Caroline Spalding, Features Correspondent
Review: Are You Enjoying By Mira Sethi
Mira Sethi’s collection of short stories brings contemporary Pakistan to life in vibrant colour: it is a compelling insight into a culture about which we might make assumptions, and the fresh perspective she offers will cause us to take a second look.
Her characters leap from the pages; their voices, their opinions are often bold, their actions sometimes defiant. Their world is an infusion of modernity underpinned by tradition; their culture is a rich blend of both. The young aren’t dismissive of the customs that are woven through the fabric of society, although sometimes in secret they may be less sympathetic. They have respect, they feel deference, but they know their own minds, their own desires, and sometimes they will break the rules to obtain them.
We meet Mehak, a young actress keen to make a name for herself, but when her own honour holds her back on set, her values, her integrity, are just tossed to one side. In another story, ZB is a woman who knows how to hold her ground. She is the wife of a politician, but it she who has the true power, the influence. Her son, it seems, has abandoned his career overseas through loyalty and devotion to his mother, providing her with support that is no longer necessary, but tacitly expected. His tired wife dreams of moving away, declares the women of her husband’s family to be ‘control freaks’ and longs to break free. ZB is a woman motivated by cause – she strives to rescue those who’ve been shunned by society or fallen victim to outdated custom in a culture in which such action no longer has a place. Theirs is a household of wealth; and ZB turns her attention to the less fortunate – but we question what her true motivation really is.
Elsewhere, we meet Javed, a man who might otherwise be quite reserved, and who embarks on an affair – I think he is both surprised by and grateful for the kindness and attention displayed by his lover. But ultimately, he is not immune from the disappointments life often throws at us, in work and in love. His pain is real, but to the world outside, he remains unmoved – perhaps his reserve holds true.
Throughout the collection we witness the raw, sharp feelings of the characters; quite often conflicted, not always sure of the correct path to follow. It is unsurprising as we witness the clash between tradition and modernity – which customs are to be respected, which are no longer acceptable? The characters appear inclined to spurn convention, ignore the unspoken rules they are obliged to obey, and instead risk the consequences of following their inner desires; softly rebelling against custom that might, in a previous life, have restrained them. Yet they are prone to emotion, to hurt, to loss and to sorrow. They, like Javed, might choose to suppress their inner turmoil, and face the world with a blank, if not non-committal expression. In this respect, perhaps they do still feel the pressures of obligation – or perhaps it is just that they believe personal feelings have no place. But again there is a conflict: after all, we see that there are members of this society who feel compelled by a cause, whether misguided or not, which warrants a violent outpouring of emotion and action.
Sethi’s characters are all so unflinchingly honest – in the stories, their thoughts and feelings are expressed without reserve. None is written from a first-person perspective, but their personalities are revealed through their exchanges, and their own reflections. In one, Soni, realising the fruitless nature of her affair, assesses her own behaviour, and her reluctance to take action. Yet she knows without intervention, she will only continue to suffer. She considers herself, “not with the kindness of introspection, but with the punitive inquiry of the present: a woman trailed always by her own shrieking effigy of herself.”
The title of the book asks us a question – “Are you enjoying?” – and I believe this is not a prosaic question directed at the reader; instead, it is asked of the characters themselves. A more probing enquiry might ask, ‘in your constructed reality, in the illusion you hide behind to relish in your inner self, are you truly happy?’ And, on reflection, one wonders how many could positively affirm, ‘yes, I truly am.’
Are You Enjoying
is published by Bloomsbury