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THE TYRANNY OF TRADITION

How It Happened By Shazaf Fatima Haider, Viking, Rs 399

Be it in a Victorian novel or our indigenous soap operas, we often come across the fussy matron obsessing over finding a ‘suitable match’ for her sons and daughters. In her debut novel, Shazaf Fatima Haider —who hails from Pakistan — charts out a dramatic, tongue-in-cheek narrative about the big fat ‘arranged marriage’ in the Bandian household of Karachi, supposedly based on “many, many true stories”. Haider’s young narrator, Saleha Bandian, ‘begins at the beginning’ with an account of the “history of arranged marriages” in the Bandian family, carefully explaining: “The Bandians of Bhakuraj, true to their ancestral heritage, married not for love but because it happened to be convenient.”

The first and the second chapters act as an apt prologue to the narrative, acquainting the readers with the matriarch and in-house wedding planner, Dadi. Haider’s narrator has a keen eye for detail and displays quick wit. She accurately sums up her grandmother: “Dadi believed in a few basic things: spices, prayers and arranged marriages.” In her youth she was “too delicate for the roughness of the tough and wicked world”, hence the matters of the hearth became her only source of identity. In this she reigned supreme. Dadi often resorted to anecdotal references as conditioning tools — she used these tales to ingrain “in her daughter and her daughter’s daughters” the goodness of a marriage arranged by the elders of the family. Her tales can be clearly demarcated into two kinds. First, there were the instances that the children should emulate — like that of Pir Jan’s daughter who had “willingly married” a white haired Sufi saint because he saved her father’s life. Pir Jan sacrificed his daughter at the altar because he would have otherwise remained indebted to the saint. The second scenario was that of those who were “shameless” enough to marry for love — thereby bringing disgrace to the family. The matriarch’s distant cousin, Iraj, had eloped with a chowkidar’s son, almost driving her mother to suicide. These stories served the purpose of veiled but strict warnings. Come what may, the children could not digress from the Shia-Syed route — because that would also mean Dadi would lose the race to her sister, Qurrat-ul-Aine, whose son married an “Amreekan” and “not even a white one”.

Matrimonial alliances formed the ground that the women used to exercise their control over the family, while at the same time competing with other women to win the battle of who could find better matches for their children. Such Mrs Bennet-like figures found their voice in arranging the marriages, in sustaining them and in clinging to long-established traditions. Dadi’s views on marriage were final until they were countered by her daughter and granddaughter. Her daughter, Fatima, was a rebel who wore a “bright red saree” after her husband’s death and refused to mourn, sending her mother and in-laws into a tizzy. The other dissenter in the family was Zeba Bandian, the narrator’s older sister, who often locked herself in her room with her Brontë and Austen — easily reminding one of Jane Austen’s heroine in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet. She also declined a marriage proposal from her cousin, Alam — a reference used by the author to bring to one’s mind the oft-talked-about scene in the Austen novel where Elizabeth rejects Mr Collins’s proposal. Zeba vociferously rebelled against the parochial norms, at first speaking out for the sake of her brother, Haroon, and then resting her case. In fact, Haroon could only get around his grandmother and marry Saima, the girl he wanted to marry, by first getting Zeba to rebel on his behalf and then coaxing his grandmother to work it in his favour.

One develops an instant connection with the characters, laughs with the narrator when she describes Dadi’s quirks and relates to the narrative, which is replete with references from popular culture.