It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a beautiful, middle-aged widow with an independent fortune must be in need of a husband.” How easily the opening line of Pride and Prejudice can be tweaked to fit Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s The Story of A Widow! And I am not the only reader seeing the ghost of Austen here — Mohammad Hanif’s slightly over-the-top commendation on the jacket ends with the line, “If Jane Austen had grown up in a Karachi suburb, this is what she would have written.”
Much as the idea of a burqa-clad Austen boggles the imagination, I can see Hanif’s point. Marriage is Farooqi’s focus, domestic interactions his preoccupation, and satire his manner. Like Austen too, Farooqi confines the world of his novel to a few families, not caring — at least on the face of it — to make explicit the connections between this microcosm, and the larger world, in this instance, of political uncertainty, religious fundamentalism, economic turbulence.
Farooqi’s Lizzy/Marianne then is middle aged Mona, caught between two men — one, her dead husband, the stolid bureaucrat Akbar Ahmad, and the other, her suitor Salamat Ali, the rather crude, yet attractive no-gooder (remember Wickham, Willoughby, et al?) — and muddling her way to self-realisation. Should she, the mother of two married girls, pursue her own happiness in the face of vehement opposition from her daughters and their husbands? And, more important, does her happiness lie with Salamat Ali, about whom she knows very little, and who everyone suspects is really after her money?
Mona’s dilemma between her resurgent vanity and her prejudices against her husband, between her own desires and the dictates of her family, forms the core of The Story of A Widow.
This is a story told with psychological insight, a little sentimentality and — thankfully — a light touch that does not lose sight of the slight ridiculousness of a 50 year old woman in the throes of girlish passion, and beginning her connubial life in full sight of an enlarged portrait of her first husband hanging in her living room.
Apparently, it was one such portrait that Farooqi claims he saw in a house in Toronto, of a dead husband surveying the room with a “magisterial air” from its perch over the rocking chair of the present husband, that set him off on the train of thought that resulted in this novel. “I wondered what kind of relationship existed between the two gentlemen,” he writes.
As it turns out, it’s the comic potential in the relationship between the wife and the man in the portrait that seems to have interested Farooqi more — the repressive, insensitive, penny-pinching Akbar Ahmad, now helplessly ‘fixed’ in a frame, who can only look on with “shock and disbelief” as the wife he had treated as a doormat all his life overturns every single belief he had lived by. As the plot progresses and Mona starts to shake off his influence, the portrait emerges as her alter ego — the contrarian voice of sanity that keeps a check on her feelings. Significantly, thus, by the end of the novel, the portrait disappears — signifying Mona’s coming into her own as an individual who needs neither Akbar Ahmad’s approval of her as a wife/mother nor Salamat Ali's endorsement of her as an attractive woman.