Qaisra Shahraz stopped by Bangkok in October for the Asian tour of her new novel. REENA KARIM caught up with her at Hemingway’s, where the author gave a reading along with other writers of Asian origins.
Acclaimed Pakistani-born author Qaisra Shahraz has often been compared to Jane Austen. Like the Victorian scribe, Shahraz possesses a flair for satire and has created many strong Muslim female characters who rebel against injustices to find a new social standing for themselves. “In my world,” the novelist said, “men bow down to women.” Shahraz grew up in Manchester, England, but she does not shy away from writing about women in rural Pakistan. “I can relate because women are women no matter where you go. Plus, I know the culture.” When asked if she was a feminist, Shahraz said she feels strongly about women’s issues but makes distinctions between Western and Muslim feminists.
“Western feminism sees women taking off their bras and going out there. Well, I can’t do that. I believe in women’s rights, but I am not dogmatic about it. I respect the values and the tradition that we come from. But if they restrain [women], then I believe [they are] unacceptable.”
Shahraz has also written a number of short stories, one of which, A Pair of Jeans, published in 1988, was picked up by German professor Dr Liesel Hermes and has been studied as literature in German Abitur Examinations for the last 25 years. Her latest novel, The Revolt, tells the story of three wealthy Pakistani sisters and the societal and marital problems they tackle. Here is an excerpt in which village dhoban [washerwoman] Massi Fiza gossips with a well-off goldsmith, Rukhsar.
Excerpt from The Revolt
‘Engrezi kitab? Weelly Speer?’ squeaked Massi Fiza, staring in awe at the English book. The English alphabet had always intimidated her; her punishment for mixing up the upper and lower cases in her fifth class was a good telling off from her sour-faced teacher, who, as known to the entire village, had only been educated to a tenth jamaat class herself. Massi Fiza did triumph in some areas, however, managing to master words like ‘cat’ and ‘dog’.
‘Never mind Willy Speer—let’s talk.’ Rukhsar chuckled at Massi Fiza’s struggle with the name of the great English Bard. The laundrywoman’s five primary classes in an under-resourced village school never quite qualified her to sample Shakespeare’s masterpieces. Rukhsar’s twelfth class, however, in the posh college in town, did. Romeo and Juliet still remained the goldmistress’s favourite Shakespearean drama.
‘Whose set are you working on now, Rukhsar-ji?’ Massi Fiza’s envious eyes were hawked on the necklace.
‘Saher’s…the lawyer woman’s wedding.’
‘Of course! What an exciting week, Rukhsar-ji,’ Massi Fiza smirked, colour rushing back into her gaunt mahogany-brown cheeks.
‘Is it?’ Rukhsar challenged, settling back on the soft pile of cushions in the middle of the room, sure that her neighbour had plenty of salacious news to share; her keen eyes behind the larger designer glasses assessing both the emotional landscape of her friend’s face and the necklace still to be completed. Rukhsar happily forfeited her favourite Indian drama serial in order to acquaint herself with the goings-on in Gulistan.
‘So! Tell me!’ Rukhsar eagerly prompted, her high-cheek boned face coquettishly sloped to one side, adding a healthy jowl to her neckline.
Forgetting about her wicked sons and the suicide bombers, Massi Fiza, her grey eyes alive and mischievous, took a deep breath and proudly announced:
‘The landowners’ “princes” are back this week!’
‘Yes. The zemindar “princes”. Haughty Mistress Mehreen’s son Ismail is coming from London for his wedding. Gentle Mistress Gulbahar’s son Arslan is flying in from New York tomorrow morning. And sour Mistress Rani is busy preparing for her daughter Saher’s wedding. And…’ Fiza stopped, tiptoeing to stand in front of Rukhsar’s tall fan to cool a hot flush stinging across her shoulders and up her scrawny throat. Enjoying the welcoming breeze, she lifted the three amulets garlanding her neck.
‘Go on then…’ her friend slyly goaded. The village dhoban was now in her element, ready to part with the juiciest piece of news.
‘Laila! The potter’s…after years!’ Massi Fiza abruptly stopped again.
‘Well! Did you not expect it—with him returning?
You must have seen her? The door is opposite yours.’
‘No, I’m too busy with my work to peer over roof terraces and eavesdrop on the goings-on in my neighbours’ houses, Massi Fiza!’ Rukhsar scoffed good-humouredly before asking, ‘What will happen?’
‘We’ll find out soon enough, won’t we, as it’s all happening at the white hevali? And that’s where I’ll be, first thing in the morning. Good old Begum tells me everything. Of course with quite a bit of bossing in between! Shabnum, my ladli, where’s my coffee? You’ve heard everything now!’
Published in Masala magazine, Bangkok, December 2013