“Of Necessity and Wanting” is a collection of three long stories interwoven with vignettes of life in Karachi, Pakistan, with a focus the contrast between the rich and working classes and the difference of opportunities between women and men.
The first story, “The White Cage”, the only story with a solely English title, focuses on the latter, Rumina, nicknamed Guddi (doll) as a child, is delighted when she learns to fly a kite as her father has taught her, “‘See — it’s just a balance. A fine balance,’ he says gently — a fine balance between flying and floundering.’” These moments of freedom to be a child are rare. Her mother has ambitions for her daughter. “Guddi has barely managed to dissuade her mother from forcing her to carry a parasol in the sun like the Victorians, by making her believe that if she did, wouldn’t all the Aunties start thinking that she — Guddi, Rana Khan’s daughter was — insert sheer terror — not ‘fair’ enough, and so had to carry a parasol!” While she may have dodged carrying a parasol, Rumina does not get to dodge the endless rounds of beauty, skin-whitening and hair-straightening treatments she is subjected to. Rumina escapes in to fantasy of the TV series “Melrose Place” and can’t help but contrast the clean set with Karachi where the canals are clogged with sewage and the air is odorous.
Rumina and her father fail to take her mother’s social ambitions seriously. Her mother is also convinced that women don’t work because a husband should be wealthy enough to support his wife and any children. Grandmother warns that a man’s heart is not defined by his social standing, a point lost of Rumina whose only knowledge of men comes from a skeptical, divorced aunt. It’s only after her wedding she asks, “Why was someone like Abba just not good enough for her daughter?”
She was aware that she wasn’t marrying for love. Her husband Anjum is the oldest son and last to marry. His attraction was that one of his younger brothers moved to America after marrying and Rumina’s childhood dreams of “Melrose Place” might become reality. Rumina thinks she might be being too hard on herself, “After all, there was never anything real at these highly staged weddings — just pomp and circumstance. No utterance of vows or exchange of emotion. No ‘now you may kiss the bride.’ No public display of love between the bride and groom on an occasion supposedly to celebrate love.”
Marriage is not entirely without its compensations though. Wealth does make life more comfortable. So far Rumina has lived like her childhood kite: fluttering bravely in the breeze but tethered to the expectations of her family and society. There are signs though that the tether is beginning to fray. Anjum dithers about moving abroad and blames problems with a visa which leads Rumina to suspect he’s too fond of his comfortable life in Karachi to uproot and start again somewhere else. To the disappointment of her mother and mother-in-law, she is still childless. At yet another party, she bumps into a childhood friend. Is she, like her husband, too comfortable to enact change or is she willing to cut the tether?
This could have been a story about a group of unsympathetic people cushioned by wealth and social ambition. However, Rumina’s naivety and her father’s gentleness give the readers hope she can see through her mother’s ambitions and reject the fakery of the endless round of beauty treatments and being seen in the right places (or at least being able to lie about being in the right places). Her mother may be misguided, but her ambition comes from an empathetic desire for her daughter to do well.
The second story, “Paani/Water” switches its focus to class. Akram is proud to have landed a job in Karachi and travels away from his family and small village to be a live-in household manager to Mr and Mrs Ali. Akram finds the job itself – managing the staff of cleaners, cooks, etc – straightforward and he keeps in touch with and sends money back to his family, but something intrigues him. The regular deliveries of bottled water. Not normal two litre bottles but large, water cooler sized bottles. He observes the chef cleans the vegetables in the bottled water and if recipes require water, he has to use the water from the bottles, not the tap. Akram’s intrigue grows when the family’s daughter mentions she can’t use tap water to clean her teeth but has to use the bottled water because of the diseases in the tap water. This puzzles Akram because he and the other servants have to use tap water and none of them have diseases. Another servant tells Akram it’s OK for poor people to use Karachi tap water.
After a family visit to London where the daughter returns full of stories about the novelty of using tap water, the mistress of the house assembles the servants to ask if they’ve been boiling tap water before use. Akram discovers the family had a son, who is no longer talked about, who died from typhoid. The servants are all tested, and all have a low-level gastroenteritis or dysentery. Akram begins to oversee a programme of ensuring the tap water is boiled before use by servants. The family continue to use bottled water.
