Unmarriageable is a delightful contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan. The Binat (as in Bennet) family live in a backwater town called Dilipabad. They had formerly lived in Lahore, but Mr. Binat’s brother “bilked him out of business and inheritance.” After the move, the Binats made some improvements to their home and now lead a settled, if not completely content, life. Pinkie Binat, the matriarch, worries constantly about marrying off her five daughters: Jena, Alys, Mari, Qitty, and Lady. “I swear,” Alys says, “our mother would sell us off to the first bidder if she could.”
Mr. Binat, instead of retreating to his library, retreats to his garden.
Jena and Alys are both teachers at the British School of Dilipibad, where Qitty and Lady are students. Mari stays home, apparently having finished school with aspirations to become a cricket player. Alas, she has no talent. She spends time volunteering for various causes and devoting herself to Islam.
The British School motto is “Excellence in Obedience. Obediently Excellent. Obey to Excel.” A not-so-subtle jab at the traditional virtues to be instilled in young ladies. Alys is continually at loggerheads with this concept. Whenever possible, she promotes progressive ideas to her young, female students. Divorce, career, and equality for women among them, thus she is frequently in trouble with parents and Principal Naheed. Near the beginning of the book, Alys finds out that the nephew of Begum Beena dey Bagh, founder of the British School Group, is going to be managing the school upon his return from getting his MBA in America. His name: Valentine Darsee.
A wedding invitation serves as the catalyst for the main story. There’s a major society wedding coming up, and the Binats are attending and taking Alys’s best friend, Sherry Looclus, with them. It’s there they meet Fahad Bingla, otherwise known as Bungles by his family and friends. His sisters are nicknamed Hammy and Sammy (the cognate names are so funny), and Darsee is Bungles’ best friend. In a comedic revelation, we learn the Bingla siblings have gotten their wealth from the manufacture of feminine hygiene products. Pinkie Binat, after Jena’s first meeting with Bungles, is convinced he’ll propose to Jena upon their next meeting. During the evening, Alys overhears Darsee say to Bungles, “She (meaning Alys) is good looking, But, please, stop foisting stupid, average-looking women on me.” Even though Alys laughs about it, the words sting.
There are several events that occur in conjunction with the wedding, and Alys sees Darsee again. They have a lively conversation about books and authors, but Alys ends up insulting him (probably because of his earlier insult to her). Soon, Jeorgeullah Wickaam enters the story, and Alys is struck by his good looks and easy manner. In Unmarriageable, Wickaam is Darsee’s cousin. His story resonates with Alys, because, he claims, he was cheated out of his inheritance by Darsee’s side of the family. Since her own family has suffered because of a similar wrong, she accepts his version of events without question.
Soon the Mr. Collins equivalent enters the picture, Farhat Kaleen. You can imagine the mirth his name induces in Lady. In this version, while sharing some of the same qualities as the original Mr. Collins, in some respects, he’s a more likable man. He’s a widower with a daughter. After Alys rejects his suit, he offers for Sherry Looclus, who gladly accepts him. It turns out he’s quite wealthy, and after her marriage, Sherry lives a life of leisure with him and his daughter. Like Charlotte Lucas, Sherry is not romantic. Unable to have children, she’s happy to raise Mr. Kaleen’s child. “Money is a safety net for everything that may not work out in life,” Sherry tells Alys.
To the delight of readers who love the original, events unfold much as they do in Pride and Prejudice. Fahad Bingla’s sisters and Darsee see to it that Bingla doesn’t propose to Jena. Alys loses her temper with Darsee and accuses him of betraying his cousin, Wickaam. Wickaam betroths himself to an heiress. After it becomes obvious there will not be a marriage proposal for Jena, aunts arrive in Dilipibad and take her to Lahore with them. Alys accompanies the Looclus family to Islamabad to visit Sherry Kaleen. While there, Alys clashes with Begum Beena dey Bagh, the stand-in for Lady Catherine. Begum dey Bagh, Darsee’s aunt, is the mother of Annie, a patient of Mr. Kaleen’s, and like Sherry, is gifted with a more proactive role than her counterpart in Pride and Prejudice.
Darsee, thrown together with Alys and obviously in love with her, awkwardly proposes. His proposal is just as demeaning as Mr. Darcy’s was to Elizabeth. Afterward, Darsee writes the truth about Wickaam to Alys and hands it to her while she’s jogging. Later, Alys again sees Darsee while visiting her aunt and uncle, and he seems transformed. The crisis then ensues with Lady and Wickaam, and it’s Darsee to the rescue.
All ends in Unmarriageable as in the famous novel that inspired it. Every significant incident of Pride and Prejudice also occurs in this retelling, in an updated, clever, and satisfying way. Full of mocking humor, Unmarriageable reimagines a favorite story, yet also teaches us about contemporary Pakistani mores surrounding courtship and marriage.
In the end, the motto of the British School changes to: “Home is Everywhere on Earth. Be honest. Be kind.” One can see Alys and Darsee’s influence already!
I recommend reading the article, “Austenistan,” by Moni Moshin, in The Economist, 1843, or listening to “Austenistan,” Season 2, Episode 6, of the podcast Rough Translation, before reading Unmarriageable. Weddings and all the accompanying celebrations, are one of the primary ways for young Pakistani men and women to be introduced. And believe it or not, present-day Pakistani society has very similar social norms to those reflected in Jane Austen’s novels.
One last thing. You’ll want to go out for Pakistani food after reading Unmarriageable!