They say Pakistanis are obsessed with two things: Cricket and Politics. To that, I would add one more thing that all of us love to talk about in our drawing rooms: Weddings. Whether we are single or married, we have been involved in some conversation that revolves around marriage. Aunties will ask you at a gathering when you will marry. Other will suggest you potential suitors. In Pakistan, there is no dearth of anything related to weddings: our TV dramas revolve around marriages; we have regular bridal fashion shows nationwide; new designers crop with their take on bridal dresses.
Which is why Shezaf Fatima Haider’s debut novel “How It Happened” becomes a very apt book for readers today. Though it was published in 2013, I just finished reading it a while ago upon the recommendation from a friend. I cannot tell you how much fun I had reading this book.
The story is focused on a Shia Bandian family, where we have Dadi who is adamant that her grandchildren are married the way she deems successful marriages to be: arranged. At the start of the book, she narrates of her weddings in her ancestral village of Bhakuraj, which serves as a benchmark for successful marriages.
Haroon, the eldest of the three grandchildren, is the first to go through the marriage process, and in a rather hilarious chapter, we see his potential suitors and how everyone reacts to the potential bride to be, which should be all too familiar to everyone who’s been through the introduction phase. Haroon has his “list” of requirement of what his wife should be, and so does Dadi.
While Haroon’s marriage may not have taken a turbulent path, it is the sister Zeba Baji, who creates a ruckus in the family by choose to have a love marriage. The defiant attitude doesn’t bode well with the Dadi at all and so causes a friction. Zeba is the sort who will “date” and not settle for marriage for “pleasure.”
All of this is narrated by the very observant, sharp-eyed 15-year-old Saleha, the youngest one in the family. So sharp are her observant skills, she picks up the minutest of details of potential suitors who frequent the house. There is a lot of delight to be able to witness her observations, such as “tray trollies” that is prepared for every meeting.
The greatest thing about Haider’s novel is that she doesn’t take any sides. We are merely shown both the arranged and love marriages, and the readers are left to make up their own minds. There is no correct formula for what works, for there is nothing wrong with arranged set up, neither will one be disowned if they choose to have a love marriage. So well researched is the novel that many parts of the book will remind you of someone or some event that you may have witnessed.
While the novel is humorous and funny, there is an underlying tone which is much more serious. The old generation and the new generation are at odds with one another. You hear of a love marriage end up in a divorce, and you hear of an arranged marriage that is successful. Pre conceived notions are challenged, and as mentioned earlier, we are left to draw up our own conclusions about what makes a marriage works.
The book’s chapters are rather witty, with titles like “How Haroon Was Tied to the Knot” and “How a Phone Call Created Complications,” which makes for a light, breezy reading. Just like we had strong debut novels from Mohsin Hamid with Moth Smoke and Mohammad Hanif with The Case of Exploding Mangos, we have a strong novel from Haider too.
It’s definitely a very apt novel which should be read by every Pakistani for it’s sheer brilliance in detailing the idea of marriages. We are made aware of the idea that marriages are not made in heaven but rather in the drawings room with Dadi, the parents and the rest of the family, which is a rather beautiful element: family connections (this concept is further elaborated when Dadi talks about marriage between two families, not just two individuals). Most importantly, Haider wants us to know that while marrying off your child may be one of the most difficult things a parent can do, it is indeed important to have a sense of humour and to somehow laugh your way through the journey.
Originally published in Royal Palm Golf and Country Club magazine, January 2016