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Austenistan: Pakistan's love for Jane Austen could rival the Darcy-Elizabeth romance

Even as a recent study declared that Colin Firth was nothing like the real Fitzwilliam Darcy (which sent every Firth-Darcy fan into a tizzy), we'd never have an ideal Darcy or several Darcy-like clones in the future if it weren't for Jane Austen and her near-perfect portrayal of the aloof, romantic hero.

And 200 hundred years later, the brooding, romantic lead of Pride and Prejudice is still one of the most sought-after fictional heroes — the guy has dedicated Facebook groups, online quizzes, spin-offs and adaptions to his character and even a sex pheromone named after him. There's no doubt that Darcy has stood the test of time as an ideal man, but it only points to Austen's astute power in creating a character so timeless, that even millennials are charmed by the Regency era bloke.

 Austenistan: Pakistans love for Jane Austen could rival the Darcy-Elizabeth romance

Let's take a moment to absorb the wonder that is Colin Forth as Mr Darcy

Today, there are perhaps few readers who haven't chanced upon Austen's novels, and fewer still who haven't marvelled at her ability to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary — ideas, circumstances and events that still hold good today and are still relevant. For the non-readers (and those generally not a fan of the writer), Austen novels are just about everywhere — a truth universally acknowledged (heh). These empire waistline wonders and Regency gentility cravats have got the cinematic treatment in the many reinventions of Pride and Prejudice (1940, '58, '67, '80, 2003, 2005, 2014), and the obvious choices such as Sense & Sensibility (1995), Clueless (1995), Emma (1996) and Austenland (2013)… But the Austen film cannon isn't complete without the mention of modern-y Bollywood-meets-Eng Lit Bride and Prejudice (2004), the dreamy Kandukondein Kandukondein (2000; interestingly, both movies had Aishwarya Rai as the wide-eyed protagonist) or the glamorous, yet slightly pointless Aisha (2010).

Bollywood isn't immune to Jane Austen's charms

Bollywood isn't immune to Jane Austen's charms

It's not just the subcontinent that's quite taken with the Regency era's rigid matrimonial rules that so frightfully echo theirs like arranged marriages, match-making parents, viewing women as "burden" to be quickly married off and the value of family as a cohesive unit. It's also Japan, Turkey, Korea and China that share an equal love-hate relationship with the author.

And then there's Pakistan.

Austen's books are so relevant to the country's society that journalist Laaleen Sukhera found it necessary to start the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan (JASP) in 2015, where the members meet "every once in a while" in the Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore chapters and once a year have a dress-up party to talk all things Austen. Thanks to pop culture and the women of JASP, we now have Austenistan, a collection of seven short stories that pay homage to Jane Austen. And 21st century Pakistan, it seems, has a lot in common with 19th century England — there are single men in possession of a good fortune and naturally, there are families with a good eye for wealth, hoping that their daughter would be noticed in Pakistani society dinner parties. Imagine Jane Austen books sprinkled with a bit of garam masala.

I ask Sukhera about the Regency era's modern-day counterpart and her cheerful voice booms over the phone, as she talks about society weddings and country houses. "We do have a season like the Regency world. They had balls in London, which tended to be provincial. Here we have society weddings — the  ones where you're 'seen' and that's where people go for spotting the prettiest young girls and the most eligible young men who are home from abroad, or who's available these days. The whole family is there and this is during the winters. During the summer, back then they used to retire to their country estate; here, people will go to Dubai for a weekend or to farmhouses or to house up in the hills," she says.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a love for Jane Austen abounds in unexpected quarters of the world

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a love for Jane Austen abounds in unexpected quarters of the world

The way Asia has kept alive Austen's legacy with its class distinctions in marriages, tasteful soirees, romantic courtships and dreamy settings not only comes alive in Austenistan but the anthology also looks at peeling back the layers and examines the "happily ever afters". And keeping a legacy alive is an important job and a huge one at that and while it's easy to believe that part of the credit goes to the subcontinent where arranged marriages are common, it mostly boils down to women's rights and privileges. Take the 'expiration date' analogy for a single woman for example: In the 19th century, women married young, giving rise to the notion that a woman beyond a certain age (aka "marriageable" age), who was yet to be married wasn't sought after. That her appeal had an expiration date. The age might be a little different now, but the idea remains the same.

