September issue 2018

By | Bookmark | Published 6 years ago


Shandana Minhas

Rafina is the 17-year-old daughter of a recently deceased policeman. She lives in a two-roomed police quarter with her mother and younger brother at the intersection of a major thoroughfare in Karachi, next to a bridge which hosts a billboard featuring a beautiful girl hawking a mobile phone. A great part of Rafina’s day is spent at her window sill stargazing and dreaming of when it will be her on that same billboard. So much for teenage mooning.

Rafina, a novella, named after the main protagonist, was written in 2004, ‘rediscovered’ recently and published this year.  

The story is a familiar one, a pretty but poor girl with no prospects, but big dreams. Rafina’s reality is grim. A few months after her father’s death, her mother is informed that she will have to vacate the police quarters. The pension is meagre and the mother is forced to go to work in a factory. Something about Rafina evokes sympathy in her father’s boss, when she comes across him one day, and he grants them a year’s reprieve from eviction.  Realising the power she can exert over men, should she so choose, Rafina decides to put her talent to use. 

Meantime, there is no money for Rafina to go to college. She will have to work so that her brother’s fees can be paid. She is stoic; it has always been this way – when push comes to shove, the brother always gets precedence – in food, in fees, in generally being a layabout.

The discussion now centres on where a pretty young girl, with just a matriculate to her name, can get a good job. The mother considers the factory as an option. And is vehemently opposed in this by her best friend and confidante, Rosie, who works at the city’s premier ladies salon, Radiance. Rafina has an epiphany. Overcoming her previous aversion to ‘Rosie Khala,’ she cleverly manipulates the hapless woman into taking her on as an understudy. Rosie agrees, albeit very grudgingly, and only when she moonlights. 

Not quite what Rafina had in mind, but it’s a start. It’s a common Cinderella story that has been told thousands of times. And yet it bears retelling. If only because of the underlying pathos of limited opportunities, inadequate education, class stratification and the sheer near impossibility of someone from Rafina’s background being able to go through the bronze door, the clients’ entrance, instead of the factotums’ separate nondescript entrance.

After several months as her helper/assistant, Rosie finally agrees to take Rafina into Radiance – a modelling agency cum salon – for an interview. It is a humiliating experience but she is given a month’s trial doing general salon drudge work.  Surrounded by beautiful women traipsing in for daily beautification rituals, Rafina looks contemptuously at most of them; her inborn sarcasm, in thought and in words, is given free rein. It’s inevitable. She believes that  she is more than a match for most of them, sans all the props. So why, she wonders, can’t she break through into the rarefied world of modelling,  why can’t she have their confidence and their lifestyle? Why doesn’t anyone take notice of her beauty?  Unfortunately for her, seen only as Rosie’s protégé, who is pretty low in the salon pecking order, Rafina is all but invisible. 

The author touches on the ruthless underbelly of the beauty business – which is ugly. Exploitative of staff and of clients who are given to understand they need a lot of help, courtesy the salon, to even look barely presentable. And that it needs to be a lifelong process. The business of looking good looks bad seen from this angle.

Meanwhile, Rafina fails the trial period; she does not have the strength to be a masseuse, the only option offered her.  She is simply too malnourished and weak. Shandana has highlighted an all too common problem in our country.  Just take a look at the shopgirls in any Karachi mall. In danger of being fired, Rafina earns a reprieve when the owner of the salon decides she is presentable enough to be a tea server to her guests. However, Rafina’s dreams of fame and fortune are as elusive as ever.

Until a client, looking for a new face, sizes her up as she is serving him tea. And decides she will do. Then follows, after initial opposition from the Radiance management, a makeover of sorts – grooming, an English tutor. The day Rafina is ‘discovered,’ Rosie is discovered dead in the kitchen by Rafina when she runs to tell her the news. Rosie’s death is hushed up till all the clients have left and only then is her body sent home with a cash packet to the family to keep things quiet.

Rafina’s career takes off, albeit a bit bumpily. She learns how to manipulate, how to play the game. However, most of the characters seem like brushstrokes, clichéd, puppet-like, behaving as we expect them to. The story concept is good but the 163 page novella is poorly structured. There are pages and pages of description of drudgery during house calls and in the salon, and not enough on how events and relationships play out once Rafina is ‘discovered’. The story actually picks up  – and ends – in the last five pages. 

Rafina gets to be on the billboard, but is the compromise worth the price?