Fortunately, I didn't have to work that hard to read the novel. Sidhwa is a tremendous story-teller, and despite the apparent initial gaffes, it is easy to trust her voice and easier still to be drawn into the story, which culminates in a heart-stoppingly suspenseful chase. The story is primarily that of Zaitoon, who is orphaned during partition and brought up in Lahore by Qasim, a Pathan who has left his mountainous village for the plains of Pakistan after small pox takes his entire family. To please Qasim, who she believes is her real father, Zaitoon agrees to marry a Pathani relation, Sakhi. She proceeds into the arranged marriage excited by the shopping, attention, and presents, and romanticizing her imminent adulthood and the machismo of her intended. Despite her unrealistically romantic notions, it becomes evident that her capriciousness and the sadistic jealousy of her husband do not mesh, and after a humiliating and hurtful skirmish with him, she understands that she is in mortal peril and determines to run away. Whether Zaitoon makes it to the safety of the Pakistani Army outpost is the dynamic that drives the narrative.
There is also a second "Pakistani bride" in the novel, whose life parallels that of Zaitoon's at a slant in an economically privileged cultural milieu; Carol is a young American woman who has dropped out of college to marry Farukh and has returned to his native Pakistan with him. The jealousy, possessiveness and compromises that mark the lives of both Zaitoon and Carol differ merely in degree -- but it is a difference that literally marks the variance between life and death.
Although this is Sidhwa's most recently published novel, it is chronologically her first, written well before her first published novel, The Crow-Eaters (1983) -- hence the disparity between the copyright and publication dates. Anita Desai's foreword points out that the geographical locale of the novel is one that is of great political interest in the USA since the events of September 11, 2001. Personally, I thought it was a charming piece of postcolonial impudence how the term "Pakistani bride" so often coded as an iconic reference to cultural regression in Western media is in this novel intended in reverse: Zaitoon the Pakistani bride is too liberated and daring in the context of her Pathani In-laws. By providing range and scale to the continuum of Muslim characters peopling The Pakistani Bride, Sidhwa challenges the Eurocentric inclination (and North American political agenda) in stereotyping all Muslims as monolithically alike in their beliefs.
* The reference to Kathakali is on page 75. And despite repeated re-readings (and because I am not an expert in either dance form) Iím unable to tell if this is an error or not. The description of the dance seems equally applicable to both Kathak and Kathakali: "She lifted her bent knees, stamping the floor in a heavy rocking tread. The thick band of bells round her ankles struck in time to the staid whip of the tabla."
Book Description: Traveling alone from the isolated village where he was born, a tribal man takes an orphaned girl for his daughter and brings her to the glittering city of Lahore. Amid the pungent bazaars and crowded streets, he makes his fortune and sets up a home for the two of them. Yet, as the years pass, he grows nostalgic for life in the mountains. Impulsively, the man promises his daughter in marriage to a man of his tribe, but once she arrives in the mountains, the ancient customs of unquestioning obedience and backbreaking work make accepting her fate impossible.
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