How do you approach a newly published novella when you already know what the story is? Rafina by Shandana Minhas was originally written in 2004, before oversharing on social media became such a pervasive part of our lives, and published 14 years later. In the meantime, however, it was adapted into a film. The film adaptation, Good Morning Karachi, directed by Sabiha Sumar and starring Amna Ilyas in the titular role, came out in 2014. One of the reasons why I looked forward to reading the novella was because I felt it might give a bit of nuance and depth to the characters we had been introduced to on screen.
Rafina is a rags-to-riches story about a girl from an impoverished background who dreams of making it big. It begins in an underprivileged neighbourhood near M.A. Jinnah road in Karachi. Rafina is a 17-year-old girl living with her mother and her younger brother in a two-bedroom apartment. Needless to say, money is a bit tight. No one is more acutely aware of this than Rafina.
Our heroine is a bit bony and isn’t considered a great beauty from the part of town she’s from, but the glamorous girl on the massive billboard facing her tiny apartment is… just like her. And Rafina is determined that she will do whatever it takes to be her.
Published 14 years after it was written and four years after its film adaptation, a Pakistani novella about an ambitious girl’s travails in climbing the class ladder
One thing is evident very quickly — Rafina isn’t your typical ‘nice’ heroine and, to put it mildly, she actually has quite a tart tongue. She thinks she’s better than everyone else around her, she has no issues talking back and when it suits her, she has no problem with manipulating the people closest to her to try and get what she wants.
Enter the one woman who will change her life: Rosie Khala. A widow with daughters of her own, she works at a local salon while also tending to clients on the side. She eventually agrees to take Rafina on as an apprentice and later, introduces her to the salon. Although she comes across as somewhat harsh and strict in her attitude towards her ‘niece’, Rosie Khala sees Rafina for exactly who she is: an ambitious little girl, and truly loves her. And perhaps is afraid for her — the world isn’t kind to women who don’t stick to the rules.
It is through Rosie Khala’s and Rafina’s interactions with the former’s clients that we’re shown the different worlds that the duo lives in, versus the one in which their privileged clients live. These two worlds can collide, but only when it is the underprivileged servicing the privileged. You cannot step from one world to another by yourself. That is strictly prohibited.
The novella also deals with gendered sexual dynamics as it shows how Rafina grows up aware of her place in the world as a woman through the admonishing words of her mother and the penetrating and intrusive gaze of the men in her neighbourhood. She is well aware of her ‘power’ as a woman — her sexual allure, if you will. As are the affluent men in the novella, aware of their own power — in a patriarchal society with massive economic differences between the classes, wealthy men are at the top of the food chain, so to speak. And when they can, they will not hesitate to use that power or privilege to satisfy themselves.
It must be mentioned here that when it comes to male entitlement, it isn’t limited to affluent men alone. Without giving too much away, there’s quite a bit of it that Rafina and her mother have to deal with back at home as well.
But perhaps the most surprising element of the narrative is just how in-your-face is the oppression of women by other women, whether it’s by Rafina’s well-meaning mother who wants her daughter to join her for a life in the factories — a job that has left the older woman with a lifelong health condition — or whether it is the women who work at Radiance, the fanciest salon in the city with its own modelling agency. There is Nawal, who was once close to Rosie Khala, has risen through the ranks and has taken it upon herself to be mean to Rafina as a way to keep her in her place. Then there is PJ, who has a special relationship with Nausheen, the owner of the salon — much like that of Rafina and Rosie Khala’s — and her constant vigilance of Rafina around her brother Adil or client Fahad borders on paranoia, as if the latter is a threat to PJ or the salon’s access to these ‘resources’. However, the more PJ and the others try to steer Rafina away, the more intent Rafina becomes to push back and find a way.
Rafina is a quick and engaging read. I finished it in a little over two hours. At the core of it, it’s a stark portrayal of the lengths a young, ambitious and somewhat desperate young woman has to go to in order to fulfil her dreams and get financial security. Those that are in positions to help — both women and men — only do so in a manner that is downright abusive and exploitative. In that, it’s slightly depressing. But as Rafina is not your typical likeable heroine, Rafina the novel isn’t going to leave you feeling… comfortable. It’s a Cinderella story, albeit a dark one.
The reviewer is a member of staff
By Shandana Minhas
Pan Macmillan, India
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 22nd, 2018