Unmarriageable: A Novel

UK edition Allison and Busby

Publishers Weekly- Starred Review

[A] funny, sometimes romantic, often thought-provoking glimpse into Pakistani culture, one which adroitly illustrates the double standards women face when navigating sex, love, and marriage. This is a must-read for devout Austenites.


Library Journal- Starred Review

Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan may seem like an unusual pairing to some, but the rich cultural backdrop only enhances and breathes new life into Jane Austen’s classic. Kamal boldly embraces this treasured love story, creating a version solely her own. An Austen fan herself, the author remains faithful to the original story while giving readers insight into Pakistani culture in a modern retelling both enlightening and entertaining. The dialog sparkles with sharp humor, which will dazzle readers with counterparts of the original. Austen devotees will rejoice in this respectful cross-cultural update of a beloved classic.


Katherine Chen, author of Mary B

Kamal’s UNMARRIAGEABLE is a book simmering with life, language, intellect – and delicious Pakistani cuisine. It will leave readers’ hearts and souls content and their mouths watering.


Joshilyn Jackson, NYT bestselling author of The Almost Sisters

A delight from start finish, Soniah Kamal’s retelling of Pride and Prejudice has all the sly social commentary and bright, biting humor of the original, but aimed at thoroughly modern issues. It’s also the perfect book for the armchair traveler, offering an insider’s view into a fascinating country and culture—including a peek at what the wedding of the year looks like in Pakistan. This one is going directly on my keeper shelf; I loved it.


Booklist

Alys Binat, the second of five daughters, is an independent, forward-thinking English teacher in Pakistan or, as Alys likes to call it, “[t]he home of the marriage-industrial complex.” When the rich and handsome Bungles becomes smitten with Alys’ older sister, her family eagerly awaits an advantageous proposal. The classic plot unfolds, but with rich descriptions of colorful, chiffon anarkalis instead of empire-waist gowns, chai and samosas instead of tea and scones.

Kamal’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is faithful, with scene-by-scene recreations that will inevitably cause the reader to picture Austen’s original at the same time. Mrs. Binat beautifies her daughters with chickpea masks; Mari bores her sisters with Islamic preachings. That juxtaposition along with plenty of metareferential allusions are what makes this version so much fun. Even the most devoted Austenites will be surprised with how much they judge Darsee as arrogant in the beginning of the novel yet suddenly adore him in the end. This love letter to Austen reexamines sisterhood, society, and marriage in Pakistani culture and includes a fleshed-out epilogue that will satisfy today’s readers.


Kat In The Library

We can all agree that it is rare for a reboot to rival the original. But in this world, where #MeToo and #WeNeedDiverseBooks live, I have found you a single novel that can be a gateway drug to fine literature, world literature, and women’s literature.

Unmarriageable is indeed “Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan”…more importantly, it is the version of Pride and Prejudice modern students NEED to read. Unmarriageable not only presents the plight of women, especially “older” unmarried women, but also touches upon the struggles of gay men, interracial couples, unwed pregnant women, plus sized women, and class biases. And while the setting is Pakistan, many of these biases hit disturbingly close to the mark in Western society too. This book will also give educators an opportunity to teach about Partition, colonial occupation, India-Pakistan relations, Islam, the importance of education to women. And it may help some students realize how little they know about this important, populous and critical area of the world.


Forbes

Endearing… Kamal’s story seems to have all the ingredients that make Pride and Prejudice’s re-telling an exciting, dramatic and fun South Asian adaptation complete with big, fat desi weddings, modern Pakistani women, affluent bachelors and the unrelenting quest for love.


Kirkus Reviews


A charming update to the orginal…Kamal’s version of the classic novel highlights issues of colonialism, race, and Pakistani identity. Her insights are pointed and smart. Put your feet up and enjoy. It’s a delicious book.


Jasmine Guillory, USA Today bestselling author of The Wedding Date

Unmarriageable is a joy to read! It transforms a familiar story into something new and fresh and different, but keeps all of the warmth and intelligence of the original. I loved everything about these characters and spending time in their world.


Balli Jaswal Kaur, author of Erotic Widows for Punjabi Widows a Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick

Soniah Kamal has gifted us a refreshing update of a timeless classic. ‘Unmarriageable’ raises an eyebrow at a society which views marriage as the ultimate prize for women. This atmospheric novel does more than simply retell ‘Pride and Prejudice’ though. Crackling with dialogue, family tensions, humour and rich details of life in contemporary Pakistan, ‘Unmarriageable’ tells an entirely new story about love, luck and literature.



