To model a debut novel on the plot of a globally admired classic may seem like a safe bet, but in reality it is fraught with dangers.
For one, retelling a familiar story can be tricky business, unless it is delicately balanced by an urge to reinvent its characters and action. Even more worryingly, if the original happens to be hugely popular already, the challenge becomes steeper, if not overwhelming.
Pakistani writer Sarvat Hasin grapples with these twin difficulties in her first novel, This Wide Night, with grace and confidence. Based on American writer Louisa May Alcott's cult favourite, Little Women, Hasin's story takes us to Karachi of the 1970s, where the Malik sisters live in relative freedom under the indulgent supervision of their mother, Meherunnisa. Like the patriarch of the March family in Alcott's story, Captain Malik is a largely absent father, and when he eventually makes an appearance, he is relegated to benevolent obscurity, a bit like Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.
The four Malik sisters — Maria, Ayesha, Bina and Leila — are like the proverbial peas in a pod as far as their allegiances are concerned but also strikingly different in temperament. Maria, the academically inclined, falls in love with Amir, a history teacher at the neighbouring school. Their brief courtship and marriage are unusual by the standards of their time, though not sensational. Ayesha, who aspires to be a writer, forges a close friendship with their neighbour, Jamal (or Jimmy, as he is called), the narrator of the story. Bina is the sickly, somewhat pious, sibling, a bit kooky at times, and Leila, the youngest, is a painter, but also a fount of mystery.
If you know Little Women well enough, the unfolding of Hasin's plot won't surprise you much. In spite of being fast allies, Ayesha and Jimmy do not end up together — or rather, not as a married couple — and the family is plagued by the shadow of illness and death, as in the original.
The real novelty of Hasin's story, for me, is her decision to have Jimmy (Laurie, in Alcott's novel) as the narrator. To choose him as the interface between the reader and the story is to let the latter into the life of the Malik family from outside in. There is the additional problem of creating a convincingly male protagonist, especially one who's sexually invested in some of the female characters, and there I sensed a slight lack of frisson, a guardedness in the writing and a mild tendency to veer towards poetic excess — all the more noticeable in the otherwise stately, even languorous, pace of Hasin's prose.
The real novelty of Hasin's story, for me, is her decision to have Jimmy (Laurie, in Alcott's novel) as the narrator
The bravest part of looking at the Maliks through Jimmy's eyes is to be able to convey the inscrutability of the sisters. In spite of his years of closeness to the family — a teenage crush of sorts on Maria, a deep-rooted and lifetime's attachment to Ayesha, and his marriage to Leila — Jimmy is never fully let in on the secrets of the family. With the progress of the novel, the cold distance he feels from the sisters in spite of being surrounded by them, becomes apparent, even cloying. The effect is powerful, especially since the geographical landscape of the novel is vast — moving from Pakistan to Britain to France and back to Pakistan — and yet the feeling of entrapment, in a family and its histories, doesn't ever leave the reader.
Being the orphaned grandson of a businessman, Jimmy had always been solitary, his craving for a proper family only met by his contact with the Maliks. When he finally imagines himself as one of their own, he is startled to discover the aloofness of the sisters, including his own wife's unconsoling nature. "I'd never lived with anyone before," he says with an edge. "Her lipstick glowed on the rims of empty water glasses; I'd always find her hairs on my clothes, caught in button holes or wound in the links of my watch. All the time I could feel them around me, the girls, breathing in the same house."
In less capable hands, Jimmy's lingering discomfort with the unknowability of the Malik sisters may have become a cop out. Hasin's ending, shocking but understated in its drama, avoids such a possibility.
This Wide Night is published by Penguin Random House, 328 pages, hardback, ₹499.
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