In her electric debut, Sarvat Hasin re-imagines the classic Little Women in Karachi, Pakistan with the story flitting between London, Paris and the island of Manora. While Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was an uncomplicated story of a family dealing with practicalities of life, Hasin’s This Wide Night is a dark and gritty story of a family of unconventional women, the Maliks, who are far ahead of their time.
Set in the early 1970s Karachi, the story is told through Jimmy or Jamal, the next door neighbor of the Maliks. A loner in his head and heart, Jimmy is enamored by the four Malik sisters and cautiously watches them from across the wall that separates their houses. A chance encounter with one of them brings him at the periphery of the closely-knit Malik household. He hides in a half-dark study with Ayesha Malik from the crowd in a party. Their friendship develops quickly and thickly as only can happen between two people who for the first time in their lives find themselves opening up to another person outside of their own self. As his closeness with Ayesha grows so does with the Malik family. Jimmy is drawn towards them, these women with their raw physical energy reverberating around the house. But the boy next door can only come as close as to the family as they would let him to.
Maria, Ayesha, Bina, and Leila: the four beautiful Malik sisters with their “willow-like bodies and long hair”, each same yet different as only sisters could be, are warily watched over by their liberal mother. Their father, the elusive Captain Malik, is absent from home most of the time, like Homer’s Odysseus leaving his Penelope behind with her children. Only here, Mehrunissa, the Captain’s wife does not pine after her husband like Penelope. She is quite content with her four daughters building a world of freedom devoid of an authoritarian male voice dictating their every move in a patriarchal and restrictive society:
Most mothers wouldn’t have let their daughters be friends with a boy they didn’t even know but Mehrunissa wasn’t most mothers. Most wouldn’t have let Ayesha dress the way she did, with her man’s clothes and loose hair. They might not have encouraged their daughters to play in the sun or told them to rough around less. Mehrunissa said she was raising modern young women to live in a modern young world.
However, Karachi of 1970s was not yet modern or young for the unconventional Malik women. The Malik women never really belong to the society they live in. Neither does Jimmy ever truly belong to the Malik household in spite of his desperate yearning to be a part of them, “to be a Malik”. A man can never really tear through the veil behind which women’s secrets and histories lie. He can never break through the complex shadowed relationship that exist between women. Later, to avoid being tangled up in a mess that young idle boys sometimes tend to do, Jimmy is sent off to London where his outsider-ness becomes more palpable. The sense of un-belonging becomes the undoing of all the characters as tragic events unfold, breaking them all apart at the seams.
Written in the three-act structure, a format Hasin claims to have a weakness for, the three parts of the story move in a languid pace developing a dream-like haze with Jimmy’s poetic narration. A persistent sense of foreboding hovers over the narrative, which then climaxes like a nightmare coming true. You are haunted by the world of the five Malik women, even after you have pulled yourself away from the pages of the book. It is somewhat akin to Jimmy’s feverish longing for them, as he makes his solitary way through London. He falls into the trap of building up romanticized versions of the people he once knew. A human blunder brought on by a long period of physical and emotional distance without any possibility of getting in touch with reality. It only drives him further away from them, even when he comes back to Karachi.
I walked into a roomand their conversations dropped to the floorboards the way heavy books do, kicking up dust. Strange to think that I was once part of their secrets.
It is risky to base your debut on a much-loved classic. However, it is just the essential family dynamics that the Marchs from Little Women and the Maliks in This Wide Night have in common. Thus, Sarvat Hasin’s book is just what it is, a book inspired by Louisa Alcott’s classic rather than being a re-adaptation. Hasin, who is also an editor at the literary magazine The Stockholm Review, deftly carries her story to make it stand on its own in its own space and time. Her writing is evocative, throwing up strong images that remain imprinted in the mind for a long time. This is a voice to indeed watch out for.
Their car was still in the driveway while we talked. Maria unwrapping the last globe of chocolate with her fingers and bringing it to her mouth. He was tapping his fingers against the dashboard and singing to her, head bopping as he did so and not stopping even when she screwed up the wrapper and lobbed it neatly at his head. The car skittering back into the road and taking them places none of us on the patio knew anything about.