Devoney Looser, 2018 Guggenheim fellow and author of The Making of Jane Austen

A brilliant fictional homage to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, reimagined in 21st-century Pakistan, Unmarriageable offers an incisive, loving look at the society it puts under the microscope. Kamal’s splendid novel is not only light, bright, and sparkling. It’s sassy, direct, sharp, and funny. Heroine Alysba Binat is transformed into a gifted, defiant English literature teacher at a British school for girls in provincial Dilipabad. Alys and her sisters—Jena, Mari, Lady, and Quitty—navigate a shallow world of luxury and privilege that pushes them toward advantageous, empty marriages, rather than happily-ever-afters. Fortunately, some of them have read their Austen. Unmarriageable is a beautiful novel.


Thrity Umrigar, bestselling author of The Space Between Us and The Secrets Between Us

An irreverent, witty, imaginative novel that is part homage and part interrogation of Jane Austen’s classic. Readers will be surprised by the similarities between the customs, manners and moral codes of 19th century England and those of modern-day Pakistan. Austen herself would have enjoyed Kamal’s deft retelling of her novel, while sipping a cup of chai.


Amulya Malladi, bestselling author of The Copenhagen Affair and A House for Happy Mothers


A delicious retelling of Pride & Prejudice! Instead of “high tea” with finger sandwiches, we have “high chai” with samosas and chicken patties. Soniah Kamal opens up the drawing rooms of the South East, where women wear Gucci and Qazi but the prize is still a ring on the finger and a man’s arm to hang onto. UNMARRAIAGABLE is a joyride where you meet all the lovable Austen characters with a Pakistani twist, drawing on universal themes of love, passion and the healing nature of tea.


Vanessa Hua, author of A River of Stars

Charming and insightful, Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable connects the concerns of women across time and cultures in this delightful debut.”


V. V. Ganeshananthan, author of Love Marriage

An addictively smart, funny, genuinely modern novel that amplifies Austen’s feminism for our times, while brilliantly calling Eurocentrism on the carpet. Unmarriageable is a total delight! Once I had opened it, I really couldn’t put it down. I snuck it everywhere with me when I was supposed to be reading other things.


SJ Sindu, author of Marriage of A Thousand Lies

Unmarriageable is a rollicking good ride. The opulent landscape of Pakistan’s moneyed (and unmoneyed) social elite is exactly the kind of modern update Pride and Prejudice needs. This is one of those books that are hard to put down.


Dear Reader

Most women, and men, around the world have been told that marriage is a huge part of life, if not the purpose of life. Can this possibly be true? If it is true, then how do we go about finding ‘marriageable material’? Should we be looking for friendship? Money? Family compatibility? Are all these criteria equally important? Or should love alone be the determining factor? And if so where does this leave arranged marriage?

Can there be any tale more emblematic of Pakistani morals and manners than Pride and Prejudice? Thankfully, unlike in Regency England two hundred years ago, women in contemporary Pakistan no longer depend on marriage for financial survival and so I appreciated the challenge of a faithful retelling. I relished Islamizing Austen’s names and adapting characters and situations while keeping true to the original. I hope my novel makes you laugh as you meet Mrs. Pinkie Binat whose purpose in life is to be a good mother meaning she must marry off her daughters to Princes, and ‘third culture kids’ Alys Binat and Valentine Darcee as they tussle over books and looks, and Sherry Looclus who has to choose between her best friend, Alys, or marrying Mr. Kaleen, a man Alys does not like.

If you’ve ever felt unmarriageable or wondered why you should get married just for the sake of ‘getting married’, then this story is for you. Come explore love, friendship, frenemies, betrayal and loyalty within marriage and other relationships with the five Binat sisters and their parents, Pinkie and Bark Binat.

I had so much fun writing this novel! I hope you close Unmarriageable with a huge smile and a hot cup of chai.

Thank you

Soniah Kamal.

