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A collection of Jane Austen inspired stories from Pakistan, Austenistan is an enjoyable read, especially for the Austen lover.
What explains the fascination for Jane Austen’s work in the Indian subcontinent 200 years after her own time? Could it be the preoccupation with marriage, or rather, ‘getting the children settled’ that is still a lived reality for us, no matter how many funny videos we make about the subject? Or is that rather insulting to the genius of this author (disclaimer: I love her!) who gave us characters with delicious little foibles that we could laugh at and still see a little bit of, in people around us?
While the Jane Austen novels have many wonderful things that still resonate with us – their plots, their wit, the characters we root for and the ones we laugh at (rarely does Austen give us villains to hate) – I believe that their preoccupation with marriage and its central role in women’s lives is a big factor in their continuing popularity in our part of the world. I’ve already written a 3000-worder on marriage in the Jane Austen novels, so I’m not exploring that theme in detail here; but it comes through in Austenistan, a collection of 7 Austen inspired short stories written by writers from Pakistan, of Pakistani descent or otherwise associated with the country in some way.
Edited by Laaleen Sukheera, the Founder of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan, Austenistan is an anthology really meant for the Austen lover. Although the casual reader will also find in it an interesting short read, it is the true Austen lover who will spot the many parallels to her favourite novels, appreciate the mutation of a Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett into a Faiz Dar and Elisha Baig (the very first story, The Fabulous Banker Boys) and laugh out aloud at the ludicrousness of society matrons making ‘subtle’ attempts at match-making that are anything but.
The parallel to the Austen universe led me to chuckle at times, seeing a familiar story dressed up in desi clothes, but in parts, it also became a little tedious, with some stories being a little too close to the originals. In the story mentioned above for instance, while portraying well the slow decline of a family from the Pakistani landed gentry, I did wish there were not exactly five sisters with the same charms and foibles of the Bennett girls – it made the story a little predictable.
The stories that really stood out for me were the ones that started out appearing familiar, but did a little headstand and took on very unusual forms. Saniyya Gauhar’s The Mughal Empire fell into this category, giving the much-maligned Miss Bingley the chance to redeem herself and become the heroine – moreover, without sheathing all of her claws. I’ve always felt that Miss Bingley deserves better! Another story with surprises under its skin was Gayathri Warnasuriya’s The Autumn Ball, which has only the slightest resemblance to Pride & Prejudice, the novel it is supposedly inspired by, but nonetheless made me wonder what the Elizabeth and Darcy love story might have looked like post marriage. With its skillful depiction of the life of a trailing spouse in a diplomatic enclave and the onset of distance in a marriage, it was a slow but captivating read.
The one thing I wished for is the inclusion of at least one story inspired by Sense & Sensibility. What could a contemporary desi author bring to this story that is a romance, but also a complex story of faith and abandonment, and one of sisters brought closer by misery? It would have been good to see an attempt made. There are sisters in many of the stories but there is little of that relationship explored; even Jane and Elizabeth’s deep love and respect for each other doesn’t quite make it to any of the stories. Certainly, there is a little bit of a preoccupation with Mr. Darcy, for which perhaps Colin Firth is more to blame than anyone else!
Austenistan is an interesting quick read – the kind of book you could easily finish over a rainy afternoon. It does not reach the finesse of the original (and that would be a tall order quite out of reach for most of us) but it is fan fiction done with some skill and genuine enjoyment that makes it worth reading.
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