Free Press Journal

Austenistan by Laaleen Sukhera: Review


Book: Austenistan

Edited by: Laaleen Sukhera

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Pages: 164; Price: Rs 350


Jane Austen is famous for her novels criticising the modern social institutions like marriage. She also panned wealth and boasting about it in the social rituals cresting unforgettable wedding scenes in her stories. Austenistan is a desi take on the plots of Jane Austen. Apt by its name, it proposes a Pakistani outlook to Austen’s plots of weddings.

Edited by Laaleen Sukhera, the book consists of seven short stories which are taken faithfully from the novels of Jane Austen. For example, the first story is a recreation of the wedding scene in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth and Darcy meet for the first time. The scene is relived by the characters Elisha and Faiz. It is retold from the point of view of the mother of Elisha and her siblings. The four daughters resemble the ones in Pride and Prejudice in behavioural inclinations and opinions.

The Fabulous Banker Boys by Mahlia S Lone, the first story as well as the other ones discuss cultures and customs elaboratively. The readers may get flashes from the movie Bride and Prejudice as the scenes look like handpicked from it. Baig family in The Fabulous Banker Boys portrays the beautiful girls, their behaviours, their cultural understanding, the fear the society, difference between boys and girls and their outlook of the society, a mother’s concern to make her daughters fit in the elite families, the father’s dilemma – all with local flavour and spices.

Reading the stories by the new readers, those who are unaware of Austen’s creations, will give them a fresh mint of Pakistani tehzeeb along with the flavour of cocky local characterisations. Pieces have been selected and re-lived by the writers to tell the stories from their end of the pole.

There are striking similarities in the cultures depicted by Austen and the portrayal by these Pakistani writers. It doesn’t look stretched or forcibly fitted into the Austen’s structure. The post-modern high culture-low culture concept is perceptible clearly.

The characters belong to the same society who have received the hands-on experience of societal conservatism. The authors of these stories are local females who give the first-hand outlook of the dogmatic obscurantism. Nida Elley is a college teacher, Saniyya Gauhar is a barrister, Mahlia S Lone is a freelance journalist, Mishayl Naek is a freelance writer and economist, Sonya Rehman is a freelance journalist, Laaleen Sukhera is a communications consultant and media professional, and Gayathri Warnasuriya is a scientist and programme manager. They all are based in the cities of Pakistan. The variety of flavours is given by a number of authors, but the constant thing is the essence of Jane Austen’s stories. The depiction somewhat is the same, just that the description is local.

Interestingly, the foreword is given by Caroline Jane Knight, Founder and Chair, Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. (Caroline is also fourth great-grand daughter of Jane Austen.) There are Jane Austen societies across the globe organising events and meetings around the world. There are also hundreds of online communities dedicated to Jane Austen. Laaleen Sukhera, editor of Austenistan, is a British Pakistani writer and media professional and founder of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan who has gained a great understanding into Jane Austen’s relevance to the Pakistani culture. Caroline rightly observes, “Austenistan provides fictionalised snapshots of Pakistani society amid humour, drama, and romance, all written by women who have ethnic, cultural, or geographical ties to Pakistan. It celebrates the legacy of Jane Austen, who, despite the cultural expectations of her time, completed six novels that still touch the lives of millions today.”

Laaleen, the editor and a contributor to Austenistan is based in Pakistan, where she works as a magazine editor and a communications consultant for international development, heritage and branding. She caters through multi-fold ventures as she was recently profiled in The Times (UK), Vanity Fair Italia, and 1843 magazine, and is currently being interviewed by the British Council, the BBC, and NPR. On the occasion of Ms Austen’s bicentennial death anniversary, Laaleen was quoted in The Atlantic and The Economist as an authority on the subject.

However unfortunately, the stories lack the original zest of Austen, which consisted of comical satire, reproaches, and the deception of men and women in 18th century. It is difficult to feel the literary connection as the duplication appears to be superficial.

Published by Bloomsbury, this 180-page anthology of short stories has the spices of the local cuisine. Admirers of Jane Austen would like to read a desi take upon the original version. The popcorn anthology of how the stories portray the intermingling of cultures, social determinations and power of money is a worth read.