The many flavors of Jane Austen

Uzma Jalaluddin Uzma Jalaluddin

When novelist Sonali Dev recently launched her new novel, Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, she mentioned at her release party that it is one of a handful of Jane Austen rewrites with South Asian characters. It doesn’t take much to work out that Dev’s book is a take on Pride and Prejudice, and other authors like Soniah Kamal and Uzma Jalaluddin have also written their own takes on Pride and Prejudice while Debeshi Goopta has a new novel inspired by Persuasion.

Each of these novels transposes the story to different ethnicities in South Asia and the diaspora. Dev’s book centers around an Indian woman in the San Francisco Bay Area, while Kamal’s takes place in Pakistan, Jalaluddin’s protagonists are Muslim Indians in Toronto, and Goopta’s characters are Bengalis. No matter the background, the one common thread—besides being inspired by Jane Austen—is that stories with South Asian characters seem to resonate more with the social issues Austen wrote about in the early 1800s than they would in Anglo communities now.

For one, arranged marriage is still popular in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, even in those diaspora communities. So when characters in these novels discuss marriage without ever going on a date, it remains believable.

 

Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal (Ballantine, January 2019)
Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal (Ballantine, January 2019)

Of these, Soniah Kamal’s novel, Unmarriageable, is the most direct adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The main protagonist, Alys Banit, has sisters named Jena, Qitty, Mari, and Lady, which sound awfully similar to Austen’s original Bennett sisters: Jane, Elizabeth, Kitty, Mary, and Lydia. Even the dashing Mr Darcy becomes Mr Darcee in Kamal’s book. And the notorious Mr Wickham is Wickaam in Unmarriageable. Kamal’s story is humorous with biting dialogue and social commentary à la Austen. She addresses conspicuous consumption, the pressure on women to marry up—or at all—and the double standards when it comes to gender roles.

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, Sonali Dev (William Morrow, May 2019)
Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, Sonali Dev (William Morrow, May 2019)

Dev approaches her Pride and Prejudice-inspired novel with a shift in gender roles. So in Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, the Mr Darcy character is actually the female protagonist and wealthy neurosurgeon, Trisha, while the Jane Bennet character is a male chef named DJ. (Trisha’s patient is DJ’s sister and has an aggressive brain tumor only Trisha can remove.) Even the Mr Wickham character—the manipulative cheat in Pride and Prejudice—is played by a female in Dev’s adaptation. Unlike in the other Pride and Prejudice rewrites, Dev’s characters aren’t involved in arranged marriages and don’t have family members that wish to arrange their marriages. The families do pressure their grown children to “marry well”, though.

Ayesha At Last, Uzma Jalaluddin (HarperAvenue, June 2018; Berkely, June 2019; Corvus, April 2019)
Ayesha At Last, Uzma Jalaluddin (HarperAvenue, June 2018; Berkely, June 2019; Corvus, April 2019)

Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last centers around Toronto millennials who belong to the same mosque. Ayesha is approaching the age where matchmakers have all but given up on her, while her cousin Hafsa is several years younger and quite the catch. Ayesha is a poet and teacher and meets Khalil through her best friend, Clara, a human resources staff member at Khalil’s workplace. Khalil is in his mid-twenties and the Mr Darcy character in that he’s wealthy and from a very traditional family. Khalil wear long robes, a skull cap, and has never trimmed his beard since he started growing it in ten years earlier. His appearance is a problem at his workplace and his boss, Sheila, is out to fire him just because he’s a traditional Muslim. Ayesha also feels uncomfortable around Khalil because she thinks he doesn’t approve of her poetry and independence as a working woman. Khalil’s sister, Zareena, was sent away as a teenager after getting into trouble with the book’s Mr Wickham character, and is estranged from their mother.

The estrangement that Austen writes about in Pride and Prejudice remains relevant in traditional communities, regardless of culture, when young people are expected to marry people from good families. Anything else would be a loss of face for the bride’s or groom’s family. The Wickham reincarnations in all of these Pride and Prejudice rewrites are cases in point.

When characters in these novels discuss marriage without ever going on a date, it’s believable.

Austen’s appeal evidently extends beyond the Pride and Prejudice that so many of us read in school if not elsewhere; Austen’s Persuasion and its tale of marrying into the “wrong” type of family is also easily adapted for South Asian characters.

Mr. Eashwar's Daughter, Debeshi Gooptu (Juggernaut, may 2019)
Mr. Eashwar’s Daughter, Debeshi Gooptu (Juggernaut, may 2019)

In Goopta’s Mr Eashwar’s Daughter, Anamika, who goes by Anna, is a young woman whose Bengali family has had to downsize after her father’s business failures sent the family into great debt. Years earlier, Anna had fallen in love in college with a boy named Farrohk Wadhera, nicknamed Freddy. The two had decided to marry, but because Freddy wasn’t Bengali and was a lowly officer in the Indian Navy without a decent salary, Anna’s father prevented the marriage.

Eight years later when Anna is visiting her sister Madhu, she comes into contact again with Freddy, now a decorated officer. Although half-Bengali officer Wehzan falls for Anna, she can’t entertain thoughts about marrying him due to her feelings for Freddy, although he seems to want to have nothing to do with her. To complicate matters, Wehzan learns the true value of the Eashwar estate and Anna’s family learns that Wehzan only wants to entrap Anna into marriage to inherit her family’s estate. Like the Austen novels which served as inspiration, love prevails at the end and the couples eschew tradition in order to marry.

 

Although these novels tackle many of the same issues—women’s independence, family pressure to marry well, arranged marriage, and protecting one’s family—the settings differ and their plots each stand out individually. At her launch party, Sonali Dev spoke of her plans to publish a series of Austen rewrites. It will be interesting to see if other authors follow suit in bringing these classic novels into a contemporary multicultural context, far from the world in which Austen wrote more than two hundred years ago.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.