In review - Review essay

Evolution of female characters in Pakistani English fiction

Published Jun 24, 2017 06:20am

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Mohammed Hanif | Stephen Andrews, White Star
Mohammed Hanif | Stephen Andrews, White Star

The question of women’s position in society has figured in Pakistani English fiction since independence in 1947. It is reflected in the works of early writers such as Zaibunissa Hamidullah, Bapsi Sidhwa, Sara Suleri and Zulfikar Ghose. In recent times, writers such as Talat Abbasi, Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie and Uzma Aslam Khan have also directly and indirectly tackled the same question in their fiction.

Female characters in the works of these writers often highlight the various values, customs and traditions that shape a woman’s life in our society. An assessment of changes in the portrayal of these characters over decades, however, requires their evaluation in the context of what several literary and gender theorists call a feminine consciousness — that is, their reaction and response to their familial, social, political and economic contexts, among other things.

Women in early Pakistani English fiction were shown either as cogs in the wheels of the patriarchal system or as targets of various forms of patriarchal oppression.

As with 19th century British and American fiction represented by the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin and George Eliot, Pakistani fiction writers in the second half of the 20th century drew upon moments of suppression — when female characters/protagonists questioned the nature of patriarchal customs and traditions surrounding them but were not allowed to get away with their questioning.

Such characters, like the ones Zaibunnisa depicted in her short stories, The Young Wife and Other Stories (published in 1958), either had to die or obey their oppressors.

We can argue that a feminine consciousness is not entirely absent in them even when it gets suppressed. By showing them within the context of their restrictions and dilemmas, the writers seem to suggest that in their suppression exist traces of a nascent resistance.

The Sweetness of Tears is a gripping narrative attempt to understand and navigate through multiple religious and national identities that exist simultaneously within individuals living in exile.

In contrast, Talat’s short stories, Bitter Gourd & Other Stories (published in 2001), portray mostly working-class women who not only question social norms and their position within the domestic and the public spheres, but also break out of patriarchal suppression in their own unique ways. The resistance that was nipped several decades ago has now become a visible and active rebellion.

Feminine consciousness, thus, has been a recurring theme in Pakistani English fiction, though its treatment has differed in different eras. Its exploration is also not restricted to women writing about women, as is traditionally thought, but extends into the writings of some of the celebrated male novelists like Hanif and Hamid.

In their respective novels, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti and Moth Smoke, one finds women not as exploited minorities or as passive subjects but as the very embodiment of spiritual and political change, which results from a unique feminine consciousness.

This essay traces the presence and portrayal of that very change in a select number of Pakistani novels. Since studying the subject in the whole gamut of Pakistani fiction in English is too vast an undertaking to fit into the limited space below, the essay restricts itself to looking into only some of the 21st century novels whose writers and female characters are not necessarily feminists but they do have a consciousness that is uniquely feminine.

Two recent novels, Nafisa Haji’s The Sweetness of Tears (published in 2011) and Sophia Khan’s Yasmeen (published in 2015), probe the feminine consciousness of their protagonists by putting them face-to-face with their moral and social circumstances as well as with the need for human bonding and interdependence.

The transnational journeys that their female characters undertake are aimed at healing the wounds inflicted by toxic masculinity and violent politics — both at the personal and collective levels.

This healing reflects an aspect of feminine consciousness that, according to a Romanian professor of gender studies, Camelia Borca, seems to have the capacity to “develop its own traditions, values and compensations” even when the “values and strengths” of women as “a politically suppressed group” may remain unacknowledged.

The negation of this unacknowledged cultural, political and psychological energy possessed by women is deemed by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung and many other theorists as one of the core reasons for our individual and collective wounds.

In the poignant portrayal of Jo’s and Deena’s characters, Nafisa depicts women straddling the contrasts between their inner and outer worlds.

The two novels significantly depart from most other works of Pakistani fiction in terms of their locale. While most other writers depict their characters within a Pakistani context, Nafisa and Sophia delve into a feminine consciousness that emanates from a search for identity by protagonists born and raised abroad. The offspring of expatriate Pakistanis living in the United States, young female characters in these books embark on missions to find their roots through gruelling emotional journeys across borders.

