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FICTION: Little Women of Karachi

April 02, 2017


Sometime ago I came across a theory of creativity propounded by Austin Kleon in his book, Steal Like an Artist. According to him, we can borrow themes and ideas from other artists to create art that ultimately differs from its source material. Until now, this had been a mere theory for me, but not anymore — I think I might have found the perfect practical application of Kleon’s theory in Sarvat Hasin’s debut novel This Wide Night where the classic, feel-good story of Little Women meets the haunting tale of The Virgin Suicides in a quiet lane of a Karachi neighbourhood.

This Wide Night is an account of the four Malik sisters as narrated by their neighbour Jamal, affectionately called Jimmy. He lives with his guardian and paternal grandfather just across the street from the Maliks. Their father, known simply as the Captain, is in the navy, which keeps him away from home for extended periods of time. In his absence, their mother Mehrunnisa looks after them and organises the running of the household. Tasks like cooking, cleaning, household maintenance are mostly taken care of by Bina and Leila, the younger sisters. Maria is the main breadwinner and, along with the tomboyish Ayesha, is responsible for tasks such as shopping and running around to get passports and identity cards made. These are just some of the ways in which the structure of their household stands in stark contrast with the conventional households of urban 1970s Pakistan. In fact, the Malik household is reminiscent of the social upheaval during WWI that enabled women to fill the gaps in the workforce caused by the conscription of men into the military.

The Malik women have developed such a close-knit existence (as a result of the absence of a man in the house) that they have eschewed men from their home life. Not only are they financially independent, but are also emotionally self-sufficient to the extent that they don’t need a man to provide them with emotional support. However, it is implied that other people don’t quite agree and are taking advantage of the situation to impose their presence in their home and lives. This is highlighted by Amir’s courtship of Maria, a development that follows their meeting as teachers at the all-boys school where Jimmy is a student.

Sarvat Hasin’s novel is a promising debut that sets the bar high for future publications

Despite the general approval of the family, Ayesha is irked by the unconventional manner in which Amir and Maria commence their relationship. She is convinced that had she been Maria’s brother instead of her sister, Amir would have sought her permission before starting to date her sister, which is quite understandable. At a later moment Amir invites Jimmy out to tea in order to take the younger boy’s permission to marry Maria before broaching the matter with Mehrunnisa. This is a logical fallacy on his part and could only be attributed to his lack of knowledge of social conventions, resulting from having no family and relevant socialisation. Amir could have very well asked Mehrunnisa’s permission since she is Maria’s mother. Instead, he defers to the honorary man of the house who is barely 18 at the time and isn’t even related to the Maliks, either by blood or by marriage. Therefore, Amir’s actions are as disconcerting — if not more — for the reader as they are for Ayesha and Jimmy.

Hasin has created an intriguing and memorable character in Jimmy. He is both the reliable and unreliable narrator: the former because he knows the Maliks so closely, and the latter because he is never a full member of their family and can never find out what exactly happened to the four sisters. At the beginning of his character arc, he strongly believes that he will definitely learn what happened to the girls. Unfortunately, the story ends with him failing to discover the truth of the Malik sisters’ fate and the crushing disappointment leaves him feeling terribly lost.

Nobody asked about the girls. Not even those boys who knew them from their school days, brothers of their friends, who fell in love with one sister or the other from a distance. [...] People talked about the trouble with the Malik family [...] It was bad luck for the Maliks from the start. Bad luck to have a houseful of daughters. Bad luck to have all that dark hair, long and loose that the djinns loved so much. Bad luck for a father of all those girls.— Excerpt from the book

However, the ending makes sense because This Wide Night is more about Jimmy’s own emotional journey rather than about the fates of his best friend and her sisters. The reader feels exactly what Jimmy feels as he tells us his story. We understand his sense of belonging as he spends all his time at the Malik residence, coming in for dinner as casually if he were dropping in to dine with his own family. We comprehend his isolation and loneliness as he struggles to leave his flat in London. We experience his euphoria as he hugs his school friend Munir in the lobby of his building. Later, we are as exasperated as he is by the constant rebuffs of his attempts to offer emotional support to his wife and her sisters after their mother dies.

Another defining feature of This Wide Night is the unique diction and syntax used by the author. It does take some time to get used to Hasin’s distinctive style, but once that barrier has been overcome, one grows so completely immersed in the story that it becomes difficult to put the book down. The author’s narrative techniques also begin to make sense to the reader by this point. For example, we realise that the dialogues don’t have the usual speech marks and tags because the story is being narrated by Jimmy and all his conversations with the Maliks or others are basically just reported speech.

This Wide Night is a promising debut by Hasin and sets the bar high for her future publications. Those who have previously read and enjoyed Little Women and The Virgin Suicides, as well as fans of Pakistani literature in English, will definitely enjoy it. More importantly, the book is a particularly useful tutorial for aspiring writers in creating memorable first-person narratives.

The reviewer contributes to publications on literature and culture

This Wide Night
By Sarvat Hasin
Penguin, India
ISBN: 978-06700089284

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 2nd, 2017