The Universality of Pride and Prejudice

I tend to make a lot of hue and cry about Pride and Prejudice – evident from my last post – but TBH, many people have not read the book, don’t intend to read the book and think the book is not worth reading. Of course, they are entitled to their opinion – in fact; they are not alone in thinking this way. Charlotte Bronte (author of Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette), erroneously considered a contemporary of Jane Austen, did not like the book. Mark Twain (another author whose books I have enjoyed) famously wrote this in a letter to a friend, “Everytime I read “Pride and Prejudice” I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone“. Harsh words! And yet, even 200 years after her death, P&P and Austen have more supporters than critics. Her books are still being read extensively and adapted regularly for television (BBC just can’t get enough!) and the big screen. More and more contemporary writers are placing her stories in modern times and in settings vastly different from Georgian England, to appeal to a younger audience. I say, more power to them!

In my last post, I had promised to tell you about my favourite adaptations/ retellings of P&P. Well, I am a woman of my word – so here is my list of favourites, in no order of preference. But before that, let me tell you a bit about the books on my list. I have included three books written by women who have their origins in the Indian subcontinent. In two books, Elizabeth Bennett is a poet. One book is a YA (Young Adult) novel set in a New York neighbourhood dominated by Haitians. And in one, it’s not Darcy who is the arrogant snob. With all this variety, I hope you have started salivating because one of the books could easily pass off as a cookbook too. Okay enough, no more teasing – here’s the list:

Statutory warning: SPOILERS AHEAD

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Even though I said this list doesn’t give my preferences, I am making an exception in this case. Eligible is my least favourite of the books mentioned here, even though it is a part of the illustrious Austen Project (in which well-known authors have/ will reinterpret all of Austen’s novels in modern times). I like Curtis Sittenfeld’s other books and there is nothing wrong with the book per se – I just didn’t like any of the characters very much.

The story is set in Cincinnati – a city which, if Mark Twain is to be believed, is at least 20 years behind the times. In this behind-the-times city, come Darcy and Chip Bingley as hotshot doctors, while Liz Bennet and Jane return to the city at the same time to take care of their father when he suffers from a massive heart attack. There is a crumbling, decrepit house, three good-for-nothing younger sisters, a shopping addiction, some reality television and even a pregnancy.

In the book, it seems as if Liz is the only one, among all her siblings and even her parents, who has her life sorted. She has everything going for her, except for the fact that she is in a dead-end relationship with a married man. Throughout the book you feel that Liz has all the answers, she can help anyone and her family can take no decisions without her. My memory of Elizabeth Bennett from the original book is of a young woman who was fallible, quick to judge and did not have everything sorted in her life. However, Eligible makes Liz out to be a super-woman – so the book becomes a coming-of-age story of one woman (helping the rest of her family along the way) more than anything else. There is no nuance to any of the other characters, including Darcy, and they all become supporting actors in her story.

Despite my issues with the book, I recommend you read this book. The reason is simple – just because something is flawed, doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable. I enjoyed it, especially when I found out what the book was named after. Also, different people have read and interpreted Austen’s original differently; this was Sittenfeld’s interpretation, and it’s interesting to see how someone else can read the same text so differently from you.

Buy the book here.

Pride, Prejudice and other Flavors by Sonali Dev

PPOF (Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors – the name is too long) introduces you to the Rajes, especially Dr Trisha Raje (youngest daughter), who plays the character of Darcy but is not actually called that in this book. She is the hotshot doctor in this one (Neurosurgeon – are no other types of hotshot doctors these days?), whereas Darcy aka DJ Caine is the up-and-coming chef who gets caught in the crosshairs of Dr Raje’s arrogance when his sister becomes her patient. Aha! Gender role reversal – there’s even a female Wickham.

