February Issue 2013

By | Bookmark | Published 7 years ago

“The Bandians of Bakhuraj, true to their ancestral heritage, married not for love but because it happened to be convenient,” writes debut novelist Shazaf Fatima Haider in the opening page of How It Happened. And it soon becomes evident in the novel that it’s not just convenience that dictates matrimony in the Bandian family. Dadi, the matriarch of the family, pushes her grandchildren to have arranged marriages with respectable Shia-Syeds in order to uphold the family’s pride and when the younger generation resists, she refuses to go down without a fight.

The novel is written from the perspective of 15-year-old Saleha who observes the many trials and tribulations her older siblings Haroon and Zeba face in the process of getting married. Haroon, who as Dadi’s lone grandson is the centre of both her affections and high expectations, acquiesces to an arranged marriage only to find himself a bundle of nerves at each meeting with prospective in-laws. Haider breaks down the six tea-trolley-rishta scenes into a list of reactions of the Bandian family members in a chapter titled ‘How We Searched for Girls’ and, expectedly, nobody can agree on the perfect wife for Haroon. Dadi, for instance, falls in love with Girl #2: The Infant and embarrassingly makes note of the 16-year-old’s perfect hips and breasts — much to the chagrin and embarrassment of the rest of the family. Haroon, meanwhile seems to favour Girl #4: Miss Proactive but Dadi dismisses her as being too forward. This motley of imperfect girls, complete with imperfect families, provides for a few laughs and reading this section is akin to watching a snappy montage on a sitcom. Eventually Haroon convinces Dadi to accept a semi-arranged marriage with his colleague and even before his wedding festivities begin, Dadi turns her attention to her outspoken granddaughter Zeba.

For a novel in which many of the characters border on being caricatures, Zeba is a welcome relief. Although she is not the narrator, she is very much at the centre of the novel and she injects much-needed sense and sarcasm into the wedding-obsessed, tradition-bound world her Dadi rules over. Zeba is intelligent, independent and irreverent — the three ‘I’s readers would most appreciate and regressive-minded potential in-laws would most hate. While Haroon learns to live within the boundaries established by the long line of arranged-married ancestors, Zeba is the one who explicitly challenges them. It comes as no surprise then that she eventually falls in love with a man the elders in her family would never accept and, since both she and Dadi are equally opinionated and stubborn, the last few chapters of the novel are a lesson on artful diplomacy and some outright manipulation between family members.

Through Zeba, Haider also provides a feminist take on courtship and one wonders why the novel wasn’t written from her point-of-view. Haider might have wanted to capture the drama through the eyes of the relatively more objective Saleha but she doesn’t quite capture the voice of a 15-year-old and instead of the precocious, witty sibling promised on the book jacket, we get a rather naïve narrator instead. 

By definition, How It Happened with its light-hearted tone, young female protagonists and themes of marriage and courtship falls in the chicklit category. Unfortunately the genre is often mocked for not being very intellectual even though, when done well, it can offer a biting commentary on society and Haider certainly serves up plenty of it in the novel. She avoids politics in the novel but the emphasis on finding a suitable boy or girl of the right sect is revealing of Pakistani society in which educated families unequivocally condone violence against Shias but still do not want their children to marry one.

Through Zeba, Haider also provides a progressive, feminist take on courtship and one wonders why the novel wasn’t written from her point of view. Haider might have wanted to capture the drama through the eyes of the less opinionated, and therefore relatively more objective, Saleha but she doesn’t quite capture the voice of a 15-year-old and instead of the precocious, witty sibling promised on the book jacket, we get a rather naïve narrator instead.

During Haroon’s rishta travails, Saleha offers incredibly childlike opinions of the prospective candidates without giving much thought to how she would like to get married herself. She has no idea that kissing involves tongues and is in complete shock when a cheeky cousin mentions that her brother will be having sex on his wedding night. These reactions might be expected of a seven-year-old — not a teenager who lives in a world of Bollywood and Rihanna and whose older sister makes nothing of uttering the words ‘lap dance’ or ‘orgasm’ in front of family. Thankfully Saleha has her coming of age and halfway through the novel she discovers the thrills of secretly reading her mother’s Mills & Boon novels and even goes on to experience her first crush.

Haider’s strength is in describing how the various family members fight their battles with each other, and her treatment of Dadi’s slow and reluctant acceptance of her grandchildren’s wishes is both entertaining and believable. The slapstick and idiosyncrasies could have been toned down but even in its over-the-top moments, one can easily imagine similar scenes taking place in drawing rooms across Pakistan.

Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.