Rafina is the story of a young girl who starts her career as a waxing assistant in a salon but becomes a star in the fashion industry, traversing in the process a murky world of class, politics, sex and infidelity. Inspired (or corrupted) by a billboard carrying the image of a beautiful model just outside her house, she dares to dream and push through the cleavages of society and money. She is initially denied upward social and economic mobility because of her background but is then allowed the same on the basis of her beauty.
Shandana’s prose leaves little room for Rafina to brood over her plight or wallow in her emotional travails. She whizzes through incident after incident, all the while moving to her ultimate goal — to be on an advertising billboard, one that screams of success. But her journey kick-starts conversations surrounding morality, beauty and commercialism.
Her ascent is littered with battles that women of all socio-economic backgrounds have to wage everyday – ones involving identity, sexuality, financial independence and femininity – and she seeks to take control of each battle. But there is one question that looms above all of them: can a woman ever do that?
While reading about Rafina’s journey, one may continue to wonder whether she will achieve what she is seeking. Although she sometimes overcomes adversities by employing not-so-savoury tactics, the readers may still find themselves rooting for her, wishing her the best and hoping that she makes it to the top of the fashion world.
Yet they could be left confused at the end. Does she really achieve success? If she does not, has there been any point to her struggle or has there been any method to the madness of her world? In short, has her fight been worth all her troubles?
All of this points to the Pandora’s Box that being a woman in Pakistan is. “A woman has to look like a woman and feel like a woman,” Shandana proclaims in what is perhaps one of the most important lines in the book. This is a heavily loaded statement given the state of gender politics in today’s world.
To consider that Shandana wrote Rafina 14 years ago (though it has been published only this year) is indicative of how perceptive she is as a writer on women-related issues that have remained unresolved in Pakistan over all this time. She writes about these issues without dwelling or mulling over them in a didactic or pedantic way and, instead, infuses her novel with an underlying rage that one feels as her protagonist grits her teeth through her gruelling trials. Even the moments of great despair – when, for instance, Rafina puts on a designer outfit only for it to be removed coldly off her – are narrated in a crisp and detached manner. These give the narrative the feel of a paper-cut: wounds that are not visible but are still painful.
South Asian fiction written in English can be criticised for overflowing with clichés in terms of plot and characters. Shandana has managed to avoid this by being stingy with words. She displays stunning writing skills as she drops the occasional gold nugget that delightfully captures some peculiarly Pakistani traits. Things such as butter knives and denim, for example, are shown by the author as being used in ways that would shock the inventors of both. She also charmingly describes how an older female character in the novel, Rosie Aunty, measures time by the cups of chai she consumes and the parathas she eats.
It is also often difficult to translate Pakistani colloquialisms into English and convey their accurate pronunciations without offering cumbersome details but Shandana shines in this respect too. She picks up on the Pakistani elite’s postcolonial infatuation with speaking in English and delights readers by offering a local rendition of, for instance, ‘bureaucrat’ as ‘boorocrat’ and of ‘club’ as ‘kilub’. Just as there is Hinglish, a mixture of Hindi with English, in India, she shows how we have our own version of such a fusion: Pinglish.
Shandana uses some other means, too, to locate her narrative firmly in a Pakistani milieu. References to style icons like fashion model Iraj and Karachi’s streets infuse the story with a distinctly local flavour. These give the reader a real-life feel of who and what constitutes Rafina’s gritty environment.
This realistic mode of writing is also evident in Rafina’s character that, at times, comes across as emotionally underdeveloped. The writer seems to stress on her protagonist’s young age and her limited experiences of the world. This explains why Rafina is shown as being unable to forget about her mother and brother even at the pinnacle of her success.
Most other characters in the novel come across as stereotypes — behaving as they do because they belong to a certain social, cultural and economic group. Occasionally, however, one comes across a skilfully delineated nuanced character. Just to cite one instance, Shandana’s prose sparkles with originality when she describes the owner of the salon where Rafina works.
Yet the novel leaves the reader with a persistent feeling that Rafina’s character is a means through which Shandana is expressing her own opinions and thoughts about other characters. This harks back to her first novel, Tunnel Vision, which is also about a woman. While the protagonist’s interactions with other characters in Tunnel Vision reveal who she is and how she feels about them, the readers do not escape the feeling that there is hardly any distinction between her views and those of the writer.
The two books may have been published at different times but they explore depressingly similar themes which reflect an uncomfortable truth — not much has changed for the average woman in Pakistan. Same is true for the country’s elite who are seemingly caught in a predictable cycle of drugs, sex and obsession with beauty in the name of modernity, often confusing their lifestyle with liberalism. At the end of the novel, one is left wondering if this is the type of life that Rafina expected or wanted for herself and whether leading such a life could be a sign of success.
Written deceptively in simple prose, Rafina offers weighty insights into what it means to be a woman in a man’s world. Although a woman has to look like a woman and feel like a woman in this world, very little space is actually given for a woman to be a woman — as the protagonist is shown to have discovered.
The writer has been a columnist for The Daily Mail. She has worked as features editor at The Friday Times and assistant editor at Good Times.
This article was published in the Herald's September 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.