Of Necessity and Wanting: A kaleidoscopic portrayal of Karachi
For the writer and poet Sascha Akhtar, what drove her to write this book was "the economics of 'want', the politics of 'need,' the manner in which language in a post-colonial society can behave and a longing to explore Karachi in all her facets. I also had a strong desire to address toxic beauty standards."
The first story The White Cage revolves around Rumina, who belongs to a middle class family but her mother aspires to make her a fixture into high-society by marrying her into an affluent house.
About Rumina, Akhtar believes that "we (desi women) all know and have at one time or another been Rumina – it appears the Rumina archetype sort of transcends just our society and speaks wider for women oppressed by deeply ingrained patriarchal structures, that operate in insidious ways, and are often hard to dismantle."
The first story provides a close-up, penetrating depiction of the hypocritical and vacuous lives of glamorous socialites so I was curious to know what sort of exposure did the writer have to come up with such insights.
|It appears the Rumina archetype sort of transcends just our society and speaks wider for women oppressed by deeply ingrained patriarchal structures, that operate in insidious ways, and are often hard to dismantle|
"I have never fit in anywhere, as my own 'class,' was never apparent to me. Many different levels applied. I was the only child of a single mother and was the only one of those I knew. We were quite 'poor,' economically, but many of the kids I knew were from that elite echelon of society. As a result, I have been a 'tag-along,' at loads of 'high society' events, throughout my life," the author tells The New Arab.
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Rather than following a linear narrative, the prose comprises of vignettes that give us a peek into the protagonists' experiences at different moments in their lives but Akhtar admits this was not a conscious choice.
"I just started writing and the stories came out almost exactly like this, and it was very clear to me, from the 'titles' for the small chapters, to the separation into 'Raags' of the novella Janat Ki Huwa. I had read every book written by a South Asian, as I was a a journo/critic/interviewer for Libas magazine, Herald and others so I think it was my own synthesis influenced most of all by Kiran Desai's The Inheritance Of Loss."
Through the stories of Javed, Rumina, Akram and Zainab, the narrative touches upon various socio economic issues faced by people from different sections of the society.
Akhtar reflects how as a child, for a while when she lived with her grandparents, she was privy to domestic help.
"They were all my friends. I don't know why but we just 'got along'? And thank God, those stories aren't fraught with bad events. Maybe it was because we treated each other at face value. Growing up in urban centres, I feel I was always 'judged,' for how I looked, for the family I was from, for having a 'white grandmother'. I really never liked it. I was very sensitive to it all. So my life has been my research. I have seen it all, experienced it all."
|Women have been working in beauty parlours for a long time and yet there has always been a 'class divide'; a well-kept secret that no 'respectable,' woman would possibly work in a 'parlour'|
One of the stories is about Zainab, a woman who works for a meagre salary at a beauty parlour to support her family.
"Women have been working in beauty parlours for a long time and yet there has always been a 'class divide'; a well-kept secret that no 'respectable,' woman would possibly work in a 'parlour'," Akhtar comments.
"I guess I wanted to challenge that. Why are these women not respectable? As far as I am concerned, they are the most 'respectable' women I am aware of. In fact, Zainab was based on the actual story of a girl I talked to. She travelled hours and I didn't even get into how dangerous it was for her. She supported her family. She worked hard. To me, she was a hero."
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Zainab was also her favourite character to write because she defied the "traps" of the portrayal of a South Asian/Pakistani/Muslim woman.
"I wanted to make sure she was portrayed independent, strong and determined – no matter what."
As a born and bred Karachiite, I was amused that the book mentions a character deciding not to turn on their "Karachi rudeness". I found this a pertinent observation and asked Akhtar about it.
"Perhaps it isn't 'rudeness,' at all? But a directness, that can (and does) get taken as 'rudeness'? Like New Yorkers are known to be?" she elaborates.
"New York, in particular Brooklyn, has always reminded me of Karachi. I guess I wanted people to know that Karachi has her own 'flavour' too. New York isn't the only place with direct, abrupt people."
Akhtar draws our attention to prevalent ills in our society through her astute observations. These include the "marriage mania" plaguing Pakistan which sees women agreeing to loveless marriages for the sake of financial emancipation and social mobility.
|Akhtar draws our attention to prevalent ills in our society through her astute observations. These include the "marriage mania" plaguing Pakistan which sees women agreeing to loveless marriages for the sake of financial emancipation and social mobility|
Besides that the unrealistic beauty standards that many women grow up to internalise just because of how they have become a norm in our society also make for a sobering read.
This collection presents a kaleidoscopic portrayal of a city that is quite difficult to encapsulate in a single book. There were certain aspects of the city Akhtar wanted to focus on.
"The interplay of contrasting (and often conflicting) elements, of every kind. From the manner in which the proximity to the ocean influences and affects Karachi living to the way in which the 'rich,' and the 'poor' interact."
The book manages to grasp these concepts in a way that is at once engaging and thought-provoking.
Rabeea Saleem is a Karachi-based journalist with bylines in Irish Times, Spectator UK, TLS and The National UAE.
Follow her on Twitter: @KarachiGeek