Book Talk: The tale of an arranged marriage in Pakistan

NEW DELHI Thu Mar 14, 2013 4:08am EDT

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Shazaf Fatima Haider was always interested in how it happened. How strangers met in contrived settings, were expected to like each other and get married.

Eventually, the 30-year-old teacher from Karachi saw the funny side of arranged marriages and cultural backgrounds in Pakistan and decided it was the perfect subject for her debut novel, "How It Happened."

The book, recently launched in India and Pakistan, is the story of Dadi, the matriarch of the Bandian family in Karachi, and her quest to find the perfect Shia Muslim groom for her granddaughter Zeba. Told from the point of view of Zeba's younger sibling Saleha, the novel explores how negotiating ancient marriage traditions in the 21st century could stretch a family to the end of its tether.

Haider spoke with Reuters about her book, Pakistani culture and writing.

Q: How much of "How It Happened" is inspired by real life?

A: Well, some of it was inspired by what I saw around me. I grew up listening to stories of my mother's home town in India and so the fictional town of "Bhakuraj" was born as this vital, bizarre place full of eccentric people. My grandparents died before I was born and I yearned to have a grandmother to be the kind of force that Dadi in "How It Happened" was to Saleha, so I think the yearning gave birth to the narrator and the grandmother, who are my two favourite characters in the novel. Soon after, the Bandians were born and they are quite unlike my actual family. After that, the story took shape and the rest is what is in the pages before you.

Q: Tell us a bit about your research for the novel.

A: No research, what you read is what popped up in my head. I was always very interested in what men and women went through in the process of arranged marriages and had been at the listening end of many a rant by an irate person of eligible age and status. I also had a few suitors grace my drawing room with their presence and I witnessed their discomfort with considerable amusement. And then, one day my friend called me and told me that a prospective mum-in-law had told her that she was interested in my friend because she was an American citizen (her son wanted a passport-holder) I thought, what a perfect subject-matter for satire. So off I went to write and out came "How It Happened".

Q: Did your family know that you were writing the novel?

A: It was a secret. I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to finish it, or that it wouldn't be good enough. One of my closest friends, Sameer Khan, was my only reader and critic - he was a med student but he still read each chapter I wrote and gave detailed feedback. The book wouldn't have been written without his constant encouragement.

Q: Sectarian violence is threatening Pakistan's stability at the moment. The Shia-Sunni rivalry is also a dominant thread in the novel. Do you see things changing any time soon?

A: Oh things are changing, of course, but it's different for different families. Never make the mistake that what is happening on the political scene is a representative of what the ordinary citizen thinks or wants -- people desire unity, peace and stability, not violence and bloodshed. In my family specifically, the Shia-Sunni thing isn't such a big deal any more -- many Zebas have come before us. But I know that some other families would like to stick together with the same religious flock.

Q: Through this novel, what is it that you wanted to say about marriages and cultural backgrounds in Pakistan? Was a humorous novel your first choice?

A: I didn't want to write a didactic novel and I hope I haven't. Humour was the natural choice because it's such a bizarre arrangement, getting strangers to meet in contrived settings and expecting them to like each other. Even animals have difficulty with breeding in captivity! I hope people will read the book and have a good laugh. Because to survive this system with grace, a good sense of humour is vital.

Q: Which is your favourite compliment yet for "How It Happened"?

A: I was very happy to learn that my male readers were enjoying it as much as my female readers. The cover seems to imply that women are the primary audience for this novel, but don't men suffer the rigours of the arranged marriage? One of them tweeted to me and said that he had loved it and that I rocked. And I think he rocked for saying that."

Q: What next after "How It Happened"? Is there scope for a sequel or a novel about education in Pakistan?

A: I am half-way through my second novel but I realize that I'm going to have to change the tone of the story completely which involves a complete re-write. It has nothing to do with "How It Happened". There is certainly scope for a sequel, though I'm not sure I want to visit the world of the Bandians any further. I've lived with them intimately and enjoyed my time with them. It's time for them to go their way and for me to go mine.

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: Submit as much as you write. Don't reject your own work when there are a thousand other people, agents and publishing houses to do that for you. And don't think your words are sacred - they are not - be open to changing tone or voice or anything such to serve the cause of your story telling. Don't show your work to everyone because everyone will have a different idea of what constitutes good writing. Find that one person whose opinion you trust and show your work to them.

(Reporting by Tony Tharakan; Editing by)

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