Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Book Review: How It Happened

I had written a review of How It Happened by Shazaf Fatima Haider in Kannada for Sakhi magazine (August 15-30, 2013) and here's the gist of it in English. Read the original review in Kannada here.  

They say a good novel should change our minds. Characters in such novels get very close to the readers without their knowledge. As the story unfolds readers feel that they are part of it. Many authors have brought out such novels in the recent years and one such successful attempt has been made by Shazaf Fatima Haider from our neighbouring country Pakistan.  

For writers and film producers, be it from Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood or Sandalwood, Indian families and weddings are like a Pandora box. They never fail to give them an impressive plot that can make a director to come up with a 3-hour film. It is evident that the subject draws similar kind of attention even in our neighbouring country. However, Shazaf Fatima Haider’s debut novel How it Happened (2012) not only entertains Pakistani readers, but also Indians.

There are several similarities between both the countries when it comes to culture, tradition and food -- after all both made a single nation before 1947. Arranged marriages rule both the countries. Though there are love marriages, it is the arranged marriages, fixed by elders which rule the roost. And this is the subject of this novel.

The narrator of this novel is 16-year-old Saleha Bandian. Dadi, Ammi, Abbu, elder brother Haroon bhai and elder sister Zeba baaji are other major characters. The plot revolves around the marriages of Haroon bhai and Zeba baji.

Saleha informs readers about the tradition of arranged marriages in her Bandian family. “The Bandians of Bhakuraj, true to their ancestral heritage, married not for love but because it happened to be convenient,” she explains.  

Readers get to know the wedding planner and the head of the family, Gul Bahar dadi in the first and the second chapters. The whole story would have been dull and monotonous without Dadi. There is humour and sympathy from the very beginning of the novel. The narrator’s keen eye for detail and wit is obvious when she sums up about her grandmother, “Dadi believed in a few basic things: spices, prayers and arranged marriages.”

As an elder, Dadi has her own ideas and imaginations about weddings, which will make readers to laugh throughout. She wants her grandchildren to get married according to her wishes and plans. She is quite “mordren” and allows prospective bride and groom to meet before the wedding, but she completely hates “dating-shating”.  

She adores her U.S.-educated returned grandson, Haroon, and wants him to marry a suitable girl, but when he rejects many of the girls, she gets disappointed. Dadi often gives instances to keep her grandchildren under control. Her anecdotes often referred to the positive aspects of arranged marriages. She gives the example of Pir Jan’s daughter who agreed to marry a grey haired Sufi saint, as he had saved the life of her father. Dadi praises her for being an obedient daughter. She doesn’t stop there. She gives another instance where daughters bring disgrace to the family, like a distant relative eloping with the son of a watchman and almost driving her mother to end life.

At any cost Dadi is not ready to allow her grandchildren bring disgrace to the family by derouting from the Shia-Sayed tradition. She feared that could bring her reputation down in front of her sister Qurrat-ul-Aine. Qurrat’s son had married an “Amreekan”, that was okay, but the fact that she was “not even a white one” was not fine!   

Dadi uses wedding proposals as her tools to control the family, but she also has two rebellious women in her family – one is her daughter, Fatima, who wears a bright red saree after the death of her husband, refusing to mourn, and another her granddaughter, Zeba, who not reads Bronte and Austen, but also helps Haroon to marry his lady love Saima besides choosing a Sunni boy for herself.

The humour touches its peak once Dadi gets to know about Zeba’s love affair. As Dadi calls her names, readers smile at her drama. Though her character reminds us of Austen’s Mrs Benette, her control, intelligence and power leave their own impression on readers.

The author has beautifully unraveled the complexities between the old and new generation. She has not only etched the characters, but also has become a voice through the narrator. Readers do not get bored and they can relate to the situations and characters at one point or the other, and Bandian family is no different from any real family.    

The titles of the chapters are tempting, making readers to look forward and never keep the book till the end. Each title -- “How Dadi Got Carried Away”, “How Haroon Was Tied to the Knot” or “How Dadi Extracted a Proposal Just in Time” -- generates curiosity as to know what happens next.

Dadi reminds us of our grandmothers: She is over-protective of her grandchildren for which readers develop love-hate relationship with her. Though we sympathise with Zeba’s plight, we will not hate Dadi, as we understand her concern.  She is the most memorable character in the novel.

The plot not only addresses women, but also men. It applies and amuses each and every man, who goes to see the girl, who asks silly questions, eats snacks and keeps her family in the waiting to give his green signal for the wedding.

The prose is catchy and the writing style is crisp and engaging. Wish narrator Saleha had narrated something more about herself, about her school, her friends, her feelings… 

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