Do we really need yet another adaptation of Pride And Prejudice? Before beginning Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable—a Pakistani version of Jane Austen’s classic—my instinct was to say, absolutely not. We have had every possible version of the book, from the excellent Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible to Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody novel, Pride And Prejudice And Zombies. We have had manga, detective fiction and chick-lit versions. We have had innumerable movies and TV adaptations.
But Unmarriageable won me over, slowly but surely. Austen is, as critics have pointed out, not about romance but about the hard realities of money and class, and who better to understand that than a woman from the subcontinent? Kamal, a Pakistani American author, makes the old tale fresh again, with her canny exploration of Pakistani society.
This isn’t the first Pakistani retelling of Austen. In 2017, a group of Pakistani women, who called themselves the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan, wrote Austenistan, a collection of short stories based on Austen’s characters. There was some criticism that the book was shallow, even too fluffy. But Kamal goes deeper, using Austen as a tool to explore class, feminism and postcolonial Pakistani society.
“Unmarriageable is a parallel retelling and not an ‘inspired by’,” emphasizes Kamal. “It was written to reorient the linguistic legacy of colonialism in a postcolonial context.”
Austenites will be tickled by Kamal’s clever choice of Pakistani names. Elizabeth Bennet is recast as Alysba Binat, an English teacher, with sisters Jena, Qitty, Lady and Mari. Her parents are Barkat “Bark” Binat and Khushboo “Pinkie” Binat. Fitzwilliam Darcy is Valentine Darsee, whom the snide Mrs Binat accuses of being descended from tailors. The rather dim Charles Bingley is Fahad “Bungles” Bingla. Charlotte Lucas is Sherry Looclus. Occasionally, the name game goes too far, as when ladykiller George Wickham becomes Jeorgeullah Wickaam.
Who: Kamal was born in Pakistan and grew up in the UK and Saudi Arabia before moving to the US. Her debut novel, An Isolated Incident, which came out in 2014, was a sprawling saga set in Kashmir, the US and Afghanistan.
Early in her career, Kamal got a letter from a reader who accused her of writing “pornography” because she wrote short stories on prostitution, abortion and premarital sex. “Are you trying to impress the West?” the reader thundered. “What kind of Muslim woman writes this filth?” It was only after Kamal read the frank and uninhibited work of Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto that she realized Muslims and Muslim women could write about sex. She never looked back.
What: Kamal sticks fairly closely to Austen’s template, but with some clever twists. Unmarriageable is set in 2001, and Alys is an English teacher at the British School in Dilipabad, a fictional Pakistani town named after Dilip Kumar. The motto of the British School is “Excellence in Obedience”, and Alys is expected to train the girls to become good wives and mothers. This, of course, is against everything Alys believes. Instead, she tries valiantly, but mostly unsuccessfully, to teach a bunch of snotty and sceptical teenage girls that there is more to life than marriage. They, of course, aren’t buying it. Alys pontificates about how Austen never got married but her paper children—six wonderful novels—kept her alive. “You are also delivering a paper child?” one of the students asks sarcastically.
When reading Austen as a teen, Kamal writes in the afterword, “It seemed to me that all cultures were concerned with the same questions and that people were more similar to one another than they were different. Elizabeth Bennet was a girl we wanted to be like, to arrive at a Netherfield Park in a muddy gown without a care for Pakistani society’s quintessential cry of ‘log kya kahenge (what will people say)?’“
But Kamal also explores the nagging uneasiness of Pakistani, and Indian, society about their colonial legacy. Darsee says while discussing literature with Alys, “We have been forced to see ourselves in the literature of others for too long.” Then he gives her a copy of Attia Hosain’s Sunlight On A Broken Column. “That book made me believe I could have a Pakistani identity inclusive of an English-speaking tongue.” This is a constant theme, with the characters often feeling both guilty and yet relieved that they have English-medium education, which allows them to dominate Pakistani society.
It is true that Kamal’s dialogue often falters, and can seem clunky compared to Austen’s light touch. Often, Darsee and Alys seem like earnest literature students sharing study notes rather than lovers fencing. There is a lot of talk about books which sometimes gets in the way of the plot. The characters often break “the fourth wall”, talking about their parallel characters in Austen, a device that sometimes grates. But these are niggles in a book that mostly achieves its objective.
Why: Don’t read this hoping for Austen’s satirical wit. Read this for the way Kamal dovetails Pakistani society into Austen’s world. Austen is also much improved by the juicy descriptions of food and clothes in this Pakistani version: the shararas and the ghararas, the Patialas and palazzos, the anarkalis and the angarkhas. The weddings last for days, as they should.
There are unexpected delights, such as Lady Catherine De Bourgh, the snobby grande dame, recast as Begum Beena Dey Bagh, an Islamabad matron who imports Filipina “domestics”. The most fascinating character in the book is not the rather superior Alys but Sherry Looclus, a complex, moving woman. “Charlotte Lucas is my favourite character from all of Austen’s novel,” says Kamal.
Sherry is pragmatic, tough and unapologetic about choosing marriage to a wealthy man as a way out of being a slave to her brothers. She stands up to the incredulous Alys, who is astonished that Sherry should be happy to marry the pompous Farhat Kaleen, whom Alys has already turned down. “For me marriage is not a love story. It’s a social contract,” she chides the snobby Alys. “Rather be a happy dimwit than a cynical crab like you.” Kamal says, “I wanted to explore how someone in contemporary times could marry her best friend’s reject.” Mrs Binat, too, is a more developed character—Kamal makes her more rounded, less of an object of ridicule than in the original.
Eventually, matters follow their usual course, with some Pakistani touches. The Wickaams, Jeorgeullah and Lady, decide to set up a lingerie empire, Pakeezah Passions. Alys and Darsee go on a literary tour. Beena Dey Bagh accepts their wedding with a resigned “Jab mian biwi razee tho kya karey qazi“. And the motto of the British School is changed to “Home is Everywhere on Earth. Be Honest. Be Kind.”
Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist and author