FICTION: TOO HEAVY ON THE SERMONS

March 15, 2020

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It is always a pleasure to see the work of a new Pakistani author, and so it is with The Quintessential Fat Girl: Beautiful is Not a Size — the debut novel of Hina Shamsi, a business graduate and teacher.

Billing itself as a “funny social satire”, the novel tackles the subject of weight — as suggested by the title and the vibrant cover featuring heavily iced cupcakes against a cheery yellow background — and the problems women face in their struggle to conform to societal ideals. Shamsi delves into the issue, exploring the hurdles that must be surmounted on the way to achieve the so-called perfect size, and peppers the pages of her book with the rude and thoughtless remarks uttered by those who cannot relate to the distress experienced by those who fail to meet society’s so-called standards of beauty.

The idea behind the novel is pertinent; in Pakistan, people don’t hesitate in making negative personal comments, with little regard to the pain they may cause. Women are usually targeted as physical appearance is — primarily, but not exclusively — a female concern. And while fatness is not the nationwide preoccupation that, say, a dark complexion has always been, it is certainly not to be taken lightly.

Shamsi peoples her novel with women in their 30s and 40s who are obsessed with losing weight and looking good. The protagonist, Zoie, and her two sisters and best friends talk of little else. Zoie is a freelance writer, but her work does not take up too much of her time, and the others are housewives with plenty of domestic help. When the heroine says, “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” she means nothing more than that she will have to lose weight in a hurry because of an imminent wedding. The characters do not come across as three dimensional since only one aspect of their lives is highlighted. As for men, they have no more than peripheral roles in the story.

A debut novel presenting itself as chick-lit is let down by the author’s inability to find her voice and her desire to be a social reformer

The hard work that goes into a first novel ought to be acknowledged, and so it shall be. As far as appearance and construction go, there are a reasonable number of pluses. The author enlivens her novel by beginning every chapter with a quote. Some are profound and some funny, but all are catchy and interesting, for example, “Laundry is the only thing that should be sorted by colour.” A pencil sketch adorns the space above many of the chapter titles. These are well executed and fun. Then there are some throw-away lines which merit applause, such as the remark, “That’s the thing with us moms; our child’s name becomes our surname or identity.” Some of Shamsi’s musings about funerals and death in the chapter ‘Eternal Peace’ hit the nail on the head and would resonate with many Pakistanis.

The five stages of dieting — laid out in the chapter of the same name — are also hilarious and so true that many women will be able to see shades of themselves in the chapter. The scene where the beleaguered “fat girl” tries to stick to her resolve, but — little by little, and using the flimsiest of justifications all the way — is enticed into eating her favourite foods, is a joy to read.

But then there are the minuses. Novels have been used to highlight social injustices since novel writing began. Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood — just to name a few — spring to mind. The most effective writers choose one problem to handle and then they weave all aspects of it in the fabric of the story. The issue is brought to the fore and the solution becomes self-evident, without the need for lectures.

However, in The Quintessential Fat Girl, Shamsi does not address only obesity, but almost every social ill in Pakistan. She takes on the treatment of servants, unrealistic macho standards for men, mental health, unhygienic food, kitty parties, slut shaming and our national overindulgent romance with food. Situations are contrived to bring a problem to the fore and then a didactic lecture is delivered about said problem’s undesirability. In places, the book reads less like a novel and more like a collection of sermons.

The reader is apt to imagine that the author is a Social Butterfly-wannabe since the novel opens with a drawing of a beach and the pages are sprinkled with italics, words in bold and in capitals. Also, the English text is generously larded with Urdu and all important characters have pet names. The chick-lit theme is strengthened with detailed accounts of make-up application and descriptions of female apparel, but then the author suddenly turns into a social reformer and the carefree vein is ruthlessly discarded. A little further on, an entire chapter is given over to a dars [sermon] given by an Islamic teacher!

Not only does Shamsi’s voice fluctuate between frothy and reproving, but so does her persona. After berating society for its pettiness, she proceeds to tell us of the make of phone the heroine uses and that of the car her friend owns, even though these details have no bearing on the story. Since sometimes whole dialogues are written in Urdu, it seems plausible that Pakistanis are the primary audience. Yet, she then finds it necessary to translate the kalima into English.

What The Quintessential Fat Girl suffers most from is unsatisfactory editing. Sometimes there are so many mistakes on a single page that it borders on disrespect toward the reader. The subject and verbs do not match, tenses are haywire and entire words are incorrectly used. In one instance, the spelling of the husband’s name is inconsistent. Prepositions pose special problems and punctuation is erratic. Moreover, some sentences seem to have been thought out in Urdu and written in English so that they provide comedy where none is intended.

But, putting aside all the deficiencies for a moment, the best part of the novel is the realisation which dawns upon Shamsi’s heroine at the end: without a doubt, people should refrain from commenting on the physical shortcomings of others but, in the final analysis, it is up to each person to develop a positive self-image. At a family wedding, where a pictorial history of the groom is being shown, the protagonist realises that she had been quite slim during the groom’s childhood. But even at that time she considered herself plump and ungainly, basically because others had been saying so. She regrets having wasted so many years of her life in hating her own body and in denying herself the joys of food. She decides to be content with her physical attributes and so the book ends on a high note, making it clear that our happiness is in our own hands.

The reviewer is a freelance writer and author of the novel The Tea Trolley

The Quintessential Fat Girl: Beautiful is Not a Size
By Hina Shamsi
Auraq, Rawalpindi
ISBN: 978-96978683
215pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 15th, 2020