Keeping Jane Austen Alive in Pakistan
As 2017 marks the bicentennial death anniversary of the novelist, a group of women in the country are trying to resurrect her legacy in the most charming way
The clock strikes 4pm at a stately home in Islamabad. In the dining hall, fine cutlery and biscuits are being neatly arranged on a table. Enter Elizabeth Bennet, Georgiana Darcy, Marianne Dashwood, Lady Susan Vernon, Emma Woodhouse and Jane Bennet in colourful gowns. Sitting right in the middle, Caroline Bingley welcomes the guests to her tea party. Pleasantries are exchanged, selfies are clicked and, for a moment, it seems Jane Austen's girls have finally made peace with each other. if not in fiction, then at the annual tea party of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan (JASP).
Two hundred years have passed since Austen taught us the fine art of schmoozing, Regency-style. Keeping her legend - or Janeitism as many scholars call it - alive, the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan organises annual tea parties where the members, dressed as iconic characters from her books, gather to discuss her novels, play games and attempt to find answers to the all-important question: why is Mr Darcy so perfect?
2017 marks the bicentennial death anniversary of the Pride and Prejudice author. Over the years, Jane Austen has begun to command a following in some unlikely quarters. For instance, discovering a growing 'cult of Janeites' in America, a 2013 BBC story noted that "it might be seen as incongruous that Austen's fandom is so extensive in the US, a nation founded on the rejection of aristocracy and old world manners and traditions". Had the BBC waited another year, it would have come across yet another unconventional hub of Janeites. Formed in 2014, the Jane Austen Society of Islamabad started as a Facebook fan club, the brainchild of writer Laaleen Sukhera. Having read Austen ever since she was a precocious 12-year-old, Laaleen was fascinated by everything 'Austen-esque'. Pursuing her passion, she even prepared her university thesis on Austen's screen adaptations. And then came a chance meeting with the actor who has owned Fitzwilliam Darcy in popular imagination with his portrayal of the character in the 1995 television series Pride and Prejudice - Colin Firth. "I met him in London after attending his play, Three Days of Rain. I was dying to ask him Darcy-related questions but I curbed my inner fan girl. He was utterly charming! It is one of the most memorable 30 minutes of my life," she recalls.
Founder of JASP, Laaleen Sukhera, in a Regency-era outfit
Years later, as she discovered social media, Laaleen made it a ritual to spark a debate around Austen's novels. Soon, she realised she wasn't the only one besotted by the English writer. And that's when the idea to set up an online group came to her. "This was a social media-based exercise. The idea was to get a bunch of like-minded people together and discuss Austen over a Netherfield-like tea party. When we started, our footprint was limited to Islamabad." The word spread and soon Laaleen began to receive requests from women across the country to join the group. That's when the Jane Austen Society of Islamabad became the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan.
Today, 95 per cent of JASP's members are women who are professional writers, journalists, lawyers and bankers, with a mix of married as well as single women. Mostly aged between 25 and 45, some of them are Pakistanis who live in other parts of the world, but closely monitor the society's activities and discussions. "Lately, there has been an increase in male participation on our community page. Some men have even approached me on attending our meet-ups and dressing up in Regency attire. I do feel that the topics discussed reach a candid depth because they are only attended by women. However, never say never!"
Typically, the topic of conversation in a JASP meet-up is not just about the novelist's ideas of marriage and courtship; there is a genuine effort to draw parallels with contemporary Pakistani society. "No subject is taboo for JASP. This is an opportunity for us to gain insight into the society around us." The tea parties, however, are a key attraction. Normally, the ladies - dressed in outfits that resemble Regency-era clothing - come together for an evening of fun. For their last outing, Laaleen wore a Grecian-inspired outfit by Pakistani designer Fahad Hussayn that reminded her of "Caroline Bingley's style", while another member, Sanniya Gauhar, channelled Elizabeth Bennett in a customised dress from Plush By Pashmina. However, the objective, Laaleen insists, is to create that ambience. The topics of discussion are relatively lighter; for example, the last time they sat together, they drew parallels between the bond Elinor and Marianne Dashwood share in Sense and Sensibility with that of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret from the hit Netflix series The Crown and played Marrying Mr Darcy: The Card Game. It is this very picture of a group of Pakistani women bonding over Austen that got them noticed recently. When Mahlia S Lone, editor of the Pakistani lifestyle magazine Good Times and a member of JASP, saw the photographs from the evening, she came up with an idea. "I decided to run the pictures with a feature. Initially, Laaleen was hesitant as all of them were dressed in Regency-inspired attire; she thought our readership would think it's odd, but I convinced her. The feature went viral; we got 45,000 views in a few days."
JASP's popularity in Pakistan coincides with an interesting time in the country's pop culture landscape. Be it fiction, television or cinema, modern narratives are increasingly giving women a space to question social mores. Amid this, what exactly is it about Austen's stories and characters that resonate most with urban Pakistani women? An interesting array of answers come our way. Mahlia thinks it is generally a unique concept for this part of the world, but she makes a larger case. "The stories on women that come out of Pakistan usually revolve around how uneducated and repressed we are. That is part of the truth, not all of it. Despite belonging to the 'privileged class' in Pakistan, it's true that we live in a patriarchal society where, by law, two women equal one man, whether in a court of law as witnesses or regarding property rights, etc. This is on top of the more obvious similarities of arranged marriages and dowries. So, in many ways, we can relate to the norms of English culture portrayed in Austen's novels, though we belong to a different ethnicity, religion and time." Public health scientist and JASP member Gayatri Warnasuriya says, "Many issues that an Elizabeth Bennett or an Elinor Dashwood grappled with - particularly those around marriages, family opinion, propriety and division of wealth - are more relevant to women in our part of the world than the West." The stock characters, says another member Nida Elley, are equally real. "The nosy aunties, the meek elder sisters who do what parents ask them to do are very much part of our society."
To celebrate Jane Austen's bicentennial this year, JASP will bring out an anthology of short stories called Austenistan. As the name suggests, the stories - set in Pakistan - will be a tribute to the author. As we wrap up the conversation, I ask Laaleen what it means to inhabit Jane Austen's dreamy, imperfectly perfect world in today's Pakistan. "It requires a bit of escapism, fantasy, soul-searching and definitely the ability to laugh at oneself."