People:

  • Abdur Rahman Chugtai- painter
  • Nazia and Zoheb Hassan- singer
  • Alys Faiz- poet, journalist, activist
  • Faiz Ahmed Faiz- poet, journalist, activist
  • Qandeel Baloch- rags to riches social media celebrity
  • Iqbal Hussain- painter
  • Mullah Nasruddin- author of folk tales

Authors/Books/Stories

  • Jane Austen: ‘Letter to Cassandra 1813’, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma
  • ‘Miss Havisham’ character from Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
  • William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet/A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Enid Blyton
  • Judy Blume
  • Shirley Jackson
  • Daphne du Maurier
  • Dorothy Parker
  • L. M. Montogomery: Anne of Green Gables
  • S. E. Hinton
  • Agatha Christie
  • Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Brontes
  • George Eliot
  • Mary Shelley
  • Thackery
  • Hardy
  • Maugham
  • Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Tolstoy: Anna Karenina
  • Orwell
  • Bertrand Russell
  • Wilde
  • Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse/ from The Common Reader ‘essay on Jane Austen’/essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’
  • Wodehouse
  • Sajjad Zaheer, Angaaray: ‘A Vision of Heaven’
  • Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)
  • The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum)
  • Reader’s Digest
  • Good Housekeeping
  • Thomas Babington Macaulay: Minute of Education
  • Rudyard Kipling
  • Edward Said: ‘Jane Austen and Empire’
  • Leslie Marmon Silko: ‘Lullaby’
  • Bi Shumin: ‘Broken Transformers’
  • Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street
  • Kate Chopin: ‘Desiree’s Baby’
  • Alice Walker: ‘Everyday Use’
  • Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye
  • Betty Edwards: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
  • Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanvi: Bahishti Zewar (Heavenly Ornaments)
  • Arabian Nights: Scheherazade, Dunyazade, Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba, Prince Shahryar
  • Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain: ‘Sultan’s Dream’
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland
  • Khushwant Singh: Train to Pakistan
  • John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath
  • Gloria Naylor: The Women of Brewster Place
  • Krishan Chander: ‘Mahalaxmi Ka Pul’
  • E.M. Forster: A Passage to India
  • Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Love Story, Erich Segal
  • Faiz Ahmed Faiz: poem ‘Bol’ (Bol ke lab azaz hain tere),
  • James Baldwin
  • Khalil Gibran
  • Gloria Anzaldua
  • The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
  • Cinderella
  • Snow White
  • Sleeping Beauty
  • Emma Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  • ‘May Welland’ character from The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
  • ‘Jo March’ character from Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
  • Zora Neale Hurton: ‘Black Death’
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Betty and Veronica Double Digest
  • Flannery O’ Connor: ‘Good Country People’
  • Jamaica Kincaid: A Small Place
  • Leila Ahmed: A Border Passage
  • Jessie Fauset: Plum Bun
  • Rohinton Mistry: A Fine Balance
  • Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis

Films/Songs

  • Film Lady and the Tramp, Disney animation
  • Song ‘Mama Mia Pom Pom’ from film Justice Choudhary
  • ‘Song Dama Dam Mast Qalandar’—Sufi Qawwali, various renditions- Runa Laila, Abida Parveen, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
  • Song ‘Material Girl’, Madonna
  • Song ‘Aap Jaisa Koi’ and ‘Disco Deewane’, Nazia Hassan
  • Film Pretty Woman
  • Son ‘Money Money Money’, ABBA
  • Film Dil Chahta Hai
  • Film Dhool Ka Phool
  • Film Umrao Jaan
  • Film Insaaf Ka Tarazu

When Alysba Binat began working at age twenty as the English literature teacher at The British School of Dilipabad, she had thought it would be a temporary solution to the sudden turn of fortune which had seen Mr. Barkat Binat and Mrs. Pinkie Binat and their five daughters—Jenazba, Alysba, Marizba, Qittyara and Lady— move from big city Lahore to backwater Dilipabad. But here she was, ten years later, thirty years old, and still in the job she’d grown to love despite its challenges. Her new batch of ninth graders were starting Pride and Prejudice and their first homework had been to rewrite the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s novel, always a fun activity and a good way for her to get to know her students better.

After Alys took attendance, she opened up a fresh box of multicolored chalks and invited the girls to share their sentence on the blackboard. The first to jump up was Rose-Nama, a crusader for duty and decorum and one of the more trying students. Alys braced herself for a reimagined sentence exulting a traditional life– marriage, children, death. As soon as Rose-Nama ended with mere seconds it takes for her to accept a proposal, the class erupted into cheers for it was true, a ring did possess magical powers to transform into pauper or princess. Rose-Nama gave a curtsey, and glancing defiantly at Alys, returned to her desk.

“Good job,” Alys said. “Who wants to go next?”

