Thursday, 14 December 2017

#52 A retelling

This Wide Night  Sarvat Hasin

This is the debut novel of the author and came to my attention since it is a reworking of one my all time favourites Little Women, but this time set in Karachi, Pakistan. It had me intrigued. It was indeed a bold step to impose a time-honoured classic onto a 20thcentury family of young women in a conservational society.

Those who have read Little Women will find the plot strikingly similar. The Maliks live a life of relative freedom in 1970s Karachi: four beautiful sisters, Maria (Meg), Ayesha (Jo) Bina (Beth) and Leila(Amy), are  watched over by an unconventional mother, Mehrunnisa. Captain Malik is usually away, and so the women forge the rules of their own universe, taking in a few men: Amir, the professor who falls in love with Maria, and Jamal or Jimmy, the rich young orphan who lives with his grandfather. The curious young man is drawn in by all four sisters, and particularly towards the rebellious Ayesha.

Curiously it is through the eyes of Jimmy that the entire story unfolds.  It is divided into three parts with a prologue that begins his quest to discover “what had happened to the Malik sisters.” Hence, begins a sort of flashback. The story as such held no surprise, at least till the end, since it follows the story of Little Women but it took me a while to get involved. 

The first part slowly worked its way but I couldn’t really connect to the tale from the second half. It tediously plods through Jimmy’s boring stay in London where he constantly ponders over a miserable, lonely existence, devoid of any family or friends. All his thoughts revolve around the Malik sisters and Ayesha who are back home in Karachi. By the third part, where the setting shifts to Manora, an island off the coast of Karachi, the strangeness of the double tragedy that has struck the family leaves a lingering sadness behind, from which they never recover. The narrator nor the readers may fully understand it, but this story is his attempt to give it some meaning.

The slight glimpses we have of the women’s lives in Karachi, are not satisfying enough and leaves us wondering why the author chose a man’s point of view to narrate the tale of a group of eccentric , proud and vivacious women who leave an indelible mark on our minds. We are left yearning for more and also a less morbid tone at the ending.

Maybe I think the disservice to the unconventional debut is that we are comparing it the beloved original. Louisa May Alcott wrote in a tone filled with warmth and joy, Sarvat Hasin’s is a dark, cold and brooding one. Each may have its own beauty, but I am sticking with Alcott on this one.  

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