The Tea Trolley — Rehana Alam’s first novel — is a self-contained story that will resonate with women of all ages in Pakistan. Set in 1979, the book centres on Amna, a young lady of marriageable age who, at her parents’ behest, is in the midst of a revolving door of suitors.
The book perfectly embodies the ‘mother knows best’ mindset, mainly seen through Amna’s conversations and internal dialogue. As nice a person as she is, Amna spends the whole novel deferring to her mother and barely having an original thought. Though she attends university, her world is small — restricted to one friend, receiving suitors and sitting through visits from relatives and her parents’ friends. She appears to have completely surrendered her fate to her parents’ wishes. We are not privy to any other facet of her personality other than the ‘good girl’ persona: “Ammi screened out the unacceptable suggestions and about once a fortnight I had to present myself, pushing the tea trolley, to interested parties”; “I changed into the Ammi-approved clothes”; “Clad in one of the approved joras, and with a sense of helplessness, I entered the drawing room behind the tea trolley once again”; “Ammi returned and approved of my gracious hostess role.”
The present action of the book is interspersed with stories of marriages past. These are the most engaging parts of the narrative. In fact, if the whole novel had been made up of these sordid, tragic or hopeful tales of how women married and how they fared, this would have made for a much more original and entertaining read.
A debut novel with relatable stereotypes of Pakistani women does not offer any commentary on them or develop them into engaging characters
Perhaps to keep with the time period of the book — the 1970s — the author gives the impression that the perfect wife is a woman who is fair in demeanour and colour, adept at running the house, self-sacrificing, frugal and skilled at entertaining. Good food and the husband’s comfort are what matter; all that is required from the husband, on the other hand, is that he provide well for the family and be polite — as one visitor describes her marriage: “I made sure he had clean shirts in his closet and the food of his choice on the table. I considered that to be my role as wife. He... rarely noticed what I ate or wore. But he was unfailingly polite, a good provider, a fond father... It was a good marriage then, but my face did not glow.”
This is an old-school view that many may relate to as it is trite and overdone. As you read you wonder if the book will go beyond this, if maybe Amna will be more than this. There is no mention of personal fulfilment or the joy of togetherness in a way that is taken seriously, or even considered achievable. The few women in the book who have taken control of their lives have done so at personal or social sacrifice. One of them, Amna’s aunt Azra, who is “plain of face and dark in complexion”, has received no proposals of marriage. When she finally does, and marries a widower many years her senior, she rises above her boring husband and insipid marriage and becomes a successful businesswoman. Her tale delivers one of the best lines in the book, “…she didn’t divorce Najeeb Khalu, but she made him redundant.”
Despite her “killer instinct and sharp spirit of competition”, Azra is eccentric, brash and rude. This is in keeping with how successful women are labelled in society — they are given unflattering epithets and their success is attributed to their overbearing personality rather than their skill and mental acuity. Further, the author presents another insular view by describing moneyed characters as boastful, insensitive and not self-actualised whilst presenting those who are not rich as hardworking, honest and humble.
One incident in the book further demonstrates a long-ingrained bias in the subcontinent, when Amna has the misfortune of receiving a proposal from someone of a hue darker than is acceptable: “His family... formed a wall of coffee-coloured faces for me to look at as I rolled in the tea trolley. Everyone had extremely dark complexions and even though no one in our family had unreasonable prejudices, six or eight dark brown people crowded in an average sized drawing room can be overwhelming.”
Some audiences may find this quaint, as one can see the attempt at humour, but the novel does not deviate from these types of views and presents no foil to them either. If there had been another, second voice that poked fun at these and other archaic notions present in the novel, it would have added sardonic humour.
Alam does make one think about what Pakistani women really want, though this does not go beyond generalities. Her book is smattered with quotes such as, “…it was a time of unadulterated happiness for Samina. She played at being a housewife, learned to cook... entertained Bertie’s friends to many a smorgasbord to please him... After Samina had mastered the arts of cleaning and cooking she wanted to graduate to the next level... motherhood.”
The patronising tone of this passage implies that this is all a woman could or should want. The drudgery of cleaning and cooking is labelled an “art”, the mastery of which is likened to an academic degree. Is this what makes women happy? No matter what their academic background, professional ability or personal goals, is this really it? Do the same ingredients form every happy marriage? The novel would have had greater depth, substance and been a more enjoyable read had these questions been explored, more so because the author’s voice often has traces of bemusement.
Amna does offer one surprise toward the end of the novel: in a conversation with her father, we learn more about her than in the preceding 177-odd pages, as she finally shows a hint of independent thought. She reveals she has goals and ideas for her future, though
she maintains her parent-approved modus operandi: “Abba, I don’t want to get married or even get settled just yet. I know nothing of the world or about people. I don’t even know much about myself. I will do whatever you and Ammi tell me to do... I want to get married. But I want more than that. I want to study. I want a career. I don’t want marriage to become my final destination.”
However, since we have spent the majority of the novel with Amna as a passive, obedient, know-her-place kind of girl, even when she finally stands up for herself it falls rather flat.
The Tea Trolley is written in brisk language and the book moves along with momentum, but it follows the same pattern all the way through. It is a nice story about a few months in the life of a nice family, and that is it; there is no climactic action and barely any conflict. The characters are static, recognisable stereotypes, each making his or her expected comment at the expected time. The crux of each character immediately comes through, and though their predictability is strangely comforting, none of the main characters is unique — neither in their words and actions, nor in their histories. The protagonist is not presented with any critical choice and no relationships undergo transformation. At times the book seems myopic and narrow-minded as it touts stereotypes in the same way the characters do. If only it had been a satire; then it would be a complete and almost perfect one.
The reviewer is a writer, editor and avid reader
The Tea Trolley
By Rehana Alam
Outskirts Press, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 4th, 2018