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The tale of an arranged marriage in Pakistan


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Shazaf Fatima Haider was always interested in how it happened. How strangers met in contrived settings, were expected to like each other and get married.

Eventually, the 30-year-old teacher from Karachi saw the funny side of arranged marriages and cultural backgrounds in Pakistan  and decided it was the perfect subject for her debut novel, "How It Happened."

The book, recently launched in India and Pakistan, is the story of Dadi, the matriarch of the Bandian family in Karachi, and her quest to find the perfect Shia Muslim groom for her granddaughter Zeba. Told from the point of view of Zeba's younger sibling Saleha, the novel explores how negotiating ancient marriage traditions in the 21st century could stretch a family to the end of its tether.

Haider spoke with Reuters about her book, Pakistani culture and writing.

How much of "How It Happened" is inspired by real life?

Well, some of it was inspired by what I saw around me. I grew up listening to stories of my mother's home town in India and so the fictional town of "Bhakuraj" was born as this vital, bizarre place full of eccentric people. My grandparents died before I was born and I yearned to have a grandmother to be the kind of force that Dadi in "How It Happened" was to Saleha, so I think the yearning gave birth to the narrator and the grandmother, who are my two favourite characters in the novel. Soon after, the Bandians were born and they are quite unlike my actual family. After that, the story took shape and the rest is what is in the pages before you.

Tell us a bit about your research for the novel.

No research, what you read is what popped up in my head. I was always very interested in what men and women went through in the process of arranged marriages and had been at the listening end of many a rant by an irate person of eligible age and status. I also had a few suitors grace my drawing room with their presence and I witnessed their discomfort with considerable amusement. And then, one day my friend called me and told me that a prospective mum-in-law had told her that she was interested in my friend because she was an American citizen (her son wanted a passport-holder) I thought, what a perfect subject-matter for satire. So off I went to write and out came "How It Happened".

Did your family know that you were writing the novel?

It was a secret. I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to finish it, or that it wouldn't be good enough. One of my closest friends, Sameer Khan, was my only reader and critic - he was a med student but he still read each chapter I wrote and gave detailed feedback. The book wouldn't have been written without his constant encouragement.

Sectarian violence is threatening Pakistan's stability at the moment. The Shia-Sunni rivalry is also a dominant thread in the novel. Do you see things changing any time soon?

Oh things are changing, of course, but it's different for different families. Never make the mistake that what is happening on the political scene is a representative of what the ordinary citizen thinks or wants – people desire unity, peace and stability, not violence and bloodshed. In my family specifically, the Shia-Sunni thing isn't such a big deal any more – many Zebas have come before us. But I know that some other families would like to stick together with the same religious flock.

Through this novel, what is it that you wanted to say about marriages and cultural backgrounds in Pakistan? Was a humorous novel your first choice?

I didn't want to write a didactic novel and I hope I haven't. Humour was the natural choice because it's such a bizarre arrangement, getting strangers to meet in contrived settings and expecting them to like each other. Even animals have difficulty with breeding in captivity! I hope people will read the book and have a good laugh. Because to survive this system with grace, a good sense of humour is vital.

Which is your favourite compliment yet for "How It Happened"?

I was very happy to learn that my male readers were enjoying it as much as my female readers. The cover seems to imply that women are the primary audience for this novel, but don't men suffer the rigours of the arranged marriage? One of them tweeted to me and said that he had loved it and that I rocked. And I think he rocked for saying that."

What next after "How It Happened"? Is there scope for a sequel or a novel about education in Pakistan?

I am half-way through my second novel but I realize that I'm going to have to change the tone of the story completely which involves a complete re-write. It has nothing to do with "How It Happened". There is certainly scope for a sequel, though I'm not sure I want to visit the world of the Bandians any further. I've lived with them intimately and enjoyed my time with them. It's time for them to go their way and for me to go mine.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Submit as much as you write. Don't reject your own work when there are a thousand other people, agents and publishing houses to do that for you. And don't think your words are sacred - they are not - be open to changing tone or voice or anything such to serve the cause of your story telling. Don't show your work to everyone because everyone will have a different idea of what constitutes good writing. Find that one person whose opinion you trust and show your work to them.

Comments (24) Closed

Md Imran Mar 14, 2013 01:18pm

I see more and more writers taking up subjects that are culturally sensitive matters. Why make fun of arranged marriages ? From the time of Rasool (PBUH) arranged marriages has been a part of our religion. When you mock a cultural practice, you are also mocking a religion.

