Have been reading Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s delicate, carefully observed novel The Story of a Widow, about a Karachi-based woman discovering romance relatively late in life. As a huge fan of Farooqi’s English translation of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza (see these earlier posts), I couldn’t help thinking about the contrast between that book and this work of original fiction. The Adventures of Amir Hamza is a big book in every sense – a larger-than-life epic featuring impossibly grand and heroic characters, and written in florid language that replicates the style of medieval campfire storytelling. The Story of a Widow, on the other hand, is a gently unfolding contemporary story about subtle shifts in relationships, the quiet workings of family politics and emotional manipulation in a conservative society. It’s written in a sparse, conversational style, and even the chapter titles are minimalist: “The Widow”, “The Man Next Door”, “The Letter”, “The Family” and so on. (Just by the way, here’s a typical chapter head from the Amir Hamza book: “Of Buzurjmehr’s Relating the Emperoro’s Dream at the Appointed Hour, and of Alqash’s Life Being Claimed in Retribution”!)
The novel’s central character is a woman who would have been decidedly out of place in the company of Hamza and Amar Ayyar: a middle-aged widow named Mona Ahmad who, as the story begins, is coming to terms with her newfound independence and mulling the end of a secure but loveless (and generally boring) married life that had lasted three decades. She doesn’t have much to complain about, her deceased husband Akbar having left her well provided for; but he was financially conservative during his lifetime and now his large portrait seems to frown upon her when she indulges in a bit of impulse shopping.
Just as Mona is settling into her new life, a man named Salamat Ali moves into her elderly neighbour’s house as a tenant and begins to show an interest in her – an interest that culminates in a formally worded marriage proposal. Now she has to assess her own feelings about the matter while also dealing with the various ways in which the people close to her will be affected: her married daughters, her sister and the more orthodox elders in the family. Questions of impropriety and dishonour are raised; another attempt at matchmaking is made; a daughter who was particularly close to her father becomes resentful when she realises that her mother wasn’t happy in her marriage.
I thought Farooqi’s portrayal of Mona’s emotional turbulence, her vacillating feelings about Salamat's discreet but cheeky courtship methods, the many insecurities – all of which seem more suited to a college girl in love for the first time than to a woman of her age – was done with particular sensitivity. But equally notable is how we are made to realise that Mona’s decision to accept Salamat’s proposal – though apparently a sign of a progressive willingness to get on with her life – might simply be a kneejerk act of defiance, and that it could lead to a different sort of enslavement rather than deliverance from social strictures. What does it really mean to be independent, and to what extent are our actions determined by others' expectations of us (even when we think we aren’t answerable to them)? By the time Mona's story reaches its bittersweet conclusion, she has probably had occasion to think about these questions. It's a very engrossing journey.
P.S. A special word for Moonis Ijlal’s beautiful cover design. And here’s an interesting little piece by Farooqi that touches on a novelist's complicated relationship with his creations; it's best read after you’ve read the book.