A few nights before the grand annual sports day at her school, eight-year-old Natalia-Sophia dreams of “dragons with braids and pretty purple clips on their ugly green bodies. The dragons turned towards her and threw gigantic flames of fire.” To anyone who is aware of the premise of Safinah Danish Elahi’s fictional debut, Eye on the Prize, the dream reads like a clever reference to the enigmatic and snarky Pakistani elite.

The story follows three competitive and ‘clannish’ elite mothers who are desperate to have it all, with little regard for the fact that their struggle for the perfect life comes at a cost. As the annual sporting event at their children’s prestigious school approaches, Shezray, Minahil and Hina leave no stone unturned in preparing their children — arrogant Natalia-Sophia, overweight bookworm Amaan and rebellious Zara — for the big day.

The women’s standing amongst the circle of elite mothers who send their children to the exalted Karachi International School (KIS) is linked to how their children will do at Track Day, which is no ordinary sporting occasion: the winners will earn themselves a spot at the Asian Games. In the days leading up to the event, Track Day rules every aspect of the children’s and their mothers’ lives, which are painfully regimented from sunup to sundown. Even a casual family trip to the park falls victim to the systematic nature of their routines. Marital troubles are put on hold. Elaborate diet plans are drawn up and children are denied indulgent breakfasts. The prize is too good to be given up.

Of course, for all its towering dominance, Elahi never means for Track Day to be the centrepiece of the story. The purpose is to dig into the glossy lives of the Pakistani upper crust and reveal how they unravel behind closed doors. Dysfunctional marriages, the ugly side of modern parenting styles, familial love, class and social status, are all explored through the prism of this singular sporting event.

There is little that sets these sets of parents apart other than their circumstances. Shezray is the ambitious chief executive officer of a major textile company, wife of the ridiculously handsome manager of her own firm, mother to two beautiful daughters and she appears to be “enviably in control of her own life.” Yet, she struggles to shake off the feeling that something in her life — especially in her marriage — is amiss.

A debut novelist digs into the glossy lives of the competitive Pakistani upper crust and reveals how they unravel behind closed doors

Minahil, on the other hand, is blessed with Shezray’s ambition, but not the supportive in-laws who would let her abandon her domestic responsibilities for a career. Even though her businessman husband recognises and values her talent, he is reluctant to take a stand for her: “Bilal knew his wife was a woman who allowed intelligence to fuel her relationships, even casual ones.” Forced to live with repressed ambitions, Minahil soon begins to feel like a fish out of water in her own social circle. “Was buying pretty clothes no longer her idea of fun?” Bilal wonders about a woman who was on her way to becoming creative director of a design agency before giving it all up at the behest of his parents.

Meanwhile Hina, the founder of a small yet popular beauty salon, is a social climber who sought marriage with the “boring, straight-laced” yet promising Rehan, and her daughter’s admission into the reputable KIS, as her ticket to all the elite social clubs in town. Neither Hina nor Rehan come from moneyed families, but she sincerely believes Rehan’s academic credentials — he’s a KIS alumnus — and professional expertise will take them far.

Dangerous secrets that link these families together threaten to upset the foundations of their picture-perfect lives. However, the threat to their lives comes not just from these secrets, but also from the pressure to keep their position in the social food chain intact. The perpetuation of one’s socio-economic position is dependent upon the amount of social and financial capital that an individual’s family possesses. Track Day is nothing but a rehearsal for the ultimate rat race, but some children already have an upper hand: “If Minahil had given her the contact details of the foreign coach who was training her son, it would increase Zara’s chances of competing at a national, even international, level. Besides, Hina knew that parents [such as] Minahil and Shezray could pay for these training sessions without feeling a pinch in their pockets.”

Now that Natalia-Sophia had reached the third grade, Shezray could barely conceal her excitement that her innately athletic younger daughter would clinch the golden ticket to the prestigious 2020 Asian Games promised to the winners at this year’s Track Day. Shezray could live with the fact that her marriage was losing its sheen, but she was not going to allow this prize to slip from her hands. Of course, her ambition and competitive streak had more to do with her desire to see Natalia-Sophia excel. — Excerpt from the book

Parenting in the 21st century has its own challenges, with parents often struggling to strike a balance between healthy competition and fostering their children’s true selves. Each child in the story has her or his own strengths and weaknesses and craves Mum and Dad’s approval, but not all of them are cut out to be athletes. And Track Day preparations soon begin to take their toll on the children’s mental health, as they are forced into becoming the pegs on which their parents’ social aspirations hang.

It is evident that Elahi has summoned her own experience as a primary school teacher and fitness trainer to bring her scenes to life. Everything — from classroom dynamics, evening parties and workplace conversations, to interactions with the servants — comes across as authentic and true to life (although some parts of the story do occasionally veer into melodrama and feel a bit of a stretch. For instance, the diary entry by Shezray’s daughter in the prologue seems much too sophisticated to have been penned by a child one month shy of 11 years).

Every gesture and act, even the tension between two of the mothers and their children on a playdate, is carefully unpacked to expose its duplicitous nature. Especially amusing are references to the local fitness industry, with its large cast of personal trainers and nutritionists that has found itself a substantial clientele amongst the “calorie-conscious millenials” and the elite, eager to stand out at their social gatherings and ensure the next generation carries on their legacy.

Elahi began her writing career as a poet and she writes with the restraint and elegance of one, while allowing her wit, confidence and creativity to shine through. It is hard to give an exact verdict on the extent to which a local audience, starved for relatable content in English language fiction, will be satisfied with this work, given the ever-growing gap between the crème de la crème and the masses, but if one is looking to couple their evening tea with some self-reflection and entertainment, Eye on the Prize will not disappoint.

The reviewer is a Lums graduate, currently working at a policy think tank

Eye on the Prize
By Safinah Danish Elahi
Liberty, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9698729370
237pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 29th, 2020

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