Have you ever wanted to read Little Women only from the point of view of Laurie?
No? Me neither. Nonetheless, here it is -- 27-year-old Sarvat Hasin’s debut novel, This Wide Night, published by Penguin. Set in Karachi, Pakistan, during the 1970s and through the Bangladesh War, this book isn’t just inspired by the Louisa May Alcott novel, but lifts entire characters and scenarios from the 1868 classic. This, in itself, is an interesting concept: to impose the problems of white women from 19th century England onto five brown women in the 20th century. But it could also be an oversimplification of the very distinct differences between the struggles of Caucasian feminists and Women of Colour. While reading This Wide Night, I was inclined to think the latter rather than cheer the desi revival of a childhood favourite.
This Wide Night is supposed to follow the lives of five “eccentric” women in highly patriarchal Pakistani society. The characters include the smart, quiet one, Maria (or Meg), spritely writer-wannabe Ash (or Jo), quiet Bina (or Beth), charming and ditzy Leila (or Amy), and their mother. Their father, the Captain, works in the Pakistani Army; eventually he goes to fight in the India-Bangladesh War. Maria dabbles in teaching before marrying a senior professor; Ash never gets to go to journalism school, Leila gets to see Paris and reject this version of Laurie aka Jimmy, a rich half-French boy who is the women’s neighbour.
From the beginning, this book is as it promises to be: a knock-off Little Women. Ash (or Jo) and Jimmy (aka Laurie) even meet while hiding during a party thrown by a snooty side character. Perhaps this is homage; perhaps it’s a bold strategy, but for some key issues.
Little Women was, in its time, a look into women’s lives unencumbered by a male perspective. This is why the classic is written in an omniscient voice.
This Wide Night tells its story in the voice of the sixth character. The reader sees its world from Jimmy’s (or Laurie’s) eyes, hears his thoughts and ideas of the female characters. Hasin does a rather self-assured job of imitating a privileged boy’s voice. When Maria starts teaching at Jimmy’s school, he describes her womanly presence to be like honey, a phrase that’s so typically overused by male authors that even Naipaul might not be able to exercise his special powers of being able to tell the gender of this writer through her language.
Using this POV means a considerable portion of the novel follows a man’s existential crisis. This dilutes the women’s stories. At times, their presence in the book is solely via the narrator’s thoughts. This leaves huge gaps in the stories of the women, making This Wide Night yet another piece of fiction that uses its female ‘protagonists’ as mere mirrors through which we witness yet another rich man’s existential crisis. I rarely say books need to have a purpose, but if one is writing tales of women, isn’t it safe to say it is best told through the eyes of a woman? By using omniscience, Alcott avoided this mousetrap of a question entirely; but Hasin’s novel is trapped by it and unable to gnaw its way out.
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This is most apparent in the middle of the book, when the India-Bangladesh War breaks out and The Captain is taken away to fight for his country. The five women are probably making their own sacrifices. Lack of food, clothing, money, law and order are all likely issues they may face as Pakistani women in Karachi, a city that has always been fraught with tension, even during its well-known flamboyant incarnation in the 1970s. In the middle of the book, the mother is asked about her husband’s health, and mentions that women have their own problems too. But, it is in passing only. What are these problems? Does the reader get to live them through these women or even see them through Jimmy’s eyes? No. He is immediately flown to London and thereafter a chunk of the book is dedicated to describing his boring existence in the United Kingdom. What are the sacrifices these women make during wartime? What are their hopes and dreams that are killed by the fighting? We don’t know, because we are never told, because Jimmy is not there.
This is the true tragedy of this book. The female characters and what they go through is supposed to be the spine of the story. Alas the narrator is all wrong. As a result, if it weren’t for the hard cover, I’d say this novel is spineless.
Avantika Mehta is an independent journalist. She lives in Delhi.