What happens when Jane Austen meets modern Pakistan- the realm of Austenistan is created! An anthology of seven short stories compiled and edited by Laaleen Sukhera, Austentistan is a one-of-a-kind book. Classic lovers would be well aware of Pride and Prejudice or Emma, two of Austen’s most famous work. They would also be aware of the time she used to pen down her stories, a time when women were not given much independence and freedom. They were known to be the prettier shadows of their better half, lest assured become an independent writer. But Austen broke all societal barriers and penned down some brilliant characters that still find resemblance in contemporary society. Laaleen Sukhera is the founder of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan. She along with six other writers penned down some amazing stories based on contemporary Pakistani society which finds resemblance vis-à-vis some of Austen’s famous literary characters.
Each story in Austenistan is based on a statement or a theme from Jane Auten’s novels. The quotes at the beginning of the stories, define the storyline. But inside the chapters, the authors carefully elaborate on the various forms of womanhood. It would be appropriate to say that Austenistan celebrates shades of contemporary womanhood. More than defining a woman to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’; it defines the woman according to the ‘greyer’ shades as result of their actions taken in certain situations. Austenistan is bound to touch an emotional chord with the readers.
It is visible in the ‘Fabulous Banker Boys’ by Mahlia S Lone that for a long time, the role of women has been defined strictly within the house limits. Is the duty of a woman only to bear children and look after her husband and in-laws? The arrival of children, it is seen, brings about a lot of visible physical changes in a woman. Does a woman lose the right to appear pretty and beautiful and be showered with some words of love when she has children to look after? Are girls sent to school as a commodity of competition in the elite society to reach a higher status? Are they only educated so that they would find an eligible match and take over his household with her home science skills? Even today, the academics of a girl child are often compromised compared to their male counterparts. But should this inequality prevail in a contemporary society which boasts of embracing equality?
‘Begum Saira Returns’ by Nida Elley touches upon an important aspect of womanhood. What might appear as a negative shade in women is actually one of the most basic necessities in the life of a woman. Is a young woman, who is all alone, not worthy of love, respect and fulfilling her physical needs? If adorning the apparel of morality, one pushes hard on its negativity; then one would be living a façade; because honestly at times a companion is preferred to lonely and silent nights. Saira’s story also resonates how good looking girls in the elitist society are groomed from an early age to look their part and behave, even if it means embracing people with fake smiles. This strengthens their societal hold. It makes one wonder if having a firm ground in society is all that one could wish for. It is also highlighted how the social status of a woman decreases when her husband dies. For ages, widows have been treated as untouchables often ostracized by the society. Is this sort of treatment really necessary?
The third story of Austenistan, ‘Emaan Ever After’ by Mishayl Naek , echoes the time old adage that Friendship is the first step of love. The comfort that one feels with his/her best friend; the closeness shared; the love-hate relationship portrayed towards one another; is the perfect foundation of love.
‘A wounded ego is much more dangerous than a wounded heart’. A very true statement from ‘The Mughal Empire’ by Saniyya Gauhar. It traces the life of a heartbroken woman, who masks her jealousy and pride; only to find that solace lies in letting go and looking towards other opportunities.
A woman goes through many changes after she is married. Even her partner does not remain the same as he was before marriage. His ways of expressing emotions are subtle and soft. It is almost as if, he showers his love in tender ways without making a show of it to the world. But does a woman always want that? Does she not want her man to show her some love in front of the world? This becomes further complicated if the couple is blessed with a child. The arrival of a child makes both halves more disciplined and mature. Clouded by new responsibilities they cannot live the care-free life they used to. And in this process, it is usually seen that the woman ends up making the maximum sacrifice. ‘The Autumn Ball’ by Gayathri Warnasuriya is a story based on such husband-wife relationships.
Sonya Rehman’s ‘Only The Deepest Love’ talks of various crucial social issues that are prevalent in contemporary times. From domestic violence to covering up a gay marriage by getting a man married to a woman and partially destroying her life, these are some of the themes touched upon in this story.
‘On The Verge’ by Laleen Sukhera shows how the elitist society works when it comes to creating gossips and fixing a marriage. Parties, Balls, and Marriages are the best places to make headlines in. While some people leave no stones unturned to deliberately appear in the front pages of the newspaper; for some a comical twist of fate are responsible for the same.
Thus, the seven protagonists of Austentistan show us the real nature of contemporary society. You need to read the stories for yourself and feel the emotions portrayed by the characters to appreciate the beauty of this book. Austentistan is available online through Flipkart, Snapdeal, and Amazon; or can be purchased directly from Bloomsbury.
*Disclaimer: I was given a review copy by Bloomsbury in exchange for an honest review.