Given the perception that the average Indian has of Pakistan, it may come as a surprise that a group of men in kurtas making plans to destabilise our country doesn’t feature in Mira Sethi’s new book, Are You Enjoying? Instead, these vignettes exploring contemporary Pakistan prove that the beliefs and lives of families across the sub-continent are not as different as mainstream media would have us believe.
Are You Enjoying? is a collection of short stories set in a country where teenage girls are disrobed and paraded down streets for “crimes” their brothers have supposedly committed, and cocaine-sniffing TV directors make nauseating offers to “groom” aspiring actresses from more conservative families. At the same time, they are also focused on the lives of the “upper classes” who believe Western values are acceptable only as long as the eventual “foreign degree” is pinned on a wall in their home, but are immediately brushed aside as soon as “radical” ideas such as independence and self-reliance seep into the minds of the country’s youth.
The characters in Are You Enjoying?, much like Sethi herself, are more than familiar with the clash of these two worlds.
The characters in Are You Enjoying?, much like Sethi herself, are more than familiar with the clash of these two worlds. Through her series, the Wellesley college graduate introduces us to a young boy who is pushed to the fringe by the company he keeps and his frustration at his father’s ailing health (A Man For His Time). We’re told of a couple that reaches an unspoken agreement to ignore their sexuality and get married so no further questions are asked (Tomboy). And eventually, we witness, in devastating detail, a woman’s mental health destroyed by a Xanax addiction and a relationship with a married man who can’t think of a single nice thing to say about his wife (Are You Enjoying?).
In this Pakistan, much like in many parts of India, homosexuality is repressed to the point of it being used as a tool for blackmail, marriages are set at birth and are mostly doomed to fail, while 33-year-old brides are blithely referred to as “oxymorons”. An actress experiences her first brush with the dark side of her industry, while supposedly influential families fawn over British visitors with garlands of currency (the wife’s garland still somehow comes with a lower denomination than that of her husband’s).
All the while, an ever-rising sense of intolerance looms in the background. As evidenced by moments where a professor is accused by a group of young men of being “obsessed with Hinduism” (A Man For His Time), or where a news anchor’s coverage of “India’s belligerence” among other factors, earns him the favour of his viewers (Mini Apple), readers in India are bound to find parallels with Sethi’s descriptions of how religious identity and national pride are in a state of constant war with modern-day values.
In this Pakistan, much like in many parts of India, homosexuality is repressed to the point of it being used as a tool for blackmail, marriages are set at birth and are mostly doomed to fail, while 33-year-old brides are blithely referred to as “oxymorons”.
Despite touching on several topical themes, however, Sethi’s stories don’t seek to offer any new insight into this age-old arrangement — it should come as no surprise by this point that families on both sides of the border tend to brush matters like sexual identity, adultery, and addiction under the carpet, in favour of more “pressing concerns” such as ensuring their daughters make babies before the due date has passed. Instead, the stories seem to be mini character studies, with Sethi’s sharp observation skills ever focused on the emotions — at times in borderline voyeuristic detail — of the women and men caught in the crossfire of these two worlds.
Even as these fictional portrayals start becoming strikingly real, however, there are moments where the storytelling is let down by the conversations between characters. The instance where a gay man proclaims that the only way he can relax after receiving an abusive message is by seeing how many likes he gets on his shirtless pictures (Breezy Blessings), or the time a 40-something married man tells a young woman at the gym that she had a “cute bubble butt” as opposed to a “Kardashian yoga ball” (she blushes in return) come across as a little arbitrary at best and cringe-inducing at worst.
Leaving aside the seemingly vague chit-chat (and in the case of some stories, vague endings), each account comes one step closer to accomplishing what the author presumably set out to do — offer a critique of Pakistani society through the eyes of the country’s most privileged and educated. By the end of the book, it’s evident that the title was coined with a heavy sense of irony. In between the highly relatable narratives, quick jabs of humour, and endings that are left open to interpretation, there’s a clear sense that no character really is truly, fully allowed to “enjoy” as they find themselves caught in between these two starkly different Pakistans. The part that’s hardest to swallow is that even though most of these accounts don’t necessarily have happy endings, every story chronicled in Are You Enjoying? is one that young readers from across the sub-continent will no doubt find familiar.