Recently I was sent an interesting book of humorous essays in Urdu titled Amma Nama [Book of Mother(s)] written by Nishat Yasmeen Khan. It was a pleasant surprise to see a book of narrative essays, a form which I feel has hardly been utilised to its best potential in Pakistan’s literary discourse. While our literary world remains unfortunately divided into several categories, I believe literature — as a phenomenon of what Martin Puchner calls “the written world” — can enrich our social imagination much more than the arbitrary divides of being written in a certain language. In this regard, it’s refreshing to come across a book of humorous essays such as Khan’s, which attempts to reconstruct a facet of our social milieu that she writes about through an autobiographical perspective.
While at first it may appear that the book is nothing more than the rants of a bored housewife, it soon becomes clear that it is much more than just a tongue-in-cheek comment on middle-class family life. At a time when women are taking strong political positions in everyday gender dynamics, Khan’s book might come as a surprise because it is not the tyranny of the father, but of the mother, that determines her family’s life.
What happens when an uninformed mother vetoes the informed opinion of the father and deprives one of her daughters of education simply so that she can “stay fair-skinned and beautiful”? This is the question around which most of Khan’s narrative revolves. If anything, Amma Nama is a story of Khan’s immediate family and the dynamics of living together with her parents, her elder sister and her brother-in-law who is ‘forced’ to live with them by her mother. Her father is a government officer while her mother is an all-knowing housewife. Khan expands the narrative of her story through the theme of her mother’s role in both daughters’ lives. Khan’s elder sister, whom she calls Apia, is denied the opportunity to go to school because her mother believes that going to school is bad for a girl with a fair complexion. Outrageous as it may sound, however, Khan creates an interesting contrast between her house-bound beautiful sister and herself as a school-going, average looking girl.
Humorous vignettes about a tyrannical and uninformed mother’s impact on a family
The well-preserved daughter, Khan’s Apia, is now unable to find a husband because “nowadays people want educated women and not just beautiful ones.” When the two sisters reach marriageable age, it is the younger daughter who steals the proposals because of her education. However, their mother, in her superstitious beliefs, remains convinced that it is “some kind of a black magic that’s withholding her daughter’s marriage.” It is within the parameters of this coming-of-age story that Khan reconstructs her vignettes and reflects on certain mentalities in our society; in Amma Nama, the tyranny of an uninformed mother and the future of her offspring become the dominant concerns for the overall framing of the book.
In any case, it could be argued — as Khan herself reflects at one point in her book — that it’s not the form of the essay that she chooses in which to express herself, but more of narrative vignettes talking about household gossip. As her own husband asks, what could possibly interest any reader in her “insignificant book”? Indeed, it is the perspective of a homemaker through which Khan de-familiarises her readers to a world which all of us experience from our own individual points of view. However, putting it down as merely the insignificant rants of a housewife — as the narrator’s husband tells her — would amount to an arrogant position of patriarchal opinion-making that refuses to engage in a dialogue with the text.
Even though this book may not be in the mode of a classic, or even literary per se, it is worth reading in order to re-evaluate the image of a woman in certain literary and autobiographical representations that Khan tries to capture with her rather tongue-in-cheek humour. Her humour entertains at the same time that it enables us to relate to her characters and the possibility of transformation in our inter-personal spaces, which our families mostly take for granted. Besides Amma Nama, Khan has written two volumes of short stories and a novel, which I hope to read soon to engage with her fictional world as well.
The reviewer is a PhD student at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University
By Nishat Yasmeen
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 19th, 2018