The consequences of this new programme of hygiene are not fully realised until Akram goes back to his village for a stay with his family. They have ignored Akram’s insistence on boiling the water and have continued to use the tap water as normal with no signs of illness at all.
While the story is literally about water, it could also be an analogy, the water a metaphor. Although the family treat their servants well, the servants are aware of their status and distance themselves from interactions with the family. Even to the extent of not sitting on the furniture when the family are absent during their trip to London, despite having permission to do so. Akram’s lesson is that aspiring to reach beyond your station has unexpected consequences.
The third story, “Janat Ki Huwa/The Air in Paradise” also focuses on an element, this time air, or more specifically air conditioning. In this story, Karachi itself really comes alive and becomes a character. Javed, a public servant in an ID card processing office, dreams of cool marble palaces in his cramped one room apartment where the aircon unit frequently packs in, thanks to what’s at best an intermittent electricity supply. He has promised himself a new pair of sunglasses, proper ones, not the cheap ones that don’t cut out the glare from Karachi’s sunlight. Although he’s saved up, he can still only afford a designer rip-off rather than original. At the bazaar, described sensually so readers get a full picture of sights, sounds, smells and jostling of crowds, hawking of desperate stall owners and the haggling over prices, Javed sees a woman at the sunglasses stall. She tries on several pairs and dithers over which ones suit her best. She’s also looking at the ones in Javed’s price range. Javed helps her choose and steps in to help her barter when the stall owner is dismissive of her attempts. On the spur of the moment he gives her his phone number. If his friends ever discovered that he’d not only met a woman but let her know he’d like to see her again, they would tease him mercilessly.
The woman is named Zainab and she lives with her parents, four brothers and her uncle’s family. She’s the only one who works. At her beauty salon, she straightens hair, waxes legs, administers treatments and listens to tales of parties, fashion and gossip from her young, wealthy clients. Her nights are usually spent indoors. Going out involves using a reputable taxi or rickshaw company, planning safe routes home and dodging harassment, which makes it simpler to stay in. However, she decides she wants to see Javed again and turns up at the street food vendor he mentioned. Javed’s friends are impressed and warm to her.
Readers get to see Javed’s social life: beach parties and occasional use of drugs – not the cocaine of Anjum’s world in “The White Cage” but cheap acid and dope with the associated effects of hangovers and worse. There’s one secret Javed keeps from his friends. He often goes out on his scooter and drives around the wealthy areas. “When you’re poor in Karachi as in any urban centre, you cannot spend much time in your home, for the simple reason that it isn’t comfortable enough. The rich can spend as much time as they like in their homes, for everything is present — food, service, conditioned air, hot water, cold water, drinking water — check, check, check — all of the above.”
Monsoon season hits and with it more electricity blackouts and power losses. The storm threatens to end Javed and Zainab’s relationship before it has begun. She has his phone number, but he still doesn’t have hers and doesn’t know where she lives. Can they weather the storm and was she his soulmate or was she just a fair-weather friend?
Readers end up rooting for Zainab and Javed: two decent people whose paths crossed. Both trying to keep afloat. Javed in his low paid routine job and Zainab who is the sole wage earner in a family of four brothers who prefer to get wasted than find a job. Karachi is stamped all over their lives; the vibrant bazaar, the dirt and pollution, the separation of working class and wealth and the floods of the monsoon which turn roads to rivers from which the wealthy are cushioned but make Zainab and Javed’s working days even longer.
“Of Necessity and Wanting” is a tour through Karachi’s people, its class distinctions, its landmarks and streets. The characters are memorable and, although very aware of their station in life, are given agency to make changes. The lower classes dream and make do but don’t complain and moan about their lot. The wealthy are more comfortable but still subject to stringent social rules and the pressure to be seen doing the right things in the right places. Sascha Akhtar’s stories, when combined in one volume, feel like a love letter to a Karachi full of potential and beauty but shaped by people, commerce and a class system.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.