Native Informant on the Veiled Life

Letters to Emily: Glimpses of Life from Inside and Outside the Haveli

by Shireen Nana nee Mirza

Kifayat Academy, Karachi, 1994 and 1996

125 pages

This book was apparently written in time for the United Nation´s Fourth Conference on Women held in Beijing in September 1995, to provide international delegates with the opportunity to "know more about the veiled side of life through a woman´s eyes". This is, therefore, a Pakistani venture (state-endorsed) to reveal the truth about life in Sindhi villages, and to demystify some of the notions about feudalism and its treatment of women.

The 1996 version of the book is divided into two sections. The first is in the form of letters to Emily, an American friend of the author. The second, titled "Other Recollections" gives a few pen-pictures of the writer´s life and experiences, and includes the remarkable "A Leper´s Tale". The author herself is a cosmopolitan, Westernised and, at the same time, traditional woman who, because of her husband´s job and her family position, lived in far-flung rural areas of Sindh during the early 1950s. The book performs an anthropological role, and the author occupies the position of "native informant", opening up the inner sanctum of the haveli to both Emily and the world.

The problem with the book (and I will begin with the problem) is that it sets out to explain, or justify, a social system and social mores to an external and non-comprehending, even biased, readership. That is why there is a bending-over-backwards to reveal the charms of feudal existence, often overlooking the very serious injustices that such a system perpetrates. However, the unchanging desert landscape does witness the processes of change, as Shireen Nana points out in the introduction, and it is these winds of change that need to be highlighted, rather than the timelessness of its customs and structures.

In a letter from the second section, which, presumably, has been added to the 1996 edition (i.e., it was missing from the books distributed in Beijing) dated 1959 and entitled "Here Time Stands Still—1995" (the different dates are probably there to explain that not much has changed), Shireen Nana describes to Emily how children are brought up in Sindhi villages.

She describes two characters, Mahmoud and Mahmouda, as they grow into adulthood, are married and settle into domestic life. It is significant that Mahmoud´s upbringing occupies 11 pages, whereas Mahmouda occupies a paltry four. Even this observation of life behind the veil somehow flits on the outskirts—the periphery—of these lives, and fails to penetrate the inner sanctum and to give us the ´insider´ view.

The book begins with a hostess´s flourish, as Emily is introduced into the social niceties of Sindhi rural households. Shireen Nana visualises herself as a denizen of both worlds and has a "delightful feeling of having a foot firmly planted in both camps…in the purdah world of women and in the outside world". The village architecture— the layout of the houses into otaks (the outer house for men) and the havelis (the inner domestic space, which is not the sole domain of women, but the sole domain for women, who have no access to life outside the haveli)—and the division of its social life into inner sanctum, the outside guests and entertaining is graphically described.

What is also made clear are the social hierarchies that persist between the zamindars and the haris, or the serfs. These various levels of existence are seen to be bound in a harmonious relationship, where the tensions between classes and sexes are underplayed, and the ordered hierarchy celebrated. Not that the author was unaware of such tensions—as the daughter of a judge and the wife of an administrator, she had a wide experience of the violence that marks this feudal existence, and her book reveals these issues.

Breaking the Confines

It is on the suffering of women that this book is strangely silent, and what is worse, collusive. The letter "Life Behind the Veil" tries to show how life is actually lived by women in the havelis, and seeks to point out how mistaken Western and perhaps modern attitudes are, perceiving as they do these lives as confined and unhealthy. The author sets about undoing these notions of "stifled", "confined" lives. But even while Shireen Nana wants to describe life inside the haveli, she brings the women-under-description to Karachi, and describes their excitement and thrill at being in the big city, and their zest for travel.

This is the difficulty with the book—it does not stay within the haveli long enough. Our author constantly steps back into the outside world, and instead of using this as a device to portray the changing world of the haveli, as the winds of change slowly enter this inner sanctum, the book´s constant escape to the world outside makes it seem as if the author herself found the inside too confining.

The sorrows and tragedies of women´s lives are not overlooked, but the onus of bearing them are put on the women themselves. The women behind the veil are admired not only for their "live" and "unfettered" minds, but also for the "attitude of complete calm" with which they face calamities. The author does go on to wonder whether this calm is one of mere fatalistic acceptance or bom of deep faith, but in the letter entitled "Three Faces of Eve", she feels only unmitigated admiration for women who display this "calm" in the face of utter calamity. Protest at the helplessness and poverty of lives—at the fact of destitution— remains missing.

Despite the shortcomings, the book is worth reading. It contains some delightful vignettes of the life of 1950s upper middle-class South Asian families, especially in entries like "A Show Is Planned", "The Haunted House", "Rest Houses" or "Meet Mustafa". Shireen Nana´s style is lucid, with touches of humour, and the reading is good.

The final entry "A Leper´s Tale" takes the reader out of the main theme of the book, as the leper travels from Burma, his birthplace, through Madras, Mathura, Bangalore, Trichnapuly, Ajmer, Bombay and finally to Karachi. As he relates his encounters with Gujaratis and Mahrathis, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians, the confined world truly opens up and the book acquires a larger identity. There is no justifying or romanticising suffering—as "The Three Faces of Eve" tries to do—but an opening up to a world of adventure, struggle and perhaps a final redemption.

As an avowed project to reveal the world of the haveli to the world outside (whether to Emily or the delegates at Beijing), the book fails. But it succeeds in its descriptive capacity. The narrative takes on a wonderful and ebullient life of its own when the author forgets her task of "native informant".

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Himal Southasian