"Aunty is a term of endearment used to describe an older woman. The aunty is a cross-cultural phenomenon that isn’t limited to a family member; she could be a neighbour, a family friend or just some lady on the bus. … They are at family parties or friendly get-togethers with your mother, finding ways to make your life miserable, trying to get you married to their sons, and telling you to lose weight while simultaneously trying to feed you a second dinner,” writes Maria Qamar in her debut book Trust No Aunty.

Going by the handle Hatecopy on Twitter and Instagram, Qamar was raised as a first-generation Canadian in a traditional South Asian home. As someone who loved to draw, she started drawing illustrations when she felt overwhelmed by the ever-present aunties in her life and when she posted her artwork on Instagram, she found an audience among her South Asian followers.

People could relate to Qamar’s drawings as she was not the only one to have faced aunty issues. We South Asians — no matter where we are in the world — are somehow surrounded by all sorts of aunties in our lives. Some of these aunties are friendly, others are overbearing, but most are busybodies who consider it their duty to bestow advice whether we want it or not. At the slightest provocation they will come up with wonderful tips to share about various things such as hair health and long-term relationships. And they don’t just give advice; they take it upon themselves to make sure we live within norms and standards, and should we ever try to stray, we can count on them to always be around to catch us. And correct us.

On the surface a compendium of funny advice, between the lines the book also tackles serious issues that South Asian women face when living in the West

In exploring the overbearing interference of aunties that most South Asian women face, Trust No Aunty describes the different types of aunties one encounters: apart from the one who calls you fat and the one who forces too much food on you, there is the tech-savvy stalker who has time aplenty to monitor your online activities; there is the matchmaker who is always prying into your personal life, asking about your relationship status and trying to set you up with someone or the other; and of course, there is that one aunty who pushes herself into conversations that don’t concern her and shares her opinions vociferously — opinions which, funnily enough, are hardly ever in your favour.

Divided into several segments — school, professional, love, beauty, kitchen and lifestyle — the book has a lot information and insights in how to deal with everything that comes with being a desi in a foreign land. Each section has personal anecdotes, apt artwork and descriptions of the type of aunty one would encounter in that particular environment.

Qamar — who calls herself an “aunty survivor” — combines her striking illustrations with scenarios that many adolescent desi girls can relate to and gives tips on how to deal with them. She tells you how to pick a restaurant where you can go on a date with your white boyfriend without the risk of being caught by any of your aunties; she shares step-by-step recipes for traditional food that can be easily made by a campus girl on a budget; she dispenses pointers on how to wrap a sari, her best tricks for dodging the chappal your mother will throw at you when you mess things up and she advises you on how to deal with racism.

On the surface, Trust No Aunty appears to be a book of funny advice. Deep down, however, when read between the lines, one realises that it tackles serious issues that South Asian women face when living in the West, where traditions and cultural practices are not the same as those in their homeland. And although it mainly talks about the West, modern girls in the East can also relate to it. For instance, Qamar writes: “For as long as I can remember, I have heard my mother and my aunties scream the phrase ‘Log kya kahein ge’ [what will people say]. … Every lifestyle decision was measured against what opinion our neighbours would have on the matter.” These matters encompass everything from the seemingly innocuous — girls joining a sports team or boys taking up singing — to bigger issues such as divorce and mental illness, discussions of which were shunned in order to “avoid the criticism of strangers.”

Along with telling funny anecdotes from her own life, Qamar also addresses issues within the South Asian community, such as the obsession with fair complexion, skin bleaching and removing body hair. At the same time, she draws a distinction between cultural appreciation and appropriation and hits out at whites for adopting Asian culture in inappropriate ways, such as the trend among non-desis of wearing a bindi to the Coachella music festival.

From time to time she throws up scenarios that all of us may encounter at some point and presents two ways of dealing with them: there is a “rookie move” which you are not supposed to make and a “boss move” which you should. However, despite all the tips and tricks for surviving the attack of the aunties, Trust No Aunty cannot be called a life-changing or life-saving book. It’s a fun read and its most profound lesson is perhaps the reminder to young women that, in a world drifting away from traditional practices, your best bet is to not trust any aunties. Instead, trust yourself and your own instincts.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Trust No Aunty
By Maria Qamar
Touchstone, US
ISBN: 978-1501154737
192pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 3rd, 2018