The Sweetness of Tears is a gripping narrative attempt to understand and navigate through multiple religious and national identities that exist simultaneously within individuals living in exile. Nafisa weaves a story of faith colliding with the lived experiences of her protagonists and she tells it with a keen sense of style, adorned with a prose that makes myriad references to the Psalms, Christian hymns and Urdu poetry.

One of her central characters is Jo March — a young American woman who has studied Urdu as a foreign language at university. Raised as an Evangelical Christian, she is fired by a missionary zeal to transform the world.

The other main character is Deena. Living with her Sunni husband in California where she teaches Islamic studies at a university, she was born in a Shia family that had migrated from India to Pakistan after Partition.

Jo believes she is following her calling when she starts working as a translator for American security agents interrogating terrorists in custody at various detention centres around the world. Her faith in her cause is shaken by the violence that underpins the very nature of her work, as well as by her nagging doubts that some of the prisoners she helped interrogate might have been innocent.

She finds herself straddling different worlds where boundaries between the victim and the victimizer get blurred. She quits her job after two years and takes up work with an organisation that is seeking to protect the legal rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Jo is simultaneously exposed to the unsettling truths of her personal life. She discovers that she is the daughter of one Sadiq, a Pakistani who was once in love with her American mother, Angelica. When Jo meets Sadiq, he tells her the story of his life but it makes little impact on her. Only when she meets Sadiq’s mother, Deena, does she realise the pain and suffering of her paternal family.

Deena was tricked into marrying Sadiq’s father who later committed suicide, leaving his young wife to endure Deena was tricked into marrying Sadiq’s father who later committed suicide, leaving his young wife to endure abuse at the hands of her in-laws in Karachi.

Nafisa Haji | Photo via Twitter
Nafisa Haji | Photo via Twitter

Nafisa uses the narrative technique of a story within a story to tell the readers about Deena’s family, her troubled relationship with her influential in-laws and of her love for her childhood neighbour, Umer. Her liberation comes at a heavy price: her son is taken away by her in-laws and she has to migrate to America to forge a new life along with Umer.

In the poignant portrayal of Jo’s and Deena’s characters, Nafisa depicts women straddling the contrasts between their inner and outer worlds. This exposes them to various forms of exclusion — that is, divides created by sectarian identities, power relations and social hierarchies as well as violent conflicts.

Along with the feminine consciousness that Nafisa so beautifully depicts, she also very sensitively brings forth the subject of ‘exiles from the feminine’ (as in the case of Sadiq). In the postscript to the book, she explains why such an exile is important to explore:

“The conversation with my brother made me sad. It made me feel guilty about my access to a treasure of collective memories and sense of self that he and my male cousins were denied. It gave me a perspective of the balance of power between male and female that is far more complex than the one that typically defines women as victims. I saw, for the first time that gender imbalance can be as painful for men as it is oppressive to women … [When] male and female are out of balance in any context, personal or public, everyone suffers. This was something … that I tried to explore in the character and story of Sadiq, who is traumatically severed from his mother and her world of song and stories — left adrift, alone, out of balance and dangerous to anyone in his path. In the same way he is cut off from the existence of his daughter, his biologically feminine legacy to the world. Sadiq is a man twice exiled from the feminine.”

Nafisa’s depiction of the pain and repercussions of being exiled from the feminine confirms Jung’s assertion that our personal and collective wounds have their origin in the absence of the feminine consciousness.

Yasmeen, on the other hand, concerns itself solely to the idea of feminine consciousness. Brilliant and courageous for a debut novel, it tells an intricate tale of a daughter’s quest for her absent mother.

Beautiful and charming, Yasmeen suddenly disappears, leaving behind her heartbroken husband, James, and their emotionally troubled daughter, Irenie, who becomes obsessed with her mother’s absence. All her efforts in maintaining the illusion that Yasmeen is still present in the house do not help her relationship with her father who is a professor of the classics at an American university. Their interaction is marked by silence and monosyllables and barely involves any conversation.

Irenie then finds letters Yasmeen wrote to one Ahmed — who she was in love with in Pakistan before marrying James and leaving for the United States. Forced to unpack the enigma of her mother’s life, the young girl leaves her home in Crawford to live with Yasmeen’s family in Islamabad where she meets Ahmed’s son, Firdaus.

He used to deliver Yasmeen’s letters to his father, away from his own mother’s jealous eyes. After his father’s death, he sent those letters to James. Firdaus also reveals the riddle of Yasmeen’s disappearance: she died in an accident along with Ahmed.

