I want to begin by stating that as a British Pakistani I have a lot of time for Pakistani fiction. I really appreciate being able to connect to a culture and a people vicariously. I haven’t visited Pakistan for seven years now, but for most of my life I used to go every other year and I feel very connected to the country and her people.
‘Are You Enjoying’ by Mira Sethi has received rave reviews from all across the literary world. Kiran Desai, Rupi Kaur, Mohsin Hamid, Vogue and Refinery29 all attest to the brilliance of this debut collection on the back cover. The stories are described as “timeless” and offering “fascinating slices of contemporary life in Pakistan” by brown author heavyweights Desai and Hamid and quite honestly it made me want to look into Mira Sethi even before opening the book.
Mira Sethi is an actor and a writer. She grew up in Lahore and attended Lahore Grammar School, Boarding School in the UK and graduated from Wellesley College. She spent her junior year in Oxford University. Sethi then went off to America to work for the Wall Street Journal but has also written for the New York Times and The Guardian. Alongside a successful career in journalism she has also starred in dramas on the ARY and HUM TV networks. Both Sethi’s parents were journalists and her father is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books, a publishing house in Pakistan. Her mother presented a weekly talk show and is from a landed gentry family. Let’s just say Mira is the 1% of Pakistani society ad suddenly all the rave reviews begin to make a little more sense. And these were just my thoughts BEFORE I started to read the book.
This debut collection consists of 7 loosely connected short stories. All but one of the stories are about the lives of the upper middle class or the super-rich. They are set in and around Lahore and Karachi and the stories are told from both male and female perspectives. Sethi clearly draws on her own experiences with protagonists ranging from TV anchors, actors, journalists and land owners, and these stories are definitely the stronger of the collection. My least favourite story was “A Man For His Time”. It is about a young man called Hafeez who joins the Islamic Students Movement at university which is determined to quash the “Westernisation” of fellow students and staff. Sethi juxtaposes the movements perceived power with Hafeez’s own powerlessness at home and in wider society. It’s an interesting polemic about a culture that values alpha males and the lengths some men have to go to within it to be seen as such. Although it was my least favourite, I still really enjoyed it.
Sethi covers a wide range of topics from drug use, alcohol, homosexuality and extra marital affairs. The stories are all connected with the themes of misogyny, power, honour and politics, and she does a really good job of making them easy to read but packing a punch at the same time. I don’t imagine these stories will resonate with the average Pakistani experience in Pakistan, but they are certainly a treat for the Pakistani diaspora community, like myself. I really enjoyed the little peek I was given into the world of the Pakistani elite and I liked that Mira wrote about a Pakistan that she knows intimately as it made all the stories so much more authentic.
It’s hard for me to pick my favourite story, I really enjoyed both parts of “A Life of Its Own” the first is about Farah and her husband Kashif while the second is about Syeda Zareena Bokhari (ZB), a wealthy landowner whose husband is from a family of politicians. The men in the family, for generations, have held a particular seat and now ZB, who is the brains, and often the face of her husbands political campaigns in their constituency, while he stays away in Islamabad, decides to run for the seat as her husband is retiring. The scandal of a women running drives both her elderly sisters-in-law to her home for an uninvited council. In another part of the story a rally is organised with ZB’s supporters convincing her to run. Politics in Pakistan (like anywhere) is complicated and strewn in contradictions, the rally is a perfect example of this. The first part of “A Life of Its Own” is linked to the second part as its protagonists are the son and daughter-in-law of Zareena Bokhari. Farah is a journalist with dreams of moving to America with her husband, but when her mother-in-law suffers a heart attack, her husband Kashif decides they need to stay in Pakistan. Although he apologises profusely Fahra has difficulty accepting it as he “added, tensely, that he was his parents’ only son”. A scandal involving ZB’s brother causes the political family to stir into action to avoid potentially devastating career consequences. This is a really interesting story highlighting the abuse of women when attempting to avenge a family members honour. It also shows the apathy and the theatrics of the political classes.
Its interesting that Mira Sethi doesn’t create likeable characters. Almost all of the protagonists are flawed in some major way, but then this makes them so much more interesting to readers. “Tomboy” is about latent sexuality and the public “respectable” face demanded within Pakistani society. Its about Zarrar and Asha, best friends who spend their youth hanging out and playing Street Fighter II. Zarrar wants to be a fashion designer and the only way this career choice will be accepted by the family is if he gets married first. And thus a marriage to Asha is suggested, signed and sealed. Only its not Zarrar who is interested in men but Asha in women unbeknownst to anyone. Asha goes on to meet Nina, an Interior Designer and family friend of Zarrar, and realises the compromises women have to make, both big and small, in order to live freely.
“Are You Enjoying” the eponymous story of the collection is also the last. It’s the story of twenty-seven year old Soni and her affair with a married man twenty years her senior. You get a sense from the beginning that this won’t end well (does it ever?) but I was still left gobsmacked at how utterly devesting the ending was. Again, the story is about power, women and society and the outcome is not in any way unique to Pakistan but it feels somehow more destructive, more final. It was also an interesting choice to have as the final story as it leaves the reader with an unsettling feeling, like there is somehow more to come. Sethi’s stories are multi-dimensional, with a lot going on in the background of the main thread which makes these interesting talking points and perfect for book discussion groups. I really wished I had someone to discuss each of these stories with.
Mira Sethi writes about a world she knows intimately and therefore her debut collection is really engaging and expertly put together. She creates a world I’m intrigued by and tells stories with flare. Her attention to detail in creating scenes and describing people within this world is incredibly engaging and truthfully, I want to know who each of the characters is based on in the real world, as I sense (or hope) these stories are only half fiction. I would, without hesitation, pick up Sethi’s next book and I would recommend this to people who are interested in reading about Pakistan and seeing it from a more broader lenses than it is usually portrayed.