Situated on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the mountainous region of Kohistan is one of the most remote outposts of the world. When Bapsi Sidhwa set her 1983 debut novel The Pakistani Bride here, she could have never foreseen the region would come into prominence twenty years later-as a suspected hideout for Al Qaeda militants.
Qasim is a Kohistani tribal who loves the hills of his homeland. Upon losing his family to a smallpox epidemic, he moves away in despair to the Punjab region of Pakistan, where he comes across an orphan child, Zaitoon. Qasim adopts the girl, and they settle in the bustling city of Lahore.
When Zaitoon reaches marriageable age, Quasim, in a fit of bucolic nostalgia, decides to marry her to a man of his tribe in the mountains. Zaitoon agrees, but upon reaching Kohistan and meeting her husband, realizes she will never fit into tribal society. The men are harsh and brutal, and disobedient women are punished by death. Zaitoon’s fate provides the note of suspense in the novel.
In many ways, The Pakistani Bride is a typical first novel, serving more as a showcase for the author’s feminist sensibilities rather than her writing skills. It is a rather choppy read: major characters (including Zaitoon’s husband) are introduced late in the narrative, and the plot lacks finesse. Furthermore, Zaitoon, as the title character, might reasonably be expected to have a distinct personality, but is depicted as a generic victim figure, young, pretty, and helpless; her most memorable feature is her ethnicity. The most vivid person in the novel is in fact Quasim’s exuberant friend Nikka, who disappears midway through the narrative never to return.
I was also underwhelmed by the character of Carol, an American married to a Pakistani who shows up in Kohistan with her husband and his friend. A heavy-handed device to explain the setting and society to those unfamiliar with the region, Carol is constantly wondering why are these people like that? Sidhwa also forces a comparison between Carol and Zaitoon upon the unwary reader. When not united by the bond of sisterhood (their eyes meet “in an age-old communion-an understanding they shared of their vulnerabilities as women”), the two women are inevitably separated by a Cultural Divide (“But Carol, a child of the bright Californian sun and surf, could no more understand the beguiling twilight of veils and women’s quarters than Zaitoon could comprehend her independent life in America.”). There’s a strong whiff of cliché hanging about Carol.
Despite the problems mentioned above, The Pakistani Bride is a very moving read, clearly born of sincerity and passion, and Sidhwa’s compassion for the young Zaitoon single-handedly elevates the book into something approaching greatness. If you are exploring Sidhwa’s oeuvre for the first time, though, begin with the excellent Cracking India and take a rain check on The Pakistani Bride.
(This review appears in the current issue of Eclectica.)