Flickering screens may have broken our book-reading habits and ability to sit down patiently with texts longer than 140-character tweets. The accessibility and ubiquity of microblogging may have also altered the kind of texts we consume, with readers looking for instant gratification offered up through short posts or articles that can be consumed on the go.
Social media influencer Sarah Fawad’s book Desi Distancing: One Woman’s Journey from Society to Sanity — thinner than a deck of cards — appears to have been written with such an audience and her 4,000 or so followers on Instagram in mind.
Touted as an accessible and fool-proof survival guide for desi women, Fawad’s mantra is simple: live and let live. The book has no chapters to help the reader navigate and invites one to dip right in. Some semblance of a structure is created through subheadings or topics, each addressing a different issue. From relationships, matchmaker aunties and parenting, to mental health, social media and fame, the writer doles out advice on everything under the sun.
The book starts out with musings on abstract concepts such as love, benevolence, self-discovery and peace, before moving on to the titular theme. There is a yearning for a time when lives were simpler and less complicated by technology, the pressures of marriage and parenting.
How women are expected to live up to society’s expectations of them as mothers, wives, daughters and sisters and its effect on their mental health is the overarching theme. Instead of constantly breathing down their necks, people should just let them be and be a bit kinder and empathetic towards them. Alternatively, women should be their own person and grow impervious to what people think.
“This isn’t a self-help book. I hope they don’t shelf [sic] it with the other self-help books in the bookstore. This isn’t a guide to be popular or smart or successful in life. This is a book about how I learned to survive in society, in the famous Pakistani, aka desi society, to be precise. But yes I might be giving a few pointers along the way, on how to stay sane and avoid using the lifeline of running away from society to the nearest jungle. Think of this book as an old aunty sitting across from you, rocking on [sic] an armchair, with a cup of tea in her hand, retelling her life stories and how she managed to last this long in the ruckus we call society.”— Excerpt from the book
At first, the book’s premise seems exciting. Fawad attempts to experiment with language, format and genre, but regrettably, none of it comes to fruition. By way of an introduction, a good 20 or so pages are spent telling the reader what to expect and how to interpret the book. Even then, the reader is none the wiser about what the book is trying to accomplish.
Fawad also strays a lot from the main theme, to the point that it becomes a chore getting through some parts. Moreover, for a book centred on progressive ideas, there is a great deal of romanticising the past and very little acknowledgement of its own role in perpetuating oppressive “desi” standards.
Clichés and hypothetical situations are used generously. The text is filled with sweeping generalisations, often made without any support, anecdotal or other. At times, an argument is accompanied by vague references to an incident or a person from the author’s own life, but even these are left wanting in detail and nuance.
That being said, there are a couple of quite clever observations in there. I quite enjoyed reading the section on various “toxic” types found among one’s family and neighbours, all of whom appear to have your best interests at heart, but are secretly waiting for you to slip up and love taking pleasure in your discomfort.
Narrated in Fawad’s unrestrained and sarcastic tone, these parts are a treat to read: “Again, these are not only the aunties … who are hanging dangerously out of balconies like the foamy froth in Dalgona coffee, no these are women and the rooh [spirit] of an aunty in men even, who are of every age.”
It is a pity that such parts are far and few in between. Rarely is a thought conveyed with clarity, but where it is not spoiled by a half-baked metaphor or joke, it does have the intended impact: making you laugh and nod in agreement.
Initially, Fawad’s disregard for grammar and structure feels almost daring but, mostly, it is distracting and the humorous, unfiltered tone often falls flat. Even though readers are told at the start to put aside their notions of what a book is supposed to be, forget about the conventions of language and focus solely on the message, ideas get lost in the middle of wordy sentences. The constant switching from English to Roman Urdu also tends to complicate even the simplest of things. Perhaps the final draft could have benefitted from another round of edits.
Desi Distancing markets itself as a “sociography”, a satirical autobiography of sorts that readers can distil into an aphorism. However, it does not even conform to what it proclaims to be, let alone be reduced to a simple thesis. A thought is presented, developed and abruptly concluded only to resurface later at some point as another confusing, ill-formed one. In the end, I was left craving the unique take promised in the blurb.
Again, that being said, Fawad is full of bold and clever ideas. Desi Distancing may have an appeal for those who want something funny, light yet introspective. However, it is an infant experiment in creative non-fiction at best.
The reviewer is a Lums graduate, currently working at a policy think tank
Desi Distancing: One Woman’s Journey from Society to Sanity
By Sarah Fawad
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 30th, 2022