Musharraf Ali Farooqi's The Story of a Widow, despite its title that makes one wonder if it is a raunchy tale of a widow (damn you Desperate Housewives for making widows sleazy), is a quaint, charming story of a newly-widowed woman in Karachi, and the trials and tribulations of her past and present, replete with family dramas, backstabbing relatives and more.
The Story of a Widow has no sarcastic phrases, no flowery language, and yet its matter-of-fact tone manages to endear one to the book. While it is certainly not a riveting read, Farooqi manages to make one empathise with Mona the protagonist despite the many flaws in her thinking and reasoning. Although one was torn between wanting to slap Mona silly and a minute later want to give her a hug, it is the contradictions in Mona's personality that make this book worth reading.
The Story of a Widow describes the twists and turns in Mona's life that befall her after husband passes away, the clichés and explanations used to describe widows in Pakistan by one's extended family (usually accompanied by a sigh and tsk-tsk), her meeting a new man Salamat Ali, and how her relationships with her daughters changes following Mona's coming of age, even at the rather advanced age of 50.
Salamat Ali's character is quite wonderful and without giving too much away, makes one wish that the book had been called The Story of a Widower, since his character has the essential elements in a cad: sex, sleaze and scotch, which one would want to read more about.
But where Mona and Salamat's characters are well sketched out, the daughters' characters leave much to be desired. Their characters' complexities go unexplained till the last quarter of the book, by which point no one really cares about them anyway.
The Story of a Widow paints pictures of a time and culture that is long gone and mostly forgotten. The older women wear saris as everyday wear, tea is still a proper social affair; a certain old-fashioned charm can be found in the description of the households and the characters of this book. What's not old-fashioned about the book is the way widows are treated by their relatives; even today, one finds real life Monas in their families, women who try as they might, are either not allowed to live the rest of their life peacefully, or are judged by any choice, as simple as the colour of their sari, that they may make.
The most interesting character, although only a photograph was the portrait of Mona's late husband's Akbar Ahmad, whose description and subsequent expressions throughout the book, delighted one. Farooqi was inspired to write this novel, after he saw a similar portrait hanging in another widow's house, who was about to embark on her second marriage.
So how does an image lead to a book? Farooqi says the rest of the characters were imagined like the story. "All fictional characters are composites of people we know, or impressions we have of them; while they are drawn from life, they are not of actual individuals."
Farooqi says he wrote the book in ten months or so. "I had the complete outline before I started writing. There were some changes made to it during the writing (in an earlier version Salamat Ali had a different fate) but the story did not change in its essence."
The depiction of family politics and scheming by relatives is perhaps something that most Pakistanis can empathise with. One wonders if they were based on real-life characters and events. "No, they weren't", says Farooqi, "All families, like all offices, are playing grounds for closet politicians. When seen from a child's eye the family world looks very innocent. Its layers of relationships and politics become noticeable when one grows up. A storywriter experiments by developing imaginary scenarios from these observations, and populating them with imaginary characters. The success or failure of the experiment depends on how credible it sounds."
Farooqi's claim to fame, at least in Pakistan, has been his translation of Amir Hamza, which generated rave reviews in both the local and foreign press. Hence one is rather curious how Farooqi went from translating epics like Amir Hamza and Hoshruba: The Land and The Tilism, to a book like The Story of a Widow. Farooqi says he likes the disparity in styles, but it doesn't dictate his choices in fiction writing." For me, the content of a work of fiction dictates its style. The language of the novel I am working on currently is more baroque. On the other hand, the language of the graphic fable Rabbit Rap, being written simultaneously, is very different from the baroque language of the new novel and the sparse text of The Story of a Widow. With a work of translation one is bound to the language of the original, although one still has to make choices of style."
Musharraf Ali Farooqi started his career as a sub-editor for The News, and moved to Canada a few years later. His former colleagues say he was extremely popular, a non-conformist and quite witty. The wit shines through even in a simple question I put to him about his writing process and where he writes. "The first requirements for good writing are a good-sized piece of bread and a sweet cup of tea in which that bread can be dipped and eaten. I can write anywhere, on the buses, while sitting on a street corner -- although it helps greatly if one has a chair. But I cannot write near crying children even if I am given a chair."
Farooqi includes many of the great Urdu writers as his inspirations. "Among Urdu fiction writers, Azeem Baig Chughtai, Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, Shafiqur Rahman, Syed Muhammad Ashraf, Ghulam Abbas, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Naiyer Masud, Syed Rafique Husain, Manto, Ashraf Subuhi and countless other writers whom I read when growing up. Most of my reading in my adult years was in translations from foreign languages. My all time favourites among old masters are Alexander Dumas, Dickens and Victor Hugo-- reading them is always pleasurable."
Farooqi needs to be credited on three fronts for The Story of a Widow. First, for portraying and without using flowery prose, the difficulties married folks go through. From the lying to the penny pinching, husbands are not the princes that everyone makes them out to be. Second, for using a mere portrait on a wall as a tool to set the mood of each scene and succeeding in doing so. Third, for staying away from the clichés that seem to invade every novel in English that has been set in Karachi in recent years. And lastly, for writing freely about the way families, especially those in the middle and upper-middle class, function in Pakistan. Whether it is their reliance on their son-in-laws, or the way husbands are manipulated by their wives or how widows are treated in the Pakistani society, Farooqi bares all about the dynamics of relationships, especially complex ones involving a woman who marries for the second time.
"So does every woman" I ask Farooqi, "have a little bit of Mona, flaws and all, inside them?" "Someone may claim that The Story of a Widow is a universal story, but I neither claim nor disclaim that Mona is a universal woman," says Farooqi. "A story becomes universal if people from other cultures, other world views empathise with it. But I, as the author of a fictitious character, cannot make such a big claim about a character. If some people identify with Mona I feel pleased that I have presented a credible character. I really can't ask for more."The Story of a Widow
By Musharraf Ali Farooqi
Publisher: Picador India, 2009