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Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Story of a Widow -- review

The Story of a Widow, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Picador, 2009, pp 249, Rs 495

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged,’ writes Jane Austen in the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice, ‘that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ The same alas cannot be said of a woman of good fortune, especially if she is a widow and not a particularly old or singularly unattractive one at that. Traditional societies have always found it difficult to figure out ways of dealing with widows. While modern times may have seen a lessening of the old hostility and social discrimination, the position of a widow continues to be a tenuous one at best. She walks a daily tightrope between family honour and her own wishes, between playing a role that society expects of her and the one she might wish to play on her own, unscripted and unrehearsed. This tightrope becomes especially fraught if she is not too old and decrepit, that is, if the prospect of romance and a possible second marriage lurks somewhere in the background.

This possibility, faint and frowned upon though it is, becomes the subject of Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s slim but evocative novel. Its strength lies not in its daring to explore such a possibility. Others, after all, have written on widow remarriage, most notably Premchand. But Farooqi does so unencumbered by any moral compulsions or social obligations; he simply seizes upon this possibility and teases out a remarkably sensitive story from so slender a prospect. An Author’s Note, appended at the end of the book rather than the beginning, explains the genesis of the story, and the inspiration behind it. Farooqi writes:
The portrait that inspired this story hangs in a house in Toronto. My wife, Michelle, and I saw it when visiting an octogenarian gentleman and his third wife, whose first husband had been dead for many years; his portrait hung above her current husband’s rocking chair. She told us that when getting married she had made it clear that the portrait would stay and that her husband-to-be had happily consented. While he was telling us of his many adventures with women, the portrait surveyed the room with a magisterial air, and I wondered what kind of relationship existed between the two gentleman: one in the chair and the other in the frame.  My thoughts soon became the story of the widow and her new husband.

The Story of a Widow, the story that emerged from this serendipitous sighting of a portrait in a house in Toronto, becomes the story of Mona Ahmed, recently bereaved wife of the late Akbar Ahmad. Set in an affluent Karachi neighbourhood, it also becomes a chronicle of upper middle-class life in Pakistan. Painting on a small canvas with small, deft strokes, Farooqi has, not just told an engaging story but also produced a delightful cameo. The wonderfully kitschy poster-art sort of jacket illustration (by the very talented Moonis Ijlal) notwithstanding, the style of the writing is reminiscent of a miniaturist at work. Written in a somewhat pedantic style, The Story of a Widow is a novel of manners in the old-fashioned (one is tempted to say Austenesque) fashion. Sample this:
Mona’s daytime routine was hardly over when it was time for Akbar Ahmad to come home. Another set of routines would then start: bringing him a hot towel to wipe his face, making tea and pouring it for him after exactly three minutes of steeping, laying the dinner table, and placing three toothpicks and a small hand towel near his plate.

The minutiae of daily life are laid out with a rare exactitude, rare that is for much of South Asian writing in English given as it is to a tendency to perform verbal calisthenics. Those looking for astonishing feats of wordplay or clever storylines shall be sorely disappointed here. As also will be those who, given the usual fare on offer, have come to expect an insider’s view into a closed, exotic society when it comes to writings from Pakistan or by the Pakistani diaspora writers. There is nothing remotely exotic on offer here. Moreover, the emphasis on the ordinary and everyday is refreshing. As is the straight and simple storyline with none of the literary flourishes currently popular on the lit-fest circuit.

After 30 years of an emotionally barren marriage that has produced two daughters – both married and ‘well’ settled – Mona finds herself a widow and, with little time to recover her lost sense of identity, the recipient of a widower’s marriage proposal. The widower, an unsuitable sort who has just moved into her genteel neighbourhood, is an interloper in Mona’s well ordered life and she is at pains to articulate the complex emotions generated by his unexpected proposal. Mona’s sister, Hina, is scathing that a proposal at the ripe old age of 50, should even be considered: ‘Just because there is a proposal does not mean that you have to jump at it.’ Farooqi’s quiet prose takes us into Mona’s troubled mind as she struggles to understand why she must even take it seriously in the first place:
Her marriage with Akbar Ahmad had been an arranged one, with no surprises or unexpected twists. She could not deny that sedateness had its advantages. Even if an illusion, it gave her a sense of control over her destiny. She felt she had no control over how her relationship with Salamat Ali unfolded. Nothing in his demeanor resembled Akbar Ahmad and therefore the image of a husband and a life partner as she knew one. And yet, for the first time, she felt a mysterious and reckless awakening.

Mona, who has missed out on the pleasures of married life, agrees to Salamat Ali’s proposal partly because she wants to discover her self and her needs, but also because she realizes she has no obligation to take anyone’s approval or consent for something that concerns only her. Despite his impertinence, his bold smile, his atrocious taste in clothes, his hideously dyed hair, his brazenness that borders on the vulgar, Salamat Ali brings a breath of fresh air into Mona’s staid life and stirs an awakening in her body. Gentle but stubborn, Mona negotiates the near-unanimous disapproval from her entire family – her two daughters and their husbands and in-laws, her sister and her husband, her aunt and uncle. Of these various reactions, Farooqi’s depiction of the complex reactions of the two daughters is interesting. The older daughter, Tanya, is overtly hostile; the younger, Amber, is cautious, protective, concerned for her mother’s well being. Farooqi probes, gently and unobtrusively, the mixed reaction, especially among the daughters. Is it, he wonders, ‘the natural reaction of a child trying to protect the image of a parent in her mind?’

Repulsed by the traditional perception of a widow (as ‘someone who deserved society’s pity’), Mona decides to accept Salamat Ali’s proposal, albeit under certain conditions, namely, she would continue to live in her own house, maintain her financial independence and continue to have the portrait of her dead husband on the living room wall. Salamat Ali agrees to all her conditions with alacrity and moves in. That he turns out to be a bounder and the marriage ends in a rather expensive divorce is another matter. If anything, the divorce helps Mona to repossess herself and reclaim her life. Unwittingly, Salamat Ali helps Mona find the contentment that she has always sought, one that she thought she would find in the second marriage.

As one closes the book marveling at Mona’s transformation from a submissive hausfrau to an independent self-aware woman, one is struck by something altogether new. Is Mona’s Karachi the same Karachi of popular perception (popular, that is, for us in India) – a city torn apart by ethnic and linguistic strife held hostage by? With its rose scented gardens, its balmy air, its gardens abloom with peonies and lilies, where women drive and go for walks in neighbourhood parks, shop in malls, go to the cinema alone, order Chinese takeaways and drink jasmine tea in their well-ordered drinking rooms – all of it seems familiar and known.  As familiar to us in India as the other sights and  sounds of the city -- such as the water-logged streets, power breakdowns, clogged drains and, best of all, Chinese restaurants that offer continental dessert menus!

-- Rakhshanda Jalil

1 comment:

  1. Other reviews of THE STORY OF A WIDOW can be read here: