The Real Fairy Tales

I have to admit that I really, really, enjoy reading fairy tales. Yesterday, my mother found an old tattered illustrated book (or what was left of it) of fairy tales in a box. The book had no cover (I am not sure what happened to it) and the frayed and curled edges barely held the pages together. It was obviously well-read, if not so well taken care of. I think (though without the cover, I can’t say for sure) that it was Mother Goose’s Fairy Tales, since it included Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella.

This was the sanitized version of the tales, naturally. I wasn’t reading the Grimm brothers’ original tales as a child. These were tales from far-off lands, of princes and poor girls who found unlikely love, vanquished dragons and lived happily ever after. Wait a minute, did I just describe every romance novel ever written?

Let’s see. We have the main protagonist—a young, incredibly beautiful woman battling peculiar odds and seeking happiness (though she doesn’t always know it)—like Cinders and Sleeping Beauty. We have a charming Prince who, while he’s a leading character who will eventually rescue the heroine, doesn’t have a major role in the story unless it’s in connection to her. We have evil stepmothers/stepsisters (read jealous ex-wife, ex-girlfriend or meddling mother-in-law) who do everything they can to drive a wedge between the leading lady and her one true love. We have friendly souls who only wish the best for the heroine and help the lovers come together (the best friends, the romantically-inclined aunt or grandmother). And we have a dash of magic—the universe conspiring to connect these two lovers—that lights the spark, like the kiss that wakes up Sleeping Beauty or turns the frog into a prince.

This isn’t a new thesis. People have been comparing modern-day romances to fairy tales for decades now. In fact, the biggest criticism of romances has always been that they create unrealistic expectations in women who read them. Are we measuring every man we meet against our own Prince Charmings? Are we dreaming of castles and white knights, of seven little men who will wait on us hand and foot while we wait patiently for our hero? Which begs the question, are little boys forever seeking the most beautiful woman in the land for their bride, ready to ride high and low and across the world to find the woman with the prettiest foot that fits the glass slipper?

I wonder about ‘false expectations’ we should be on the look out for if our romance novels were modelled on Grimm’s original fairy tales. Do the critics of the romance novel worry about stories where a mother urges her daughter to cut off her big toe in order to cram her foot into a golden slipper (in the original Brothers Grimm tale, Cinderella wears golden slippers)? Or where a thieving husband readily gives away his firstborn to a wicked enchantress in order to save his own life? Do they worry that parents will be instantly driven to save themselves over their children, leading them into forests and leaving them to fend for themselves, if they read too many stories like Hansel and Gretel?

Rapunzel and Her Parents

From the Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Harry Clarke
From the Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Harry Clarke

I haven’t read all of Grimm’s original tales, but the one that stood out as being the most altered was Rapunzel. Unlike the Disney take in Tangled, Grimms’ tale is a vicious little story of a 14-year-old girl trapped in a tower. Her prince, when he comes, impregnates Rapunzel, sneaking into the tower at every opportunity. When the wicked enchantress finds out (through a stupid slip of Rapunzel’s tongue—“tell me, dame gothel, how it happens that you are so much heavier for me to draw up than the young king’s son”), she banishes the girl to a desert, ‘where she had to live in great grief and misery’. The prince, tricked by the enchantress to climb the tower, leaps out of it in order to save his life and falls into a bed of thorns. The thorns pierce his eyes, blinding him and leaving to roam the world in despair.

He does, in time, find Rapunzel, who is raising twins, a boy and a girl, in complete ‘wretchedness’ in the desert. And they do return to the prince’s kingdom to live happily ever after together. The enchantress, however, lives on. She isn’t vanquished by the prince (quite the contrary). And Rapunzel isn’t a long-lost princess whose parents are pining away for their first-born. Her father, in fact, got her into the mess by stealing rare rampion that his depressed wife desperately craved from the enchantress’ garden. When he was caught, he readily acquiesced to paying for the rampion with a child.

More than the obvious violence in these tales is the underlying callousness of human beings, parents in particular. In the original Cinderella, her ‘kind’ father is as much to blame for Cinderella’s plight as her stepsisters. When the prince comes seeking the mystery woman belonging to the golden slipper, Cinderella’s father describes her as a ‘stunted kitchen-wench which my late wife left behind her’. The miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin faces death because her father, in an effort to make himself appear valuable to the king, lays false claim to her ability to spin straw into gold. And despite the clear evidence of the King’s greed, the girl’s fate (her happiness at becoming queen, perhaps?) is tied to his in marriage.

I have never read a modern version of Rapunzel that portrays her parents as anything except deeply saddened at the loss of their daughter. Several, in fact, suggest that they were desperate to get her back. Cinderella’s father was always clueless and distant, never in total agreement with the evil stepmother in any 20th century story I have read.

The more of the original Grimm tales that I read, the more I wonder at the mind that thought these were good tales for children. Or how they turned from homilies on the evil of mankind to stories of love, beautiful women, charming princes and fairy magic. It seems to be a pretty wide leap, a centuries-old game of Chinese Whispers that has stripped the darkness from the folklore.

Children, however, grow up. It’s easy to find the original tales. Fairy tales are no longer fairy tales, but fantastically grim twists on something we associate with Disney songs. This generation isn’t shivering at the thought of Smaug in his mountain, instead it’s dreaming of owning, as pets, Drogon, Viserion and Rhaegal. This generation is watching the (yet more) revisions of their fairy tales on TV (Once Upon a Time) and in the movies (Snow White and the Huntsman) and cheering on the grimy Huntsman in favour of a prince. This generation has already eschewed the sanitized versions of Disney’s Snow White for a sword-wielding warrior.

It seems that the only real fairy tales left anymore are the ones we find in romance novels. The only question is, how soon before they, too, embrace the darkness?


Travelling to the Land of Butterflies

A few years earlier, a scandal ran through Karachi’s middle classes when several cyber cafés released videos of couples necking (and a lot more) in the small private booths of their establishments. The couples were unaware that they were being filmed and some of the videos were incredibly explicit. To the sensibilities of ordinary Pakistanis, the videos were more than scandalous. They were horrifying, especially since all the women in the videos were covered in burqas or hijabs (which, to most Pakistanis, is what distinguishes the pious Muslim woman from the herd). The only upside to this fact was that the women were unidentifiable and therefore safe from stampeding mullah brigades out to dispense their own brand of justice.

But it caused a small sensation in the country. Even my own mother, whom I consider to be fairly liberal (she’s a fan of Harold Robbins. If you’ve read any of his books, you’ll know what I mean), was vocal in her anger at the actions of the women in the cyber cafés. It struck me that almost all of the condemnation was for the girls—no one seemed to care that all the videos included young men, all easily identifiable, all equal participants in the clandestine affairs.

It was a hot topic of discussion for days after the media ruckus had died down. Every conversation I had, even among my own friends, was about the audacity of these burqa-clad girls meeting men in private booths at cyber cafés to have sex.

Why all the anger towards women only? Weren’t the men equal participants? I would have understood a violent reaction to public indecency—that’s a matter of civic duty, not to disrupt public sensibilities. But these couples were seeking out cyber cafés with closed booths for privacy. They weren’t flaunting their affairs; they weren’t out in the streets encouraging other men and women to abandon their principles and espouse sexual freedom. And at the end of the day, what they do, or their morals, are none of my business, or anyone else’s for that matter. Individuals define their own morality, and while we are in our rights to try to convince someone that they may be wrong, we can’t condemn them for having a different morality (unless, of course, they believe murder, rape and crime in general is morally acceptable).

It formed the basis of my story—the anger people have towards female promiscuity, as opposed to the complete acceptance of a man’s affairs. Double standards exist in this part of the world, and it’s not based on the physical differences between a man and a woman (as most people here like to point out—men and women are physiologically different and should be judged against different criteria). If you think adultery is wrong, then your anger should equally apply to men as it is to women.

I had my conflict. Sex outside of marriage for a Pakistani woman. Rumi had to be strong enough to withstand condemnation, possible incarceration (though I decided that wouldn’t work well in a romance so I didn’t go that route at all). And the hero would have to be totally worth the uproar. I don’t know if either came across that way—I leave it to my readers to decide!

Because I knew nothing of how to put a novel together (such a massively different beast from writing a blog post or article), I needed guidance. Indireads didn’t have a formula for their books (unlike Mills & Boon and Harlequin who are very clear on what must or must not happen in their books), and all I knew was that it needed an introduction to the characters, a powerful conflict and a happy resolution. So, I searched online and found a series of articles on The Guardian’s website. It broke it down for me, segmented and boxed up into neat sections: character development, plot development, dialogue, conflict, resolution, scenes. It gave me a structure, a starting point on which I could actually plan the book.

It took me less than three weeks to write the book. It took considerably longer to edit and polish, but obviously this was a story that I wanted to tell, which is why it came pouring out. By the end of it, I had completely discarded all the worksheets and advice provided by the Guardian articles. I’m pretty sure that none of my characters came out the way I planned them, and the plot did several twists after two or three people had read the book.

That’s because I am impatient. I like to think I am organized and analytical, but the fact is, I’ve degenerated. I look at everyone and everything around me now for potential ideas. I store away mannerisms and patterns of speech. I don’t want to get up and go to a meeting when I’ve got a story to write. I don’t want to be doing boring housework or feeding the cats when I could be pounding away at my keyboard. That’s where writing one book has left me.

Short journey. Long repercussions.


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A Special Subset (Part I)

In the spirit of the upcoming International Women’s Day, my publisher thought it would be a great idea to focus my next few blog posts on women, specifically women writers from South Asia. I was reluctant to do so. It sounded like a cliché, the obligatory post that every female writer feels compelled to do at some point in her career. “Hey, women of the world, look at me, I’m also a woman!’ I have often thought that making that distinction, women writers vs. male writers, is what puts us in second place. Which reminded me of Ainsley Hayes from The West Wing, who didn’t believe that her country needed an equal rights amendment for women:


– Aaron SorkinThe West Wing, S02, Ep 18

When I first heard this, I thought, she’s so right! Why do we make it a point to separate ourselves as an independent entity when all we want is the opportunity to be judged equally? After all, even in a country like mine, which has a reputation for being an oppressive society for us, women are well entrenched in positions of power and as leaders of industry.

For instance, we’ve had a female prime minister twice—something that the US has yet to do. Women have been a part of our political leadership for decades, from Fatima Jinnah (a political player as far back as 1965) to Benazir Bhutto to Hina Rabbani Khar. In the last government, the Speaker of the National Assembly was a woman and for many, many years, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US (a coveted position) was female. One of our most famous architects, and the one getting very high-profile projects, is Yasmeen Lari. The top and most respected names in the fashion industry include Sonya Battla and Sana Safinaz. Noorjehan Bilgrami is a founder and the first dean of Pakistan’s second-largest art school. Until recently, the chairperson of the largest multinational corporation in the country, Unilever Pakistan, was Musharraf Hai, a woman. The most vociferous and vocal human rights activist in the country is a woman. Razia Bhatti, founder of the prestigious Newsline magazine, was a recipient of the Courage in Journalism award. Ameena Sayyid runs one of the largest publishing houses in the country, the Oxford University Press and is a founding member of the Karachi Literature Festival. The first Pakistani author I had heard of, who published in English, was Kamila Shamsie. Our first national (and international) pop icon was Nazia Hassan and our most celebrated singer is Madam Noorjehan. The first Oscar Pakistan won was awarded to Shireen Obaid Chinoy, and within Pakistan, women like Sahira Kazmi laid the groundwork for female directors thirty years ago. And, you’ve probably all heard of Malala Yusufzai, who survived being shot at, but not Perween Rehman, a tireless activist against Karachi’s notorious land mafia who was murdered for her efforts.

I’ve forgotten more women who belong on this list than I can count. But that’s not all.

