"A 33-year-old bride: an oxymoron!" Scathing exclamations such as these, which are typical in Pakistani culture, appear throughout actress and author Mira Sethi's debut book Are you Enjoying?. However, the collection of short stories, published by Bloomsbury, which will be released next Thursday, delves into issues far deeper than mere marriageable ages – it is a sweeping critical reflection on South Asian society, set in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of life in contemporary Pakistan.
Sethi disrupts the allusion to conservative Pakistani life with different tales. There is a colourful cast of characters, including a naive actress who has a rude awakening when witnessing the sleazy world of showbiz, a news anchor grappling with the aftermath of his divorce and newfound obsession with his white, American neighbour, and a character addicted to Xanax having an affair with a former cricket star.
Sethi peels back the curtain of propriety to highlight hypocrisies and scandals not for the sole sake of exposing them, but to give a glimpse into the emotions and experiences that shape those lived experiences.
"One of the lovely things about fiction is that it can hold contradiction, it can hold complexity, it can hold ambivalence, and these are all really complicated subjects," Sethi tells The National. "There's no villain and there's no hero in these stories. A lot of them explore questions of identity: in a country where assertive self-expression is frowned upon, how do you be yourself? My characters are struggling with this question."
While the story centred on the young actress sheds light on some of the power dynamics at play on set, Sethi says her book is not autobiographical in any linear sort of way. "The sights and sounds and smells are what I'm familiar with," she says. "Like the relationship between a chai boy and actress, or how muggy the sky is in Pakistan."
Sethi, who is also a journalist and former assistant books editor, recently starred in Chupke Chupke, an Urdu television series that was broadcast throughout Ramadan.
“I’ve always loved performing for the camera – I’m a huge extrovert,” says Sethi.
"While I was at The Wall Street Journal, I realised that it was full of white conservatives and I really didn't fit in. Climbing the ladder of editorships there is not what I imagined for myself, so I decided to quit my job to move back to Pakistan in my mid-twenties and become an actor."
Sethi's writing is laced with sarcasm, and through thoughtful imagery, she describes the disparity between rich and poor with an experiential tone – like when one character leaves the comfort of her luxury estate for a visit to an impoverished village and replaces her "grapefruit-scented Hermes eau de parfum with the fevered sweetness of a mere Body Shop".
Sethi's personal ideologies – progressive and feminist – are subtly but successfully woven into her stories. "As writers we carry our politics within us, so my politics very seamlessly transferred on to the page," she explains.
But, to categorise this anthology as a young feminist's fictional revolt against tradition would oversimplify Sethi's work. She also includes an older-generation perspective in the character of ZB: a wife of a wealthy politician, now carving out a career for herself. "Her father had walked out of the labour room, subdued, upon hearing that his firstborn was a girl. The reaction was not unusual for a man of his time. And yet, the story had agitated ZB until it forged her," writes Sethi. "At 23, ZB had tripped into marriage; her late twenties had been a galling stumble into motherhood; her thirties and forties a season of erasure; her fifties quieter … as for her sixties, well, she hadn't anticipated they would be quite so independent."
Sethi says she “grew up around very strong matriarchs, so I know the type. My mother’s generation is [made up of] incredibly inspiring women who are movers and shakers in their communities, and I wanted to inhabit that consciousness.”
In other stories, men are the main characters – such as the college student in Lahore who is a budding fundamentalist, and degrades one of his female teachers because she doesn't cover her hair. The religious student group he is part of campaigns against jeans on female students in the name of "restoring modesty on campus", and they also voice their support of honour crimes against women – such as the one that takes place in a village near ZB's estate, involving a girl who is marched naked through the streets in a form of tribal "honour", punishment for her brother's transgressions.
Sethi crafts characters with layered complexities, wrapped up in a culture where religion often serves as an inherited facade. She writes of the religious elite who openly drink alcohol with American ambassadors, the director who mutters "mashallah" while inappropriately caressing the leg of an actress, and the man embroiled in an extramarital affair who frequently mentions god while cheating on his wife.
“The scattering of religious terminology is something I did very consciously,” says Sethi. “In this conservative Muslim landscape, people have secular hopes and dreams – and by secular I don’t mean irreligious, I just mean modern and aspirational.
In a country like Pakistan, we have three tiers of rules: the abstract laws of the state, the often-burdensome imperatives of family and then the young people who are navigating all of this, possibly with smartphones in their hands, improvising their own rules as they go along," says Sethi.
These often-contradictory layers of politics, patriarchy and personhood intersect to form the enthralling, and at times heart-rending, tensions within Sethi's stories.