The story set in San Francisco does not follow the linear structure of the original book but uses all the major plot points. Both characters are well fleshed out and have complex and angst-ridden backstories. I always enjoy reading about overachieving Indians, even if they are fictional. What Sonali Dev does brilliantly, however, is to make the book about more than just two people who fall in love. There is the question of class and privilege, and the effect it has on the experiences of two people who are both immigrants in the same country. By pitting neurosurgery against cooking, the book exposes the snobbery, especially that of Indians, in valuing cerebral work (literally!) Much higher than work which is considered domestic, even unskilled. All these questions are asked, but the book never falters in holding your interest and you remain invested till the end, even though you know what is going to happen in the end.

I highly recommend this book. Prepare yourself for a smorgasbord of awkward clashes, crackling sexual chemistry, and discussions about food that made me gain at least a kilogram of weight while I was listening to the audiobook. As a heroine, I really liked Trisha Raje, who is both awkward and arrogant, but is also loyal to a fault when it comes to her friends, family and patients.

The best part about this book is that it is the first book in a series based on the Raje family and the subsequent books will also be based on Austen’s novels – I have already read/ heard the second in the series “Recipe for Persuasion” and am eagerly awaiting the third Incense and Sensibility”.Also, Soneela Nankani’s narration of the book was awesome – she made DJ Caine sound handsome (I didn’t even know that was possible) – so go for the audiobook if you’re into them.

Buy the book here.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

This is a YA novel set in an African-American neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York, predominantly inhabited by Haitians. Zuri Benitez and her four sisters live happily in a cramped house with their parents in Bushwick, when a new family moves into the McMansion across from them – they are the Darcys. It doesn’t take very long for Zuri to lock horns with Darius (the younger son) and we quickly find our Lizzy and Mr Darcy in them. Zuri is proud of her Haitian roots and finds Darius a complete misfit in the ‘hood (aka neighbourhood), apart from being proud and arrogant. It is interesting to see how racial conflict can arise between people of the same race, simply because one wants to wear her racial identity like a cloak around her all the time, while the other wants to hide it in his closet as much as possible.

Not only is Zuri disappointed in Darius, but she is also heartbroken At the gradual loss of the Afro-Latino character of her neighbourhood with more white families choosing to move into McMansions all around her. The parks are not the same, street celebrations are not the same, even the way people speak is not the same. Being a poet, she uses slam poetry to express her anguish and that for me is the highlight of the book. You must read this book if you like a heroine who is strong, independent and defiant, even if she is only 16-years-old.

To get an authentic feel of Bushwick and to enjoy the poetry in the book, listen to the audio version by Elizabeth Acevedo (one of the best audiobook narrators I have heard and a brilliant author in her own right).

Buy the book here.

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal

This book is the movie Gurinder Chadha ought to have given us as an adaptation – instead, she gave us the disastrous Bride and Prejudice. I like this book, in fact, I really, really like this book because this is a story that could have been playing around me. Pakistani society is so similar to ours, especially when it comes to marriages. What do we love talking about the most – who is getting married, who got engaged, who is not getting any rishtas, who wore what at a wedding, how was the food that was served, who was invited, who wasn’t invited, what gifts were given, etc. etc. Admit it – marriages and match-making are in our DNA, and even I can’t refrain from trying to fix my friends with people I think they will suit. All of this to say that if a book in which a mother is looking for matches for her 5 unwed daughters has to be set anywhere, it ought to be the easiest in India or Pakistan. But easy it isn’t – otherwise, GC would have been able to do it. That is where the skill of Soniah Kamal’s book lies. In modern-day India or Pakistan, it has become difficult to show class conflict – central to the story of P&P – since people are now freely crossing caste, class, even religious lines. It was, therefore, wise of the author to place this book in a smallish town in Pakistan – Dilipabad (named after the famous Bollywood actor, Dilip Kumar) – a place where pedigree mattered even if you were filthy rich, where gossip could still ruin reputations and where unmarried women were still being asked repeatedly when they planned to get married. I can relate to that sort of nosiness; the only saving grace in my case was that instead of straight-up asking me, people would pester my parents.

