Thursday, 17 March 2016

Review: Haveli by Zeenat Mahal

5 stars

Haveli is the most exciting thing I've stumbled across since I started making an effort to read literature from/featuring different countriesI have never read anything like it, and I'm not sure I ever will again, since I've gone on to read some of Mahal's other novellas and, while they are all good, none of them has the X-factor found here. 

Set in the early 1970s, Haveli is the story of Chandni (or C., as she calls herself), who has been raised by her grandmother, the widow of the last Nawab of Jalalabad. The begum subjected her spunky granddaughter to strict and antiquated home-schooling, but nothing has prepared her for Taimur (aka Alpha Male). He's the son of family friends, and C.'s grandmother is pushing for a union between them. When C.'s long-absent father returns, offering another marriage prospect, she has decisions to make, and growing up to do. 

Haveli a novella, but it's masterful. There's the spoilt, naive, headstrong heroine with whom one can still sympathise, the Alpha Male hero, who really isn't such an Alpha Male stereotype after all, the family entanglements, the mix of the traditional and the modern, the practical and the quaint, the Western and the--I want to find a less loaded word than 'Eastern', but nothing's coming to me. Subcontinental? South Asian? Desi, maybe. Somehow, Pakistani seems too small; the protagonist twice refers to herself and her family as being Punjabi, and the familiar context once again reminds me that the Partition is more a religio-political division than a cultural one.

The 1970s setting wasn't very tangible, but it was still integral. Without the political talk about Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the possibility of "civil war" between West Pakistan and East Pakistan (aka Bangladesh), I would have been hard-pressed to guess at a decade, except to say that C. could not have been so unworldly in the internet age. I also assume that the nawab-without-a-title lifestyle that C. and her grandmother live is a product of its time, the 1970s being much closer to the days when the princely states retained technical independence under the British. 

For me, C.'s naivete was one of the things that made her narrative voice so strong and enjoyable, as was her irreverence, which was shown through in her banter with Taimur. The strength of C.'s personality means we only really see Taimur through her eyes, as Alpha Male. The nickname and the marriage-talk initially made me uneasy about C.'s future with him, but this was more the result of unchallenged prejudices than anything else. Once I started looking at the evidence on the page, it becomes clear that Taimur is a sweet bloke under all his bluster, and a good match for the headstrong C.

Towards the end of the story, C. makes an error in judgement, and attempts to fix it by dictating a plan to everyone, assuming that they will play the role she has allotted them. The lack of apologies and consultation means that she that it's only time that her strong-willed nature eclipses her likability, but the responsibility she takes for her actions also demonstrate her growth as a character, so I wasn't really put off by it at all. 

It's C.'s dynamic narration of the people and places around her that makes Haveli what it is. Mahal has managed to cram the characterisation and world-building of a full-length novel into her novella, and there really is no greater praise than that. 

However, as a final aside, I would also like to give her props for her name, which I suppose could either be an awesome pen name or a kick-ass actual name. The original Zeenat (or Zinat) Mahal - the last Mughal Empress of India - was the strong and politically astute wife of the last Mughal Emperor of India, and she basically ruled on his behalf until his deposition following the Sepoy Mutiny/First War of Independence. Seriously though, go and look her up

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