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Austen goes to Pakistan

Laaleen Sukhera's 'Austenistan' reimagines Jane Austen's fiction in Pakistan. The anthology's editor on the novelist's continued relevance

Austenistan: Edited by Laaleen Sukhera
Austenistan: Edited by Laaleen Sukhera

In the 1990s, Laaleen Sukhera was studying at Clark University in Massachusetts, doing a double major in screen studies and communication and culture. She spent significant time in the library, poring over old titles on Prince Regent, and picked up Maggie Lane’s Jane Austen’s World. She had been an Austen fan since she received an illustrated set of the novelist’s works on her 12th birthday. As a student miles away from her hometown Lahore, Sukhera started seeing the works in a new light, and decided to do her thesis on Austen adaptations.

“When you’re an expat, you start viewing your own society and upbringing in a different perspective, and I realized how similar my people were to Austen’s characters, much more than a lot of my contemporaries in Western countries," she says, over a Skype call from Lahore. Her thesis focused on how notions of English identity were not restricted by nationality and boundary. “People like Ang Lee (the director of Sense And Sensibility) don’t have to be English to produce a very convincing level of Englishness, and you don’t have to be English to relate to that either," she adds.

Almost two decades later, in 2014, Sukhera started the Jane Austen Society of Islamabad as a Facebook page, bringing together women who shared a love for Austen and Regency-era fiction, TV, art and more. As the group grew in popularity, it became the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan (Jasp), and now has chapters in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and London. Jasp members get together to discuss their favourite Austen works, characters and adaptations, occasionally playing dress-up over a tea party. Sukhera is also the editor of, and a contributor to, Austenistan, an anthology of short stories that places Austen’s fiction in contemporary Pakistan. In The Fabulous Banker Boys, we meet Mrs Jameela Baig, who, like Mrs Bennett in Pride And Prejudice, is consumed with worry about finding the perfect matches for her four daughters. In Begum Saira Returns, we find traces of Lady Susan in the widowed Saira, who comes out of a year of mourning to confront familiar faces at a wedding in Lahore. Kamila Mughal in The Mughal Empire is much like Caroline Bingley, still reeling from her brother having married a Plain Jane from Islamabad. “What I find funny is that all of the stories are so different and yet, they have these similarities. Many of our characters would know each other in real life," says Sukhera.

It’s a world where young Pakistani women, togged in designer clothes and Chanel sunglasses, navigate careers and love lives, all the while upping their social media presence on Instagram and Snapchat. In Sukhera’s On The Verge, the protagonist’s best friend warns her of the perils of Tinder in Lahore: “It showed up my cook and my driver. I had to swipe Dildar and Razakat."

“Austen used a lot of letters and notes, including her epistolary works like Lady Susan and The Watsons. Anne Elliot in Persuasion was fortunate to get an incredible love letter from Captain Wentworth. What do we get? Emojis, hashtags, texts, emails, all reflect our society," says Sukhera.

Austenistan’s contributors, all members of Jasp, include a barrister, a scientist, journalists and writers from across Pakistan, and even the US and Jordan. While the stories are fictional, Sukhera believes that one writes what one knows and they’re not pandering to Western stereotypes about the country. “We’ve chosen to write about our social world because we’re inspired by Austen to hold a mirror to our society. When the Napoleonic wars were on, she wasn’t on the battlefield herself. She alluded to things, like the colonization in Mansfield Park. You can’t pigeonhole Pakistani women any more. We’ve emerged from the whole victimized character genre, and don’t want to write about idyllic village scenes because Western publishers will prefer that."

The heroines in Austenistan are not bound by age or emotional baggage in the quest for happiness—a reflection, Sukhera says, of urban Pakistan. “Our divorce rates are higher and women are getting married much later. We’ve touched upon abuse and the trend of gay men getting married to straight women. It all exists and we’ve pointed out the hypocritical situations, but with a touch of humour."

At a time when we’re having a greater discourse around women’s rights, is Sukhera wary of critics terming the stories too frivolous? “I feel Austen is sometimes misunderstood. She was a feminist. Two hundred years ago, her heroines exercised the power of saying no. Even in Austenistan, the protagonists never compromise their dignity," she says, adding, “My generation grew up with Cinderella, and real life came as a rude shock. My daughters are thankfully growing up with Elsa. They tell me, ‘We’ll build our own castles, Mama.’"

Austenistan: Edited by Laaleen Sukhera, Bloomsbury India, 164 pages, Rs350.

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