A Pakistani perspective on Jane Austen
Author Laaleen Sukhera has curated a collection of short stories to prove the English writer is still relevant
GREAT authors are not those who continue to resonate far beyond their own time and space, but those who provide a special kinship, a solace in times of personal upheavals.
As Jane Austen proved for this Pakistani author, who grew up with her, made her works the focus of her studies and found in them a haven from life’s turbulence – though sometimes resenting their endings.
While Laaleen Sukhera repaid her debt with Austenistan, her curated anthology of six Pakistani (including her) and one Sri Lankan writers’ takes on Austen’s iconic works, mostly Pride and Prejudice, she also believes that the celebrated novelist remains a relevant model for today’s society through both her work and her life.
In a free-wheeling interview over social media on various aspects of Austen, Sukhera says she grew up identifying with a wide gamut of her characters – Lizzie Bennet of Pride and Prejudice for her “joy in the ridiculous”, Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey for “naiveté”, Marianne Dashwood’s (Sense and Sensibility) “romanticism” – and based her screen studies thesis at Clark University, Massachuesetts, in the US, on the author.
But what cemented the bond was more personal. “My relationship with Austen took a more intense turn in the last decade when my personal life – my marriage – became a living nightmare. At times, I sought refuge in Austen’s world where I knew all would turn out for the best, turning to Jane as one would to an old, trusted friend. At other times, I couldn’t bear to read about her characters’ happy endings when I’d been denied one,” she says.
It was then the Lahore-based Sukhera founded The Jane Austen Society of Pakistan to create a “wonderfully eccentric little world to escape to with like-minded friends”. Austenistan was the outcome.
“Curating, writing and editing Austenistan was the one thing that kept me going through one of the most harrowing ordeals of my life. The book was published (Bloomsbury India) when I was fighting for custody of my young daughters.”
While the work was “challenging”, especially in keeping “stories short enough for a commercial fiction format” by “ruthlessly guillotining so many intriguing scenes and gripping details”, the “most heartbreaking” was that all stories received couldn’t be published. But Sukhera also notes that “relating Austen to Pakistan doesn’t require much imagination”.
Of the stories written by a mix of journalists, a lawyer, an economist and even a scientist, Mahlia S Lone’s The Fabulous Banker Boys, Saniyya Gauhar’s The Mughal Empire, Sonya Rehman’s Only the Deepest Love, Gayathri Warnasuriya’s The Autumn Ball – which even works in a ball scene – and Sukhera’s On the Verge – which transports the action to an English manor – are all inspired by Pride and Prejudice. However, Mishayl Naek’s Emaan Ever After is based on Emma and Nida Elley’s Begum Saira Returns on Lady Susan.
Romance and (suitable) marriages apart, Sukhera, citing her own case, says Austen still remains relevant, for the situation she described nearly two centuries ago hasn’t changed much.
“Appearance is still everything, reputation is integral to making a good match, old money trumps new money, and life still revolves around marriages and weddings. Marital strife is meant to be stifled and couples’ PDA on social media is the Pr-savvy route to preserving the enviable veneer of the marriage ‘brand’,” she says.
With racism, misogyny and social inequalities, the norm then, and still around, Sukhera hopes her effort also replicates Austen, who was very sympathetic to women’s plight.
And then she notes, Austen “chose to remain single rather than marry for convenience, and helped support her family with her novels. I find that in our part of the world, women who lack financial emancipation will forever be at the mercy of their husbands and families, something that our Regency-era contemporaries can heartily agree with”.
Her effort is also aimed at fixing Pakistan’s perceived image.
“Along the way, people have forgotten that we have a sense of humour here, have a strong sense of hospitality, and a fascinating heritage.
“I hope Austenistan and my future work dispels some of the outdated and one-dimensional stereotypes…
“In Pakistan, there’s a misconception that many people don’t like to read. Well, if that’s the case, why did our book get pirated here in its first month? That’s alarming as well as flattering!”
My relationship with Austen took a more intense turn in the last decade when my personal life – my marriage – became a living nightmare.
| This book is available online from Loot