Yasmeen had rushed back to Pakistan from the United States to meet Ahmed in a hospital in Islamabad where he was lying terminally ill. The meeting miraculously brought him back to life and Yasmeen drove him out of the hospital in a car before they met a fatal accident on the road. Irenie’s discovery of her mother’s secret life constitutes an intimate family drama, complete with its obsession with family ties, especially the mother-daughter relationship, in a cross-cultural context.

The story is told through a feminine point of view. Irenie’s quest for truth and closure glows with an archetypal intensity that takes one into the depths of a daughter’s longing for her mother. It also offers readers a feminine understanding of a woman’s love for a man she cannot marry — a passion that she carries into a future life with another man. Whether that is a precursor to another forbidden relationship – between Irenie and Firdaus – is a possibility the book hints at, again, from a feminine angle.

Mohammed Hanif’s second novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, not only taps into the religious and ethnic marginalisation of its protagonist, Alice Bhatti, but also attempts to understand her character in the framework of feminine marginalisation. The two frameworks of marginalisation together define the contours of her life as a female Christian nurse at Karachi’s Sacred Heart Hospital.

Alice is the daughter of a sweeper, Joseph Bhatti, who ensures that she receives a good education. But growing religious intolerance in Karachi and the predatory nature of her social surroundings are not her only, or at least the biggest, concern. Her greatest problem is her striking beauty and the consequent sexual harassment she faces from the doctors, patients and their relatives — among others.

The character of a Muslim weightlifter, Teddy Butt, plays a foil to all that Alice is: he has a masculine and imperceptive outlook in contrast to her compassion and humane consciousness. The two meet in a psychiatric ward where Alice is attacked by the patients and is ‘heroically’ rescued by Butt.

Soon afterwards they fall in love and get married. Through their marriage, Hanif portrays the conflict underlying gender relations and conjugal politics that bring out the best and the worst in the two characters: Teddy is unbearably possessive and starts doubting the fidelity of his beautiful wife. He acts in the typical masculine way of snubbing and controlling the other while deliberately not looking at the facts. In Hanif’s words:

The feminine consciousness is all but absent in most of Mohsin Hamid’s work.

“His heart sinks at the thought that from now on not only is he responsible for his own sleep, he is responsible for hers as well. He watches her face closely. She is back in some dream, smiling. He thinks that this married life is not fair. He is responsible for her sleep but has no control over her dreams.”

It is clear that he does not acknowledge honesty in Alice’s personality. In fact, he casts her existence in his own psychological modelling, which is unreliable and toxic: unknown to his wife, he has been leading a secret double life of a police informant and agent provocateur.

Hanif brings the riot-ridden, turbulent Karachi to life through Teddy’s character and juxtaposes his callous criminality to Alice’s courage and willingness to not give up on her humanity even in the most inhuman of times.

When victims of deadly shootings are brought to the Sacred Heart Hospital, she pays great attention to their care in spite of inadequate equipment at her disposal, her insensitive colleagues and her troubled personal life.

It, therefore, comes as no surprise when, in the novel’s most symbolic moment, she manages to save the life of a newborn baby left for dead. The child’s incredible recovery is attributed to her supernatural powers and people start to relate the whole incident to the Christian legend of Madonna and the child.

Towards the end of the novel, Alice is killed by her enraged and jealous husband but it is important to note that the story does not end in tragedy but with the symbolic rebirth of the rescued child and the consciousness of feminine legacy (shown through legends of female sainthood surrounding Alice’s death).

Critic and editor Muneeza Shamsie, in her remarkable new book Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English (published in 2017), has interpreted Hanif’s novel as a story of “hapless people overtaken by the events beyond their control”.

But Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is also about consciousness that only women come to possess after having gone through various forms of oppression and marginalisation as part of their everyday existence. As in Alice’s case, she not only protects and nurtures the underdog, but also refuses to become cynical and bitter in the toxic and predatory environment around her. She does not change anything but hangs on to what she has in order to heal the world around her.

She not just manages to avoid cynicism and embitterment caused by masculine authority, but also protests against it by engaging herself with the suffering human beings around her — an engagement that ultimately overshadows her husband’s murderous masculinity. Through the heroic life of an ordinary woman and its heart-wrenching portrayal, Hanif certainly has highlighted the need to acknowledge and imbibe the feminine consciousness in order for us to live peaceful lives.

