Resilient, Beautiful Butterflies

In literature and in life, the themes I connect to most strongly—perhaps because they echo the story of my life—are those of discovery and freedom, leading inevitably to disconnection, displacement and eventually to new beginnings. The themes are a familiar literary backdrop, revisited again and again in love stories, novels and movies.

Why are these commonly recurring themes? And what makes them so powerful? The answer lies, I believe, in the trajectory of life. We are perpetually pitched into the unfamiliar, jolted out of our comfort zones and asked to move, with times that are a-changing. And no matter how much we kick or scream or resist, willingly, or unwillingly, we are continually poised on the brink of letting go of something old to find something new. And so, when we read about it, we relate to the fear and sympathize with the unfairness, and inevitability of it all.

Our newest release, Butterfly Season, launched this month, touches on these themes in the life of a thirty-something Pakistani woman Rumi, who is blithely and unsuspectingly on vacation in London for the first time in ten years. The spirited side of her, squashed by family and cultural dictates, wakes up and causes Rumi to act on impulse, to let go and to fall in love—until reality catches up with her in the form of her moralistic sister, who brings her face to face with the far-reaching consequences of her actions.

What strikes me, ironically enough, is that, although Rumi believes herself to be an emancipated modern woman, how hemmed in and closely scrutinized her life actually is. Although she is independent, employed at an unconventional job and is able to invite her friends over for breakout evenings on her rooftop, beyond these small incursions, Rumi is not really free to venture out and discover what she wants in life. It is her vacation that grants her the freedom to discover, to explore and to experience the heady power of being attractive to an attractive man.

It is telling that for so many of us, the process of going away may be the only means of coming alive and coming home to oneself. For so many South Asian women the disconnect has been linked to marriage—the end of the old and the beginning of a new life. More and more young women however, are able to choose other paths. To begin offbeat careers, to work or study away from home, to travel, to break boundaries, forge new paths, to explore and discover and find ourselves, as individuals, unconnected to family, tradition, or relationships.

Ultimately however, like Rumi, each of us is challenged to choose between old and new, and at that precise moment of choice and courage, we are rebirthed—free of our cocoons, to venture forth into a new life.

Here is to all of us—beautiful, resilient butterflies.


Only in the unfamiliar are we able to distance ourselves to recognize who we have become, and what we really wanted to be.


She Reads, South Asia

My journey to appreciating South Asian writing was a rather circuitous one.

While growing up I read widely and eclectically, which is another way of saying that I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on. At that time, familiarity with the classics was considered essential for the well-read person, so my father enthusiastically supported my love of reading by buying me the unabridged works of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe, to name a few. The longer it had been since the author had died, the better.

By the time I went off to college, I considered myself quite well-read. Unfortunately, my knowledge of South Asian literature was next to nothing. This is something that I have tried to remedy as I have grown older and wiser, at least in terms of fiction from the sub-continent written in English. From Vikram Seth to Arundhati Roy, from Salman Rushdie to Mohsin Hamid to the wonderful Chitra Divakaruni and Kiran Desai, I discovered and fell in love with the writers and their craft. And then I branched beyond the award winners and discovered delightfully evocative fiction written by the likes of Anuja Chauhan, Advaita Kala and Rupa Gulab, who have become some of my favorite South Asian popular women writers.

As I started discussing my reading likes and dislikes with friends, I was surprised at how common my journey had been. Most of my friends had read the classics, but many of them had never even heard of enormously evocative writers like Indu Sundaresan or Anjana Appachana.

A few years ago, when I started on the Indireads journey, I was equally surprised to see how many in my reading circles had favorite Western romance writers—Georgette Heyer, Mary Balogh, Sophie Kinsella and Judith McNaught et al, but when it came to South Asian romance, most of my women reader friends were just not interested. Slowly I came to realize that, by design, accident or choice, we know very little about the amazing writing talent that lives and thrives within our own region. It is hard to be an author anywhere in the world, but to be an author in South Asia, and that too a writer of ‘women’s fiction’, can be quite a challenge.

SheReads South Asia was conceived as an initiative to allow ourselves to be inspired by these writers and to celebrate their words. Motivated by 2014 being celebrated as the Year of Reading Women and building on the success of the #ReadWomen2014 campaign, SheReads South Asia will reach out to women readers, encouraging them to support, discover and engage with our very own South Asian women writers and their works.

Through SheReads, Sabahat and I hope to make the journey of discovery easier for many readers.

Over the years, I have also been drawn towards spirituality, and there, the masters point out how the discovery of oneself is a long, winding road. Maybe the path to discovering yourself, your roots and your stories, was never meant to be straight either. The journey may be long and circuitous but we hope SheReads South Asia will take out at least a few bends on the road, allowing you and us to get ‘home’ faster. May the journey begin!


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.


What Lies Beneath

Most women who read romance feel an inherent urge to hide the fact. There are very few women who will openly acknowledge owning and reading romance books, and even less who stand up and defend their right to read romance. Men have their crime/thriller books—almost always accompanied by a healthy dose of flesh and gory details, but you never see them shying away from owning their reading pleasure; while women will go to extreme lengths to hide their romance fix from their husbands, families and even their friends. And as for spicier reading—let’s not even go there.

Then along come eBooks and Fifty Shades of Grey—a marriage made in heaven if ever there was one. A secret pleasure fully enabled by the anonymous device used to read it. There are no tell-tale cover illustrations and no need to hide one’s book in bigger, more appropriate reading material.

Which is all well and good, but not terribly empowering. So that’s my grouse. Why should women hide the fact that they have eclectic reading habits—and get pleasure from handsome heroes, feisty heroines and happy endings? We all need and deserve our brand of TLC. Bollywood is unabashedly romantic and you will not find people going around hiding the fact that they like films. So what’s the big deal where books are concerned?

eBooks are a wonderful invention—convenient, easy to carry around, can be read any place at any time on any available device—they are a godsend for readers.

Nevertheless, I dream of a time when women carry their eBook of choice proudly and stand up for the right to read what they like. That is the day closet fans of dashing heroes and Fifty Shades will march out, heads held high and a romance book—an Indireads title, hopefully—tucked under their arms.