Pakistan’s air force boasts nineteen female pilots, one of whom has just graduated to becoming our first fighter pilot, and the ranks are rapidly filling up with more. By a large margin, women dominate admissions to (and graduations from) top colleges and universities. They generally have the better grades and work very hard.

I know that in many instances I have special privileges because of my gender. When I go to the bank to pay a bill, I’m moved to the head of the line because I’m a woman and they don’t expect me to stand in line (something I’m in no hurry to change). This goes for almost all public-dealing and bureaucratic organizations. We routinely have security checkpoints around the city and if the police see a woman in the car, they wave you on (stupid, I know, considering the recent discovery of female suicide bombers and the Lal Masjid incident.*).

I can’t escape the fact that, due to religious convictions and cultural traditions, women are disadvantaged, sidelined and oppressed. But women in Pakistan are breaking glass ceilings and barriers despite these obstacles. They have a significant, if largely unmentioned, presence in almost every field and every industry, except perhaps sports (though that omission is also rapidly being redressed).

So, why would we need an International Women’s Day?

If organizations like the Taliban didn’t exist, I would probably agree with Ainsley Hayes. And if women weren’t joining their ranks (unbelievable as that is, they are), I would have told my publisher that we didn’t need to be seen as ‘a special subset’ of writers, artists, businesswomen, politicians and leaders.

And we don’t. But we do need to shout our accomplishments from the rooftops. Not to tell men that we’re valuable members of society, but to tell women that we are. To inspire other women to reach for the stars. We should celebrate our achievements not because we want to be judged as a separate entity, but because other women, young girls who are dreamers, future leaders and thinkers, need to be aware that it is possible, that they have choices in life beyond marriage and children. And that we’re here to support you, whatever you decide to do.


*For those who don’t know the story, Lal Masjid is a historically significant madressah created as a training ground for the mujahideen in the Afghan war. In 2007, the imam of the mosque and his students, both male and female, challenged the writ of the State by declaring war on immorality. They kidnapped a woman they suspected of running a brothel in Islamabad, vandalized music and video stores and barricaded themselves into their mosque, guarded by a phalanx of female students wielding sticks and batons. In a dramatic showdown with the government, the imam of the mosque tried to escape amongst a group of women, dressed in a burqa. They found a hefty cache of weapons when they finally cleared out the mosque.


Favorite Romance Writer?

When I read my first Mills & Boon romance, I was young and thought it was the height of raciness. A friend loaned me a couple of books that were listed as ‘bestsellers’, and while the thrill was there, I caught on to the obvious formula pretty quickly. The tall dark hero was always contemptuous of the spirited heroine, and due to a slight misunderstanding (which could have been cleared up with a couple of sentences that are never uttered until the final chapter), there was friction between the protagonists. This friction led to heightened tension, which translated into sexual tension. They’re horrible to each other through most of the book (or at least, the hero is), but everything washes away when they say ‘I love you’. Magic words.

This was all well and good for the first two or three books that I read, but the formula palled quickly (Penny Jordan’s writing make me want to shoot myself. How can she be a bestselling author???). I was bored out of my mind with what M&B considered bestselling authors. I would have stopped reading them altogether, except that I discovered Susan Napier.

I think the first book of hers that I read was a story of a film director and the disapproving aunt of his big star. The hero wasn’t tall. He wasn’t forbidding and enigmatic. He was flighty and articulate. He was a flirt and funny, not someone to be taken seriously.

Unlike the usual M&B fare, this story was richly textured with layered characters, dialogue that required a second look, and a story that sizzled with chemistry from the first page. It seemed irrelevant that the hero and heroine weren’t perfect (I recall a scene where they exchange gloves, because his hands are as small as hers are large!), because they were so real.

After that, I hunted for her books. One of her heroines was mute, another was a psychic. Her heroes were always articulate, but not all of them were rich, or harsh, or tortured (well, maybe one). Her characters were clumsy, quiet, exuberant, and yet each was totally believable.

If I must have a favorite romance novelist, it would have to be Susan Napier, but I wonder if I’m alone in this—I don’t want the normal romantic story, and the quality of writing makes a big difference to me. What about you? Who’s your favorite romance writer?