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BOOK REVIEW: How It Happened

Published in Daily Times / Sat 9 Feb 2013

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: Shazaf Fatima Haider

Thanks to Liberty Books for the (temp) review copy

Gwendolen: I am engaged to Mr. Worthing, mamma.

Lady Bracknell: Pardon me, you are not engaged to anyone. When you do become engaged to someone, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself . . .”
The Importance of being Earnest (Oscar Wilde)

Characters chasing ‘happily ever after’s’ are often pulled aside by enterprising elders who try to flag all but the most traditional road to the altar. A fiendishly funny narrative pounces on the retreating figure of Cupid and explores his cultural relevance in the sport they call match-making.

The saga of the Bandian clan comes with a perpetually scandalized, formidable old lady fiercely protective of her Shia-Syed lineage, proudly waving the Bhakuraj banner while circling around a trio of eligible grandkids. There is still some mileage left in ‘universally acknowledged truths’ and casual strolls past the maddening fishing expeditions preceding ‘I do’s’ become the basis for Shazaf Fatima Haider’s debut novel.

M Hanif (L) with Shazaf Fatima (R) at Karachi Literature Festival 2013

How It Happened’ is told from the youngest sibling’s perspective who observes the indefatigable grandma happily ensconced in the past, as storm clouds conjured by Haroon Bhai – the favorite grandson and resident rebel Zeba Baji gather to overturn her orderly world. It is the perfect vantage point for such a feisty narrator who documents the elders ‘unwelcome and uninvited’ intrusions, frequent hissy fits, and the endless variations of their family tree in the arsenal used to counter the new century. The aroma of authentic flavors assails the senses - the people posing for their mug-shots have compelling arcs and mirthless moments are reworked to provoke grim laughter.

Shazaf Fatima at T2F at the TRA Meeting

These side-trips to abandoned corners of memory lane while amusing also serve to illustrate the pathways once hailed sacred now haunted by ghouls leftover from the ‘The Arranged Way of Life’. Hunting for ‘The One’ as per the slightly racist grandma’s playbook is not pretty and involves going through the archaic motions that rank all incoming prospects on the same superficial curve. Shazaf may not have intended it as such, but ‘How It Happened’ can be read as a delicious takedown with a narrative that registers the hypocrisy and horror with venomous satisfaction.

Her pen is merciless.

Mama’s boys and spineless wimps are served up with relish. One suitor is described as a ‘hideous, giggling hobbit’ in a scene reminiscent of Mr. Collins versus Elizabeth Bennet. Another enters with a dainty step ‘like a ballerina trying to twirl on an egg shell’.

Shazaf tosses in random carcasses of decorum left in the wake of predatory mammas on the prowl at marriages and ‘majalis’ (religious gatherings). But she adopts a smart approach with a story that simultaneously puts the rebel generation in a stronger position without exactly leveling the old fashioned platform upon which they were raised. Nothing escapes her eagle eye – not the inappropriate trolling, and harrowing trolley sessions – that mark the lair of our elusive Mr./Miss Perfect, nor the ‘Shallow Hal’ inspired blinders used by cringe-worthy specimens of humanity ogling from a safe distance. Haroon and Zeba’s ordeal drives a polite stake through the farcical climate.

At times it feels dated not just because the sphere of influence the elderly lady wields may appear straight out of a time capsule; the timeline itself swerves and parts of 1990’s keep encroaching with VHS tapes of Perfect Strangers, Evel Knievel, GI Jane Posters and cordless phones. Unexpected time jumps aside, the ripples from generational clashes leave aside space for a wonderful array of characters to keep the levity meter running. From ‘Fati Phupps’, the indomitable aunt who snorts at traditions, and the strong-willed but remote Zeba defiantly facing down the charging herd of grandma approved matches, to the youngest sister patiently cataloging the fate of incoming suitors - and accompanying melodrama.

With its sassy core and stirring imagery – the story marches straight into the path of stern sentinels manning the matrimonial front and demands that they join in the merriment.


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