Kalyan Mar 14, 2013 08:28pm
I too had an arranged marriage and it has been a happy one. I think that describing it as "animals breeding in captivity" is a bit extreme. Do you then describe love marriage as "breeding of wild animals?". I have nothing against those who do not choose to have arranged marriages but I think we need to stop mocking the system. I am grateful to have a family support system before and after marriage.
A Pakistani Mar 14, 2013 08:48pm
"When you mock a cultural practice, you are also mocking a religion" This cultural practice ( arranged marriages) is not exclusive to the Islamic religion. Arranged marriages also exist in other religions e.g Hinduism. Please don't make this about religion .
Aamir Mar 14, 2013 08:58pm
No they are not mocking religion when religion allows choice and culture prohibits.
Thoughtful Mar 14, 2013 10:46pm
Arranged marriages are cruel and part of an extremely backward culture.
TM Mar 15, 2013 12:12am
Its a shame the write used the analogy of animal breeding. What does it has to do with arranged meetings? It can never be called arranged marriage as its just arranged meeting for two to know more about each other. Writer simply is seeking some public attention and a little $.
Agha Asad Raza Mar 15, 2013 02:21am
Tarbooz Mar 15, 2013 04:10am
Md Imran, 1. Religion and culture are two different things. 2. Our religion gives us the clear right to choose our own life partners. Please go and read the Quran. 3. Arranged marriages are part of subcontinent culture, please don't bring religion into it.
Dad Mar 15, 2013 05:39am
What wrong with arranges marriages nothing ZERO I have been married which my parents arranged even though I was given choice but I respected my parents choice and have been married for more than 30 years no regrets. My son married by his choice and the marriage lasted less than 6 months. Our elders want the best for us.
Raj Mar 15, 2013 05:55am
Same examples you will find in arrange marriages less than 6 months.
Babar Mar 15, 2013 06:20am
It depends over mindset and approach how a person can deal with.
haris Mar 15, 2013 08:01am
Rashid Ahmad Mar 15, 2013 08:19am
I am glad to see that the girls are beginning to write and publish. Continue please; it is a great gift.
AD Mar 15, 2013 09:31am
"No research, what you read is what popped up in my head". *stops reading*
imaad Mar 15, 2013 09:34am
you saying that arrange marriage is like
Asma Ahmad Mar 15, 2013 11:33am
ok i've read alot of harsh and strange comment here and let me just say that as an aspiring writer (INSHALLAH), the words and thoughts of a writer are usually not understood by anyone else except for that one single person alone...clearly her indication of arranged marriages being like "animals breeding in captivity" does not mean it literally...please people, learn to read more than just words! It's just a form of humour and doesn't mean what it literally says! Ms. Haider, your words of advice are truely encouraging and aspiring. Thank you! Definately putting this book on my list of 'must-have's!
Tarbooz Mar 15, 2013 02:50pm
Many times, in arranged marriages, the couple has no choice! Even if they don't like each other, even if they can't get along with each other, they HAVE to stick together and live it out. Why? Because if they gave up their right to choose for themselves, they will NEVER now go on to "hurt" and "cause commotion" in the involved extended families. Just because you can quote examples that arranged marriage works bla bla bla doesn't mean its right. It may work for some people, and people are entitled to believe in what they want. But this should NOT be forced upon everyone.
TZ Mar 15, 2013 04:35pm
i have a happy Totally arranged marriage and me and my wife were asked about the respective proposal and the parents did the back ground checks and 4 years 2 lovely kids and Totally Happily married and Yes she is the person i am in love after my marriage to Her.
Aiza Mar 15, 2013 06:06pm
Yes, but it would be more refreshing if they write about other topics than the usual calculating cliches taken from "behind the veil" type of things, that might be lucrative in the West, but far from enriching!
Happy Mar 15, 2013 07:38pm
Happy and success in marriage - there is not hard and fast rules for marriage - I married my sweet heart 42 years ago, she is the best companion one can ask for. My daughter and son both married their love of life - they are also very happy. Personally I would prefer and recommend personal choices. In arrange marriage, it is parents choice - but they are not the one marrying. My personal view very few arrange marriages are successful - mean they ever fall in love - most of them just live for the sake of parents, culture and lastly for the sake of children, there is no companionship, partnership - it is just living. Which is fine for some folks.
Cyrus Howell Mar 15, 2013 09:09pm
The usual solution is to marry a cousin. There is a lot of distrust on the man's part in arranged marriage without the right response from the woman. He senses something is wrong. A cousin is already part of the family and can adjust more easily and is accepted more easily. Marriage can be difficult enough without making mistakes or making acceptance more difficult. It is not simply a matter of obedience. That is a very narrow view point.
Cyrus Howell Mar 15, 2013 09:26pm
The most important feature of being a parent is to keep our children from making mistakes. It is not always possible. Sometimes when parents stand in the way of two young romantics they are never forgiven in the child's life time. Nothing might be said, but the hurt can still remain. Young people have to experiment and test the water or they never will leave home. "I left home to light the world on fire, but I had to keep going back home for more matches."
khanm Mar 16, 2013 06:20am
Absolutely right the culture had noting to do with religion. In our society the culture is more holy than holy it self... God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
anjum Mar 16, 2013 08:09am
so you are trying to draw another extreme, why not arrange with some sort of understanding. I know being modern tend to take us to more of choice lover. I force myslef to stick to be more of love arrange, love cannot develop unless you spend some time under one roof. faily should be given priority to choose when they are competent to do so otherwise one has to dtermine if he or she can take this decision on its own.