Austenistan is a collection of short stories that recasts Jane Austen's stories in contemporary Pakistan. Austen's stories resonate strongly in the subcontinent, owing largely to its fixation with similar family systems and marriage.
The stories are aptly remodelled to convey Pakistani sensibilities and, to make matters easier, each story starts with a quote from a Jane Austen novel to give us a sense of what to expect and to avoid confusion.
Confusion, however, still abounds about what purpose these stories serve and how exactly are they imbued with Austen’s trademark wit.
While this geographical repositioning came with a lot of potential, it goes untapped because the stories fail to develop into anything substantial. Most of the stories are based on Austen's most popular book, Pride and Prejudice. Set in palatial locations in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, and most involving an extravagant wedding, these are stories of romance, family and marriage.
This collection is written by members of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan (Jasp), comprised of a bunch of highly-educated women and journalists. One of my biggest gripes is that for all their credentials, these privileged women who are capable of really making a difference in transforming Pakistan into a more progressive society, are instead indulging in misplaced nostalgia about the Regency era.
They dress up in Regency-era outfits and host fancy tea parties where they discuss Austen’s work,observing the etiquettes and even the dances of the author’s 18th-century world. According to Sukhera, the editor of this collection, Regency England is a lot like today’s Pakistan. While this is true as far as social stratification and family values go,it’s not something to deliberately work towards.
Jasp is emblematic of the self-indulgent elite class of Pakistan who live in a bubble of privilege and are completely disconnected from the lifestyle of the average Pakistani.
The book has a stumbling start with the first story, The Fabulous Banker Boys, which not so much takes inspiration from the basic premise of Pride and Prejudice as replicates it.
Jameela Baig, (Mrs Bennet of Pride and Prejudice), is devoid of the flustered demeanor of the original character which provided comic relief. She nags her husband into getting them a coveted invitation to one of the biggest weddings of the season where she will hunt for potential son-in-laws.
One thing evident in this collection is that expat Pakistanis are the Holy Grail of eligible bachelors. The writing is gauche and when it is not rehashing Austen’s dialogues, the prose is crammed with slang phrases which is a lazy attempt to make the story seem contemporary. This whole story is riddled with glaring banalities and brings nothing new to the table.
Thankfully, the quality of writing gets better from there on. Begum Saira Returns is based upon Austen's epistolary novel Lady Susan. Known as a charming coquette, Lady Susan is known to wreak havoc on other people's relationships. Austen's novel begins with the recently widowed Lady Susan making her entrance at her brother-in-law's estate of Churchill while scandalous rumours circulate about her.
Here, Begum Saira is making a glamorous entrance at a high-profile wedding after the recent demise of her husband, Iqbal. She is acutely aware of the jarring difference in her reception since her husband’s death,with many society friends having collectively shunned her.
Over the years, she has garnered a reputation for being too flirtatious and candid, which has rubbed the wives of most of Iqbal’s colleagues the wrong way. In this story, the character of Begum Saira is more appealing and less scheming than Lady Susan. She knows the vile
rumours being spread about her but relishes in the attention given to her. It’s a relatively topical story which considers the ways in which widowed women are treated in society.
Emman Ever After is one of the most cohesive stories in the collection and the only one set entirely in Karachi. Inspired by Emma, this is a story of a girl,who while in this case is not a matchmaker, is unsure about her life choices. Emman narrates her troubles as a woman in her early 30s in a cosmopolitan city who got a divorce after finding out that her husband "was more substance abuse than substance".
Crisp and witty, this story swiftly follows the plot of Emma and culminates with Emman realising that the knight in shining armour she has been waiting for is her longtime best friend Haroon.
To give credit where it is due, this collection does present an updated, much more realistic portrait of Pakistan, replete with dating, lavish weddings and parties. It is interesting to note how maybe intentionally or unconsciously, the stories seem to mirror the ethos of the cities they are set in.
The one set in Karachi features career-oriented cosmopolitan folks with a progressive outlook of life. Most of the stories set in Lahore are all about ostentation with a focus on the size of your house, the carats around your finger and a preoccupation with a person’s social class.
This directly reflects Lahore’s blinkered “small-city mindset” because of lack of diversity and obsession with pedigree. Karachi,on the other hand, like any true metropolitan city is a cultural melting pot so these issues are rarely of significance.
The Mughal Empire imagines Miss Bingley's life after being rejected by Darcy. This is an interesting premise but its potential is hampered by whole paragraphs dedicated to detailing every brand item a person is wearing, shifting the focus from the plot.
The Autumn Ball by Gayathri Warnasuriya is one of the most poignant stories in this collection which incisively observes a lacklustre marriage between two incompatible people. Not only does it hilariously point out Pakistani quirks like using "healthier" as a euphemism for overweight but also shares insights like "Nobody had told her that marriage would be so lonely."
What this collection aims to do is to shed light on Pakistan’s present-day issues which also plagued England during the Regency period and that Austen alluded to in her writing. However, only a handful of stories in the collection succeed in doing so. The rest are bogged down by writers’ insistence on focusing more on the plot rather than the essence of the stories.
One thing this book gets right is the way the characters, much like Austen’s, are oblivious to the turmoil happening in the rest of the country. What it misses is the opportunity to do an acerbic commentary on Pakistan’s culture and its social values.
Virginia Woolf said about Jane Austen, “...with less genius for writing than Charlotte Brontë, she got infinitely more said”. That is precisely where the enduring appeal in Austen’s work lies.
The English author's stories are not as meaty as one would like but her elegantly succinct phraseology and her unsparing wit has timeless charm. Austenistan, on the other hand, relies heavily on hackneyed phrases and cliché-ridden plots to drive it forward.
Jane Austen cannot be imitated sans mordant humour or subtle cultural critique.The problem with Austenistan is that it lacks flair, resulting in an insipid collection that really feels like unpolished anthology of fan fiction written during a literary club meeting.