But Austen's legacy is not all about eligible bachelors and classy romance that have us reaching for her books year after year; she also critiqued the patriarchy not just through her male characters, but through the forces behind them: money, morals and emotions. Romance was just a stand-in for social commentary. Jenni Waugh, the social media manager and walking tour guide for The Jane Austen Centre, who came across Austen through Pride and Prejudice when she was a teenager, says the author is still relevant because "although times change, human emotions don’t, and our basic dreams and desires don’t either. Plenty of us are still looking for our perfect partner (Marianne Dashwood), or trying to climb social ladders (Sir Walter Elliot), or trying to organise the lives of everyone around us (Emma Woodhouse). Austen's novels observe human nature with such a keen eye that we can still identify the same characters that she wrote about within our everyday lives. But, to be brief, I suppose she matters, and will continue to matter, for as long as she brings joy to people and has an impact on their lives. She matters because we believe she matters."

Laleen Sukhera (R) before she heads out for a meeting of the Jane Austen Society in Pakistan

Laleen Sukhera (R) before she heads out for a meeting of the Jane Austen Society in Pakistan

Truly, as Waugh put it, Austen still matters, because human nature simply doesn't change, whether 30 years or 100 years or 200 years have passed. Our privileges and lack of them are still connected to the people with us, those who live next to us and those around the world. Like Mansfield Park, published in 1814, in which Austen brings out the economic and social disadvantages of being a woman. Fanny Price's lack of autonomy, her struggle for personal dignity that's denied to women today (even more so for those of a lower class and caste) and the necessity of marriage that's thrust upon her (Price rejects the suitor her family has chosen and goes on to marry the man she loves), all reflect a society that's very familiar to us. Except our privilege makes us blind to it.

It's a number of characteristics like this — the ability to hold a mirror to society, to shine a light on human suffering, to illuminate social strictures in our communities — that make Austen still popular today, believes Claire Bellanti, president of the Jane Austen Society of North America. "She writes psychologically true characters — we all know someone obsequious like Mr Collins or indelicate like MrsBennett. In addition, Austen does not give overt lessons in morality as did most of her contemporary novelists. She views her fellow humans and their society with an ironic eye, pointing out all of their foibles and failures. And yet, she generally treats them kindly.  Only a few of the worst specimens — Lady Catherine, Mr Wickham, Mr Willoughby for example — have few or no redeeming characteristics. Most of the characters in her novels and juvenilia are a mix of good impulses and poor judgement. And Austen makes us laugh at the examples of poor judgement and ill behaviour," she says.

An illustration from Pride and Prejudice

An illustration from Pride and Prejudice

It's also her repartee and that quick controlled wit and masterful irony, which make us burst out laughing, that's a huge part of her triumph. It's her work's adaptability — whether into crazy zombie fiction (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), murder mystery (Death Comes to Pemberly), sex parody (Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts) or memes — that has snarked and snapped its way into a super canon. Her work gathers strength when it passes through adaptations, parodies, homages and sequels, which only attests to the fact that the range of interpretations that her stories permit are endless. The world of Austen which started with six novels by the author continues to expand with more material for the new Austen-fan to peruse: she's gone from class to mass appeal. And thanks to pop culture, the average Austen reader 10 years from now might not start with Pride and Prejudice the novel but perhaps with a sci-fi rendition of it? That said, each generation will look at her work differently, maybe looking to find a reflection of themselves in her work.

Thankfully, Sukhera ties it all together for me; that Austen was very much a woman far ahead of her own time. "Because when you read her work, it doesn't feel like you're reading something that was written so long ago, it doesn't feel dated — it  still feels fresh, the dialogue is so witty, the descriptions aren't very long, it still leaves a lot to your imagination and the characters resonate over centuries, and they probably will over more centuries. We still see them around us, we still identify with them. We don't feel like the heroines are terribly old fashioned; in fact they're independent. There are social constraints on them, but hey — that's what we relate to. They're sorta like us! We're feminists but we're still trying to operate within social codes. We still cannot escape the 'marriage market' either; we're still expected to 'settle down'!"

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Updated Date: Dec 02, 2017 21:06:01 IST

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