by a tapeworm" [3813])

Both DJ and Trisha have rich backstories that help explain their current prejudices and points of pride (Dev's reimagining of Wickham, and the effects of Wickham's betrayal on Trisha, are particularly thought-provoking). And Dev constructs differences in class, privilege, and racial appearance that make her protagonists' constant clashes understandable and sympathetic to the reader, if not, at first, to one another. What makes those clashes so compelling is that neither Trisha nor DJ is completely wrong—or completely right. Having pride in her work isn't Trisha's problem; thinking others' work is not as important as hers is. And while indulging in prejudice in a world where people are judged and misjudged based on the color of their skin is clearly wrong, learning to discern between people who will do whatever it takes to help others and those who manipulate you into thinking they care when they're only out for themselves is a vital skill.

In her concluding "About the Book," Dev notes "The fact that I can relate so viscerally to Austen's heroines is bizarre, even ironic, given that her heroines lived in a time when her country had enslaved mine while proliferating the theme of 'East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.' But then that's the genius of Austen, isn't it?" (5975). As it is the genius of three writers, who all take Austen's characters and themes and use them to comment upon postcolonial, immigrant, and racial identities to such pointed, insightful, and above all, entertaining, effect.