As hands shot up, she glanced affectionately at girls at their wooden desks, their winter uniforms impeccably washed and pressed by dhobis and maids, their long braids (for good girls did not get a boyish cut like Alys’) draped over their books, and she wondered who they’d end up becoming by the end of high school. She recalled herself at their age– an eager to learn though ultimately naïve Ms. Know it All.

“Miss Alys, me me me,” the class clown said pumping her hand energetically.

 Alys nodded and the girl selected a blue chalk and began to write.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young girl in possession of a pretty face, a
slim figure and good height is not going to happily settle for a very ugly husband
if he doesn’t have enough money unless she has the most incredible bad luck
(which my cousin does).

The class exploded into laughter and Alys smiled too.

 “My cousin’s biggest complaint,” the girl said, her eyes twinkling, “is that he’s so hairy. Miss Alys, how is it fair that girls are expected to wax everywhere but boys can be as hairy as gorillas?”

 “Double Standards,” Alys said.

Oof,” Rose-Nama said, “which girl wants a mustache and a hairy back. I don’t.”

A chorus of ‘I don’ts’ filled the room and Alys was glad to see all the class energized and participating.

 “I don’t either,” Alys said, complacently, “but the issue is that women don’t seem to have a choice.”

“Miss Alys,” called out a popular girl. “Can I go next?”

It is unfortunately not a truth universally acknowledged that it is better to be alone than to have fake friendships.

Another student got up and wrote:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every marriage, no matter how good, will have ups and downs.

“This class is a wise one,” Alys said, to the delighted girl.

The classroom door creaked open from the December wind, a soft whistling sound that Alys loved. The sky was darkening and rain dug into the school lawn where, weather permitting, classes were conducted under the sprawling century old banyan tree, and the girls loved to let loose and play rowdy games of rounders and cricket. Cold air wafted into the room and Alys wrapped her shawl tightly around herself. She glanced at the clock on the mildewed wall.

            “We have time for a couple more sentences,” and she pointed to a shy girl at the back. The girl took a green chalk and, biting her lip, began to write:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you are the daughter of rich and generous
parents, then you have the luxury to not get married just for security.

 

“Wonderful observation,” Alys said kindly, for, according to Dilipabad’s healthy rumor mill, the girl’s father’s business was currently facing setbacks. “But how about the daughter earn a good income of her own and secure this freedom for herself?”

“Yes Miss,” the girl said quietly as she scuttled back to her chair.

Rose-Nama said, “It’s Western conditioning to think independent women are better than homemakers.”

“No one said anything about East, West, better or worse,” Alys said. “Being independent is not a Western idea. The Prophet’s wife, Hazrat Khadijah, ran her own successful business back in the day and he was, to begin with, her employee.”

Rose-Nama frowned. “Have you ever rewritten the first sentence?”

Alys grabbed a yellow chalk and wrote her variation, as she inevitably did every year, ending with the biggest flourish of an exclamation point yet.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a husband!

“How,” Alys said, “does this gender switch from the original sentence make you feel? Can it possibly be true or can you see the irony, the absurdity more clearly now?”

The classroom door flung open and Tahira, a student, burst in. She apologized for being late even as she held out her hand, her fingers splayed to display a magnificent four karat marquis diamond ring.

“It happened last night! Complete surprise!” Tahira looked excited and nervous. “Ammi came into my bedroom and said ‘put away your homework-shomework, you’re getting engaged.’ Miss Alys, they are our family friends and own a textile mill.”

“Well,” Alys said, “well, congratulations,” and she rose to give her a hug even as her heart sank. Girls from illustrious feudal families like sixteen year old Tahira married early, started families without delay and had grandchildren of their own before they knew it. It was a lucky few who went to college while the rest got married, for this was the Tao of obedient girls in Dilipabad; Alys went so far as to say the Tao of good girls in Pakistan.

Yet it always upset her that young brilliant minds, instead of exploring the universe, were busy chiseling themselves to fit into the molds of Mrs. and Mom. It wasn’t that she was averse to Mrs. Mom, only that none of the girls seemed to have ever considered, let alone been encouraged, to travel the world alone, or shatter a glass ceiling, or laugh like a mad woman in public without a care to how it looked. At some point over the years, she’d had made it her job to inject (or as some, like Rose-Nama’s mother, would say ‘infect’) her students with possibility. And even if the girls in this small sleepy town refused to wake up, wasn’t it her duty to try?