IN Shazaf Fatima Haider’s debut novel, How It Happened, we are introduced to the unrest that can occur in well-furnished Pakistani drawing rooms when it comes to young people choosing their own life partners. The drawing room Haider has written about happens to belong to an ultraconservative Shia Bandian family. As the overzealous matriarch, Dadi, races to get her grandchildren bound by the ties of arranged matrimony we come to be well-acquainted with the hows of making it happen, with the it in question being the oh-so-unholy union of a Shia girl and a Sunni “patheticologist”.
Haider’s story is all set to expose contemporary Pakistani society where tradition struggles to reconcile with changing times, where marriages are not always arranged and women may not be well versed in the arts of cooking and sewing. Dadi is fed up with these “mordren” times and her favourite method of countering them is through nostalgic recollections of tales of her ancestors that she modifies according to the lesson she wants to dispense at a particular point. Her tales of Bhakuraj, the family’s ancestral village, serve as a guide to the lives she wants her grandchildren to live, ie marry respectful, “fully virgin,” “Snow White” Shia members of the opposite sex (who, incidentally, must also be completely that gender “for one never knows these days”). Haider actually includes a hilarious checklist against which all prospective spouses are measured even though Dadi is incredulous at being told she’s being picky: “Haw hai! Picky? Me?”
Narrated by the wide-eyed youngest member of the family, 15-year-old Saleha, we are introduced to the two routes by which marriages can be conducted. Haroon, the obedient elder brother becomes physically unwell, drowns himself in cologne and over-gels his hair before every bizarre rishta meeting until he finally proposes to a co-worker. Even this slight deviation from tradition upsets Dadi but she accepts it because at least the girl in question is Shia.
The real trouble begins with Zeba, who as our narrator observes, is “her generation’s heroine and the previous generation’s nightmare”. She not only dares to stay unmarried until the alarming age of 25 and say ‘orgasm’ out loud, but also engages in “dating-shating” a Sunni boy, with, lets just say, the Sunniest of names.
What makes the book funny is that Haider takes no sides. Arranged isn’t necessarily bad and marrying for love may lead to being disowned by your loved ones. Like Saleha, we must draw our own conclusions.
How It Happened may be a scathing indictment of the way even educated families “parade their girls like cattle,” but this is where the author has the last laugh. Haider takes on the many roles that a woman may come to play during the course of her life — whether as a mother, mother-in-law, wife or even aunt — and portrays irony through their perceptions and actions. Dadi considers the purpose of a woman to be restricted to bearing sons but refuses to cow down before fierce opposition to the traditions she so passionately advocates. It is the women in the novel who stand up for their beliefs even when at risk of censure or, God forbid, scandal. Fatti Phups refuses to leave a life of blessed spinsterhood whereas Haroon’s wife Saima represents a woman’s ability to work in a man’s world. And Zeba of course won’t settle for a marriage that isn’t for “pleasure-shleazure”.
Haider also explores the idea that in the traditional set-up, when you marry someone, you also marry his or her family. The addition and subtraction of members affects the Bandians just as much as any average household. Sharing Haroon with the new number-one woman in his life is difficult for his mother and especially his grandmother. Even Saleha, who starts out as Saima Apa’s biggest fan, confesses that she “never actually considered her ‘real’ family; she was an appendage to us original Bandians.” With this observation, Haider teaches us an important lesson that when it comes to matters of hearth and home, one cannot predict even one’s own reaction to a situation unless confronted by it.
Make no mistake, How it Happened is a funny book. For a brother to be attacked by his sister’s jealous suitor for dancing with her and Saleha being unable to resist the temptation of eavesdropping on her brother’s wedding night, it can take absurd turns. However, for a light read, it carries a heavy message. A 16-year-old girl is presented to Haroon as a potential wife and even though the Bandians have the decency to reject the match, we learn that she is married off to a 55-year-old anyway. Saleha is convinced that she is going to hell for having a crush on her teacher and the apparent satire does not hide the otherwise grim reality surrounding matters of dowry, segregation and sectarianism.
Haider organises her novel into chapters with tantalising titles, making us turn the pages as we simply must find out ‘How a Phone Call Creates Complications’ or ‘How We Were Shaken Up by a Whirlwind Intervention’. Through it all, Haider also prescribes an almost foolproof method to avoid scandal whereby “a nonchalant attitude could keep the gossipmongers at bay.” For the portrayal of all the terminally anxious mothers and grandmothers itching to be able to declare their offspring “married and well-settled,” Haider must be praised. “A Pakistani wedding is no mean feat to pull off,” but How it Happened reminds us of the sheer necessity of laughing through it all.
How It Happened
By Shazaf Fatima Haider
Penguin Books, India