BOOKLOOK°07: Unmarriageable, Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan

 

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl can go from pauper to princess or princess to pauper in the mere seconds it takes for her to accept a proposal.”

 
 
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How often do you come across a rendition of a classic that you end up loving more than the original? Consider Soniah Kamal’s debut novel Unmarriageable, a Pride and Prejudice story set in modern-day Pakistan.

I’ll be the first to admit—I’ve never really been drawn into Austen, but this made me appreciate her novel unexpectedly. Instead of the Bennett sisters, the Binats take center stage. After Mr. Binat got into a tiff with his wealthy brother, the family had to leave their residential compound in Jeddah and move back to Pakistan, in a town called Dilipabad.

The tribe of sisters—Jena, Alys, Mari, Lady and Qitty—adjust to their new life, as they take on jobs to help ensure the survival (and lifestyle) of the family. The Binat sisters are counterparts of their English versions, albeit more adapted to the modern age. Their mom, only referred to as Mrs. Binat made it her life mission to find them suitable husbands, no matter what it took her.

 
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“Mrs. Binat gazed at each of her daughters. From birth, Jena was near perfect, a cross between ivory rose and a Chughtai painting, her features delicate yet sharp, good hair, good height, splender, and the disposition of an angel.

Lady was a bustier, hippier, pug-nosed version if Jena and towered over her sisters at five feet nine inches (thankfully height bad gone from inpediment to asset). Mari was a poor imitation of Lady, with plain features, a smallish chest and without Lady’s spark. Qitty was exceptionally pretty, except her features were lost amid the double chins.

And Alys. Oh Alys. If only she wouldn’t insist on ruining her complexion by sitting in the sun. If only she wouldn’t but her silky curls. If onky she’d wear some lipstick to outline those small but lush lips and apply a hint of bronzer to her natural cheekbones. What a waste on Alys those striking almond eyes. And such an argumentative girl that sometimes Mrs. Binat would cry with frustration.”


Scarf Print Jumpsuit from Pretty Little Thing

 

I was in Cartagena, Colombia when I started and finished this book, staying in a colonial-style apartment which made me feel like I was stuck between two worlds. I thought about how Alys tried to navigate her world—the world that’s tied to keeping traditions alive while fighting off notions of marriage for the sake of economic survival.

It didn’t help that Alys was an English literature teacher, whose love for books far surpassed an obsessive search for a life partner that Mrs. Binat enforced.

 
 
 

“In the gymkhana library, Alys would choose a book from the beveled-glass-fronted bookcase and curl up in the chintz sofas.

Over the years, the dim chinoiserie lamps had been replaced with overhead lighting, all the better to read Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Austen, the Brontës, Dickens, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Thackeray, Hardy, Maugham, Elizabeth Gaskell, Tolstoy, Orwell, Bertrand Russell, Wilde, Woolf, Wodehouse, Shakespeare, more Shakespeare, even more Shakespeare.”

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The book follows the original consistently, with elements altered to reflect the modern age. It is the deviations that I love most about the novel though, like how Alys teaches her students and prods them to think differently about their lives. How she encourages her students to think about life outside marriage.

She even references Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet not as a romantic aspiration, but as a cautionary tale. This, in spite of her Mrs. Binat’s own beliefs about marriage, further reinforcing Alys’s obstinacy:

“It was all this nonsense about falling in love that was making a husband unseemly. Of course one must fall in love, but let it initially be the man who falls and then, once his ring is on your finger, you too may allow yourself to fall in love—though within reason, Mrs. Binat always cautioned, for the best marriages were the ones where the husband loved the wife more.”

Unmarriageable is definitely a must-read for those wanting to revisit Austen’s beloved classic, or for those who appreciate a good story about life, love and family.

 
 
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