How does an American classic play out in Karachi? Ask Sarvat Hasin
It was a novel written in 1868 but 'Little Women', the Louisa May Alcott classic about four sisters' passage from childhood to womanhood, finds relevance even today. Recently, Pakistani author and journalist Sarvat Hasin published her version of the story, This Wide Night (Penguin India), which transports the March girls to a backdrop of Karachi of the '70s.
A still from the film, Little Women
"I knew I wanted to write about a family of women, about sisters with a strong matriarchal figure. 'Little Women' was my earliest model for that," says Hasin, a London-born, Karachi-raised writer. She confesses to loving the book as well as the 1994 film adaptation with Winona Ryder. "I wanted to play on the gaps in the narrative: I've never been convinced by how neatly the book ties up, especially with the love triangle of Laurie and Jo and Amy."
Was it challenging to reposition the lives of the girls in Little Women to a modern, local setting? "Little Women is set in a society that is conservative, yes, but so is Pakistan. Much of the book's plot functions on the idea that women aspire to marriage and subscribe to a specific kind of femininity."
The central characters are the Malik sisters, Maria, Ayesha, Leila and Bina, who may have different temperaments but share a close bond. The story is told by the neighbour boy, Jamal or Jimmy.
He gives readers an outsider's glimpse into a family where women, including their mother, Meherunnisa, create their own universe in the absence of a father. There are few men in the book: Amir, the professor, who falls in love with the eldest sister Maria, and Jimmy's grandfather. Jimmy is drawn to the rebellious Ayesha but it is soon clear that her love for him does not match his intensity. "Just as the girls are unable to follow the rules set for them by society, Jimmy does not fall into the kind of 'machismo expected of him," says Hasin.
The book comes into its own in the third part, with a surprise ending. "My family is still recovering from it," she says.