Are You Enjoying? by Mira Sethi paints a fresh image of Pakistan that inverts traditional assumptions, offering a funny, complicated and nuanced portrayal of the country. There is a great challenge to breaking away from the past, which many of the characters encounter. The short story collection uses relationships (romantic and otherwise) to explore the complexities of navigating modern Pakistan.
The push and pull between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Pakistan is felt most strongly in A Life of Its Own – Part One and A Life of Its Own – Part Two. The stories deal with a family in the political spotlight, though it is the wife of the local councillor, ZB, – an exquisite matriarch with some excellent descriptive qualities – who drives forward this embrace for change.
Although she is aligned with ZB’s open beliefs, daughter-in-law Farah is initially eager to escape the country, dreaming instead of a life in New York as a journalist. A Life of Its Own – Part One addresses Farah’s unrealised dreams, and is a comical yet tender tale of how saving other women allows her to accept her new life and give her purpose.
This isn’t the first time in the collection that the idea of leaving Pakistan is teased to the reader – the idea of emigrating enters most of the characters’ minds. Sethi constructs a love/hate relationship between her protagonists and the country, exploring the dilemma with nuance.
In the first story, Mini Apple, a TV presenter coming to the end of his limelight becomes fascinated with his American embassy-worker neighbour. Though their neighbourhood is described as fortress-like, she expresses her need to be in the more ‘authentic’ Islamabad, living away from the area of the city most of her colleagues reside.
Marianne looks at Pakistan (and the world outside the US) through a privileged lens, surrounding herself with the country’s highest diplomats and top media personalities: ‘“There are, like, fifty liberals in this country and I’ve met all of them.”’ Though she exudes warmth, her impermanence is always felt – and feared – by Javed, the main character, who sees only too well the ease at which his neighbour can move on and chase a new culture.
Intense relationships are often the focus in the stories in Are You Enjoying? The title story is perhaps the closest to a traditional love story, where a bored and lonely young heiress, Soni, embarks on an affair with a former sportsman, Asher, far older than herself.
While the fractured conversations sometimes make this story hard to be immersed in, there is an electrifying beauty to the relationship: ‘When Soni began sleeping with Asher, her mind contemplated, for long moments, the miracle of physical contact…’ The pair rely deeply on one another, each offering a slice of comfort where the other is broken. The story perfectly captures the theme of the overall collection – the lure of suffocating comfort and the traditional, and the scary and electrifying nature that comes with leaving that all behind.
All of the stories in the collection dance under the challenging image of Pakistan, which Sethi attempts to capture through sparse yet considered description. Occasionally, this description feels a little too subtle. Though the collection does offer strong moments that ground the reader firmly –
“Lahore revived to an early-evening clamor: crows gashed black against the sky, horses drawing carts skittish on the roads. Hafeez loved how the azaan rose above the blare of car horns and the call of birds gathering at dusk. It was a mesh of sound that evoked Lahore at its most lonely, its most beautiful.”
– that sing from the page when they appear, the immersion into the environment is sometimes lacking elsewhere. A lot of attention is given to the dynamic characters, where perhaps there is more potential for the cities and towns of Pakistan to come to life in the collection.
Nevertheless the bold personalities in Are You Enjoying? give the collection a refreshing approach to postcolonial literature. The blending of the modern media and entertainment (a nod to Sethi’s own background) and how these align in Pakistan is also unique in its approach and incredibly fun to read. It is a collection that dives, unapologetically, headfirst into a wide range of emotions.
Are You Enjoying? is published by Bloomsbury and is available here.
Mira Sethi is a Pakistani actress and writer. The daughter of journalists Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin, she attended Lahore Grammar School and Cheltenham Ladies’ College then graduated from Wellesley College in 2010; she spent her junior year abroad at Oxford University.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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