Deborah Yaffe

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Subcontinental Austen

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 18 2019 01:00PM

South Asians never seem to tire of Jane Austen. We’ve had an Indian TV show based on Sense and Sensibility. We’ve screened cinematic updates of three different Austen novels, all set in contemporary times on the Indian subcontinent. We’ve seen a new Jane Austen Society taking root in Pakistan.


Last week, my Google alert brought two reminders of this Subcontinental Austen phenomenon: an account of three new Pride and Prejudice updates by authors of Indian or Pakistani descent now living in North America, and a real-life story about Austen’s powerful impact on a young Indian Muslim woman struggling against religious patriarchy.


The fanfics are Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, by Sonali Dev, set among wealthy Indian immigrants in San Francisco; Ayesha At Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin, which takes place among the Muslim diaspora in Toronto; and Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal, set in contemporary Pakistan (not unlike the recent short-story collection Austenistan, another example of this trend).


All three of the new books have recently been released in the United States by major publishers (Penguin Random House, Harper Collins), rather than consigned, like so much Jane Austen fanfic, to the frequently unremunerative world of self-publishing. Rightly or wrongly, the money people seem to think that transplanting the ever-popular Austen into a newly diverse context could be a profitable move.


Time will tell how successful this bet proves to be. But it’s surely not coincidental that these books are arriving in the midst of an ongoing debate over diversity – or, more precisely, the lack thereof – in romance writing and publishing.


Although Jane Austen probably never met an Indian, a Hindu, or a Muslim, her life in a rural English rectory was not as distant from the subcontinent as it might seem: Years before Austen’s birth, her paternal aunt Philadelphia Austen traveled to India in search of a husband, and gossip had it that Philadelphia’s daughter, Eliza Hancock, was the offspring of an adulterous liaison with Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of India.


More significant for the new fanfic, in countries where generations grew up under British colonial rule, the classics of English literature form a vexed but very real part of the cultural heritage. Fanfic can be seen as a response to this dilemma, Jalaluddin suggests – “a way for writers of color to reclaim the colonial literature we have grown up with and make it truly our own.”


Which Austen already is for the Indian-born Zeba Talkhani, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, now lives in England, and recently published a memoir of her life under an oppressive religious regime. As a young girl dreaming of escape, “she connected with Jane Austen, whose heroines had to strategize their way out of arranged marriages,” Talkhani told an interviewer for the London Times.


“Austen was relatable fiction for me, and how amazing is that when you look back at how different my existence was from hers,” Talkhani said. “I felt like I saw myself. She described a world where even if the woman has to give consent to marriage, the consent is pressurized or they are made to feel there won’t be any other option for them.”


Often, we Janeites spend a lot of energy trying to explain why Austen's stories still resonate, even in a society so different from hers. For many South Asian women, it seems, no such explanation is necessary: For them, stories about young women pushed into marriage in order to satisfy family expectations or mitigate economic strains don’t seem like period pieces.


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