Review by Shyamala Parthasarathy
Ballantine Books, Penguin Random House, January 2019
336 pages, paperback, $27.00 CAD, 978-1-52479-971-7
New Adult, Contemporary Realism
Accessing Austen—a Review of Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal
“…English came with the colonizers, but its literature is part of our heritage too, as is pre-partition writing.”
I snort at these lines, appearing somewhere close to one-third of the way through Soniah Kamal’s Unmarraigeable, with its tagline of being a Pakistani Pride and Prejudice—which was what drew me to pick up the book in the first place. One of my earliest memories is sitting in a darkened film theater, watching Aishwarya Rai coo the soft sounds of Kandukondain Kandukondain, the Tamil adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, in her beautiful white ballgown. I remember being enthralled by the settings and the color and the desert dances in the dream-sequence music that is so typical of Indian cinema. I remember the laughter and the tears. And I remember, years later, picking up the original Jane Austen book and feeling completely let down, because Regency Romances were too white, too classist and too inaccessible for me, as a brown preteen, to fully enjoy.
Fast forward many, many years later, when as an English literature student, I found myself re-watching Bride and Prejudice, the NRI Gruinder Chadha-directed Pride-and-Prejudice adaptation, for an assignment in class. And as I took notes for the paper I was supposed to be doing on it, I couldn’t help but ponder the relationship the subcontinent has with classic English literature, and more specifically, the deep connection that many brown women—and PoC women in general—have with the heroines of Austen’s books.
It’s that same question that runs through my mind the entire time I flip the pages of Kamal’s re-imagination set in modern-day Pakistan—or as modern as the year 2000 can be considered in 2019 anyway. As with any adaptation, I tried—and failed quite spectacularly—to step away from the original and look at the book on its own merits. Because Kamal’s style is so deeply intertwined with Austen’s own, it’s quite impossible to do so. The book is like the legacy of English itself within the subcontinent—deeply entwined with the history of colonial violence—but then taken and adapted to be something more, something different; dare I say even better, to suit our needs.
Nowhere does the book do this better than its opening. Kamal begins by having her protagonist, thirty-year-old Alysba Binat—a modern-day high school teacher teaching in a school of the elite in sleepy, small town of Dilipabad—ask her teenage students how they would re-imagine the first, infamous line of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The girls, of course, being teenagers, take Austen’s “be in want of a wife” anywhere from “princess to pauper in the moment it takes her to accept a proposal” to “be alone than have fake friendships.” What struck me about this scene was the said universality—the pervasiveness of English and its hegemony over the world if I were to be reading it in Austen herself—felt transmuted. Subverted, even, when written by a Pakistani-American writer, with all its universality applying to women of color across the globe. And of course, it presents different aspects of femininity the same way Austen herself does with the five Bennet sisters. Only this time the womanhood—and by extension personhood—has been ascribed to brown bodies and brown femininity, and Muslim femininity at that.
The rest of the book stands true to this style. The major acts of Austen’s original work all repeat themselves: Alys (Lizzie Bennet) immediately dislikes the dashing Mr. Darsee (Mr. Darcy), her elder sister Jena (Jane) falls for Mr. Darsee’s friend and is then left behind, Darsee makes a shocking proposal and is subsequently rejected, he writes Alys a letter warning her of Wickaam’s (Wickham) wicked behavior, Bungles (Bingley) reunites with Jena, and Darsee convinces Wickham to marry Lady (Lydia), which leads to Alys and Darsee’s eventual love confession.
Just as Austen spends a lot of time setting up the social context, so too does Kamal—the romance doesn’t really pick up until the third act, with Darsee featured far less in the book than one would expect the dashing hero of a romance novel to be. Arguably a conscious choice Kamal makes, like Austen, is to present a story that examines the social constructs of khandan—family honor and lineage—ascribed onto female bodies. What does it mean to be an upper middle-class, English-speaking and English-teaching woman in Pakistan? What does it mean to have four sisters and a father whose reputation has been besmirched? What does it mean to have a love marriage or an arranged marriage and what do the social double-standards mean for women in each category?
Draconian, perhaps. Some stereotypes of cultures that have long been painted to as ‘backward’ and ‘sexist’ in Western media. But all of these are questions that most South-Asian youngsters—particularly women—can connect to. Kamal doesn’t shy away from what might be considered particularly problematic in the West, like having her girls marry young, even before graduating high school. But she also doesn’t turn them into cheap punchlines: the girls are fully realized humans struggling under the weight of a system that is as universal as it is specific. The pervasive nature of both sex and class, like in Austen, linger through the actions of each character—if Mrs. Binat pushes her daughters into marriage to the point of almost cruelty, she is also the first one to comfort and protect them the moment there is a hint of danger. She does what she has to do in order to survive and keep her family safe; in that, she—and her motherhood—is endlessly complex, just as Mrs. Bennet was.
Unmarriageable isn’t entirely heavy or socially oriented, however. Kamal offers some cheeky levity, such as the names of the characters—Jane becomes Jena, for instance, Bingley is Bungles, and Kitty is now Qitty with a Q—and the way they constantly quote Austen. Unmarriageable is a very self-aware book. It knows it’s an adaptation and doesn’t shy away from letting you know it knows. The performativity of the book works on two levels. First, the characters perform for one another, working through acceptable behaviors of the performance of class and sex and khandan. Second, on a meta-level, the characters and the book itself perform an adaptation, and constantly remind the reader that yes, this is a legacy that is being re-imagined. But as with all legacies, context matters—the fact that it is universal is because of its specificity. The performance of upper-middle-class Pakistani female identity lends itself to being twisted around for the plot—or perhaps it’s the other way around, with Austen’s work lending itself to being twisted around to the universality of female experience being socially stigmatized across the whole world.
To that extent, Unmarriageable is like any Austen adaptation—timeless and ageless, with something for every reader, but particularly the younger ones who are on the cusp of puberty and young adulthood. It doesn’t have the racy, fast overtones of a Young Adult Novel. And it is only New Adult in the way that adulthood in Pakistan or India comes only after marriage, because the main characters are well over thirty. But just as in Bollywood’s Aisha—the Emma adaptation with Sonam Kapoor that makes me laugh to this day—was marketed for a younger audience with all its levity and fun and joy, so too does Kamal’s Pakistani Pride and Prejudice appeal to a younger generation that is grappling with the realities of how financial stability, marriage and family honor stifle and/or enrich the performance of Pakistani female identity.
In the end, I’m not particularly interested or disinterested in Austen herself. Kamal, on the other hand, dropped in references that I—as a Tamil-speaking South-Indian from Chennai, not Pakistan—found myself squeeing over in recognition. Ten pages in and the mention of banyan trees was my first squee, and then there was Mrs. Binat’s overwhelming Aunty-mothering, the constant push-and-pull of khandan and family honor, and the repeated mention of Naseerudin Shah’s play being the backdrop of Alys and Darsee’s romance picking up. All of these things made Austen accessible to me. Classic in its literary style, simple in its storytelling, detail-oriented and specific in its ascription of femininity, Kamal’s Unmarriageable brings Austen to those who aren’t fans of older English literature but are hungry for a reimagined canon.
Shyamala Parthasarathy is an MA Literature graduate, currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. Hailing from Chennai, India, she is currently working on a young adult urban fantasy novel, and can be found in her natural habitat: the corner of a room, typing away on her laptop or angrily glaring at it.