The feminine consciousness is all but absent in most of Mohsin Hamid’s work. Female characters in three of his novels exist only at the periphery of his narrative world and are overshadowed by the stories of his male protagonists.

It is possible to argue that his subject matter does not demand an in-depth exploration of female characters, even though some of them, such as the pretty girl in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (published in 2013), have the potential to have allowed that exploration.

But Hamid’s engaging debut Moth Smoke (published in 2000) strikingly sheds light on the possibility of female agency through Mumtaz’s character. From the tiny glimpses of her character that he shows in the novel, we come to know that she is an educated woman who is not happy with her husband. She learns to deal with her unhappy married life by chronicling the lives of prostitutes and others on the social margins under a pen name, Zulfikar Manto.

Sophia Khan, author of the novel *Yasmeen* | Photo via Facebook
Sophia Khan, author of the novel Yasmeen | Photo via Facebook

Married to a rich businessman, Aurangzeb alias Ozi, and eventually smitten by his best friend Daru, Mumtaz exposes the subterranean stratum of Pakistani society where the rich, like her husband, can get away with murder but where the hapless, like Daru, are left to account for the sins of the high and the mighty. This is how Muneeza writes about Mumtaz’s character in Hybrid Tapestries:

“… Mumtaz also has a secret identity: she is the fearless and famous journalist, Zulfikar Manto. Through her pseudonym, Hamid provides an intertextual engagement with Saadat Hasan Manto but [attempts] to subvert gender roles and patriarchal literary narratives of Urdu literature in which men, not women, are considered bold chroniclers of the unfortunate — prisoners, prostitutes, drug addicts ….”

Muneeza then quotes from Moth Smoke to add to her argument regarding the subversion of gender roles:

“I wrote about things people didn’t want seen, and my writing was noticed. Zulfikar Manto received death threats and awards … I was finding myself again and I was being honest about things I cared for passionately … Childbirth had hurt me inside, and I was finally starting to heal.”

Mumtaz’s character is very convincing in its portrayal of women’s lives in the wealthy-class setting. She feels betrayed by the revelation of Ozi’s dual nature which is different from what she experienced during their time together in New York, away from their traditionally feudal family structure and its customary misogyny.

She feels stifled and confined in her role of a socialite housewife and suffers from severe guilt for not actualising her creative potential that is being squandered away under the pretence of her family engagements and motherhood.

It can be argued that Mumtaz has a unique feminine consciousness rather than a feminist approach to her life. She utilises that consciousness while exploring the underworld and the lives of the people living at the margin of the society. She also employs it in exposing the double standards of her husband and his family. When she finally leaves Ozi, it is obvious that she is also leaving a whole system of emotional and mental oppression that women experience under a patriarchal system.

Bina Shah in her novel A Season of Martyrs (published in 2014) and Sabyn Javeri in her novel Nobody Killed Her (published in 2017) have also explored feminine consciousness, though more in its political manifestations than in the familial and social ones.

They have tried to underscore the need for creating historical fiction by fictionalising, and hence recreating, prominent female politicians. This attempt has helped the two writers to highlight women’s contribution and their approach to the world of politics and social change.

But whether within a political context or in the personal sphere, all the female characters discussed above shatter the preconceived notions of tradition and familial ties while at the same time offering new possibilities of love and companionship. They bring to the fore new social and personal understandings that help forge new bonds and relationships.

Their feminine consciousness propels their curiosity and pushes them away from the rut of their everyday existence into journeys of self-discovery. They surmount various forms of entrapment and terror in that process, opening up possibilities that exist beyond the fixed ideals of feminism and the ideas of freedom borrowed therefrom.

These characters find the truth about their identity, not to renounce it but to reclaim it with a renewed understanding of who they are, as well as of the joys and tragedies that have shaped them. Whether conceived by male writers or by female ones, they contribute to a more grounded understanding of the feminine existence in not only its social, political and personal manifestations, but also in emotional and intellectual ones.

It is likely that literary explorations into these characters will one day lead to an even bigger probe into emotional landscapes that usually go unnoticed. In turn, this probe may result in a more inclusive creative consciousness that allows writers and readers to embrace the world of the other — beyond merely the feminine or the masculine.


This was originally published in the Herald's June 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is a former junior fellow of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.