The mystique of the other

April 25, 2021

Sehr S Emaad’s debut novella is a layered account of a marriage between misfits, narrated through various perspectives

The novella is known more for its compressed narration than its commercial viability. Constrained by fewer narrative conflicts than those that feature in a novel, the form has often been difficult to sell and is, therefore, neglected by publishers.

Sehr S Emaad’s Our Small Lives appears to defy this cold reality and serves as a testament to the unfading mystique of the novella. At its core, it excels at creating a believable protagonist that elicits the reader’s sympathy through the braver moments of her fight against patriarchal norms. The strength of Emaad’s debut doesn’t lie in a deftly braided storyline or a fast-paced, dialogue-driven narration. The quality that endears the novella to its readers is the author’s ability to combine the mundane elements of life with the main character’s enduring quest for happiness.

Emaad’s account begins with an introduction that could very well be viewed as an epigraph. This section comprises an Urdu poem that flows seamlessly into its English translation without being separated by line spacing or emphasised through italics. By traversing the boundaries of languages, the poem seems to embody the psyche of the novella’s troubled protagonist who finds herself negotiating many trapped worlds.

From the outset, Sara remains conscious of the fact that she is perceived as the ‘other’ in a country she calls home. A middle-class girl who belongs to the Ahmadiyya community, Sara internalises the sense of insecurity that is intricately linked with being cold-shouldered. Her soaring sense of unease is aggravated by the turmoil of her private life. Throughout the novel, Sara struggles to marry her own idealistic notions of spiritual contentment with her family’s rigid expectations of conformity. The introductory poem embodies the protagonist’s search for a peaceful existence that isn’t encumbered by despair, religious persecution and self-doubt.

However, the telling effect of this bilingual poem seems to evaporate when readers flip the page and are greeted with a section that is mystifyingly titled “Prologue”. Through this opening section, readers are provided synoptic details on the Ahmadiyya movement and a summary of Sara’s “tale of loss and gain”. A quick glance at this somewhat awkward prelude raises suspicions that the book is possibly targetted at an international readership, which is unaware of the intricacies of Pakistan’s social and political fabric. The rest of the narrative is mercifully devoid of this foreign gaze. Once readers are allowed to experience the highs and lows of Sara’s life, the story bounces off the page and swiftly arrives at its conclusion.

Unlike Monica Ali’s protagonist, Sara is far more audacious in the choices she makes and gains the courage to pursue her desires and aspirations without the fear of being judged.

Sara is plucked out of her childhood, shackled in a tepid marriage to a man of her own community and whisked off to New England. Asfan, her indifferent husband, repeatedly “pulls [her] down with a rope tied to [her] ankle”. Her quiet existence in Cambridge, Massachusetts, pales in comparison to the chaotic rhythm of her life in Lahore. Amtul, her mother-in-law who has battled her own traumas, maintains a cold distance from her. Even so, Sara tries to make peace with her circumstances until a chance encounter at a bookstore liberates her from the clutch of toxic relationships.

The spirit and poignancy that steers Our Small Lives may instantly remind readers of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. Sara is far more audacious in the choices she makes than Ali’s protagonist and gains the courage to pursue her desires and aspirations without the fear of being judged.

Insights and observations about characters and their motivations are filtered through various narrative perspectives. For instance, a third-person narrator reveals crucial information about Sara’s “uneasiness... the past she left behind... the present that isn’t really hers and the future that she is unsure about”. The private moments of Sara’s despair, in which she laments the fact that she has gone “from being one man’s charge to another man’s responsibility”, are presented through a first-person narrative perspective. These shifting perspectives elevate the narrative from a one-dimensional tale of misfortune to a layered account of a marriage between misfits. Other characters are also permitted brief monologues to explain their intentions. With the help of this technique, the so-called villains of Sara’s story are allowed the opportunity to escape caricatured portrayals and emerge as full-blooded individuals. As a result, Asfan – who stands the risk of being vilified as a negligent husband who oppresses his wife – leaves us with a candid monologue that depicts his failings. The purpose is not to free himself from blame or provide excuses for his behaviour, but to explain how hypocrisy is deeply ingrained in our patriarchal system.

Although the author’s stylistic choices lend themselves to occasional bouts of melodrama, Emaad doesn’t allow her protagonist to come across a damsel in distress who constantly broods over her plight. Instead of creating a false narrative of victimhood around Sara, the author presents her as a bold, confident woman who has the courage to walk out of a restrictive alliance and start her life with fresh zeal. The novella depicts her arduous quest for personal contentment without belabouring the point.

The plight of minority groups remains at the heart of the story, albeit in a tangential manner. Our Small Lives is as much a story of the private chaos of Sara’s life as it is of the trauma she encounters on account of the public calamities that surround her.

Our Small Lives

Author: Sehr S Emaad

Publisher: Daastan

Pages: 115

The writer is a freelance journalist and the author of Typically Tanya

The mystique of the other