Amongst all books mentioned here, Unmarriageable is closest to the original book as far as names and the structure of the story is concerned, and yet you feel you are reading a book you have never read before instead of an adaptation. Despite its name, this book is not restricted to marriages – it takes up themes such as the nature of history, especially the history of the Indian subcontinent and colonialism’s influence on it. In the book, Alys Binat, a teacher of English Literature, questions more than once whether all gifts of imperialism – English language and Literature primary among them – ought to be discarded as fruits of a poisonous tree? I won’t go into all these issues here – they deserve a separate, longer post. But these questions give the book a richness and depth which gets reflected in the discussions between Alys Binat and Valentine Darsee. I have just one objection with this book – my two favourite scenes Darcy’s first proposal and Lady De Bourgh-Elizabeth’s face-off – which have been retained in Unmarriageable, don’t have the same crackle and sizzle like the original. But I have excused that lapse on account of the wonderful descriptions of the streets and sounds of Lahore – never been there, don’t know when I will ho, but I’m sorely tempted after this. Ever wondered what the Wagah Border Ceremony is like from the other side?

If you’ve never read P&P, want to know what all the fuss is about, but find it difficult to read books set in 19th Century England, then Unmarriageable is the book for you. For a change, I am not going to recommend the audio version of the book narrated by Rasheeda Ali – narrators narrating books which have Hindi or Urdu words should practice the pronunciations of such words properly beforehand, otherwise, those words grate on the ears of those who know the languages. You’d do it for a French or Italian word, then why not for Hindi and Urdu as well?

Buy the book here.

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

I am going to make an exception again (does it still count as an exception if you make it twice?) and tell you that in this list, this is the book I like the most. I saved the best for last. There isn’t any one thing that I can put my finger on – I like the main protagonists, the setting, the way the book has been written – but there is something special about this book. It could be because I like this Darcy – Khalid Mirza – the most. Khalid is a devout skull cap and white robe wearing, fully bearded Muslim man who doesn’t want to shake hands with women. But he is also a soft-spoken, kind and caring man, who works in a tech company and cooks way better than his mother. What a brilliant way to break stereotypes! He is judgmental AF and quickly crosses swords with Ayesha Shamsi – our Elizabeth – who is a poet at heart but is stuck with a teaching job to pay the bills. The best part is Ayesha occupies the same world as Khalid – she even wears a Hijaab – but refuses to allow that to become her identity. They are unusual protagonists for a love story such as P&P – I have never read a book with characters such as these two – and yet, I cannot find anything wrong with this book.

The book is set in Toronto, Canada and the story largely revolves around a neighbourhood mosque. There is the flighty younger cousin Hafsa (Lydia), up-to-no-good Tarek (Wickham) and the conniving mother-in-law-to-be Farzana (Lady Catherine De Bourgh). There is a beautiful, quite touching relationship between Ayesha and her Nana-Nani (possibly Uncle and Aunt Gardiner) and the parts with all three of them together are some of the best.

The book deals with many other issues such as bigotry at work, the unfair standards of beauty and demureness expected from South Asian immigrant women, and the price exacted in the name of honour whenever someone steps out of a role society has cast them in. Ayesha and Khalid are proud of their Muslim identities but don’t want to be defined by them. By the end of the book, you realise that the pride (and rightly so) is theirs, while the prejudice was all ours. Read this book if you feel it’s time to lay some stereotypes to rest, because love happens everywhere, between all sorts of people and their stories are worth telling. Hats off to Uzma Jalaluddin! And a shout out to the audio version narrated by Lara Sawalha – I have actually both read and heard the book – yes, I liked it that much!

Buy the book here.

Two other books that could have made the cut, but didn’t are Bridget Jones’s Diary (Helen Fielding), and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Seth Grahame-Smith) – the reason is simple, I liked the movies made on these books better!

Phew! This post got longer than I had thought it would be, but I guess those of you who love P&P can read this at leisure and savour it for a while. Read all the books, dear reader, and don’t forget to thank Jane Austen as you go along!

~P

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