You Can’t Go Home Again By: Sarvat Hasin Publisher: India Hamish Hamilton Pages: 256; Price: Rs 499
The characters in Sarvat Hasin’s new collection of interconnected short fiction occupy rarefied spaces—large mansions in Karachi, universities like UC Berkeley, and cities like London. They are global citizens and members of Pakistan’s gentry with costume designer mothers and diplomat fathers. Yet, they
are driftless, trying not to fall into the clutches of cultural order and always searching for some version of home that has long ceased to exist.
Hasin’s debut novel, This Wide Night which was longlisted for the prestigious DSC Prize, was a riff on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, paying homage to that classic novel but also using it to craft a wholly original yarn about oases of female relationships amidst the patriarchal South Asian family unit. The looser pivot of this book is Arthur Miller’s seminal stage-play, The Crucible.
That tale, ominously titled ‘The Dark Room’, is the only one set in school days, marked by youthful innocence, puppy love, and teenage recalcitrance. Sixteen-year-old Shireen has a crush on rakish and cocky Karim with whom she’s sharing stage space for a performance of The Crucible. Meanwhile, the kidnapping of Rehan, a friend and classmate of theirs, jolts all of them particularly when he returns with the markers of sexual abuse.
The young people in these stories lead sheltered lives, sometimes bringing to mind the razzmatazz privileged worlds of Sofia Coppola which are intruded by ‘real life’. Shireen and Karim navigate the rubber band elasticity of the desi diaspora’s connection to a motherland that can sometimes seem more alien than their adopted domiciles. Naila deals with being in a relationship with Karim who unlike her doesn’t seem eager to settle down. Maliha becomes a soap star who can’t escape her vampish image and perceived life of moral digressions off-screen. Her sister Sabah deals with the spectre of their mother whose eerie detachment from the routines of everyday life throws their life into chaos.
Hasin’s understated stories strum with a feminist current. One of their many pleasures is her nuanced portrayal of Pakistani women and the way they present themselves. For Shireen, who moves away and loses touch with her school friends, London is a chance to remake herself, and live out a life untethered by family customs or pressures of marriage. “She learns to shed people the way snakes slough off old skin, leaving them behind in houses and schools and jobs she never returns to.” Maliha gets to try on the doe-eyed ingénue and the kohl-eyed vamp in television soaps and real life, both playing to and trying to break away from the tabloid demands of a patriarchal audience.
The tales also equally train their lens on the masculine strictures of contemporary Pakistan. After Rehan is returned home without much of a memory of what transpires and mysterious red bite marks up his shoulder, the precision of Hasin’s words startle. “They expected bruised and black eyes: even a finger or a limb missing wouldn’t have been as much of a shock as this.” Karim’s double life in and out of Pakistan is alluded to by one character. “It’s funny, isn’t it, with Karim—so enlightened, all those talks in Berkeley and London, articles in foreign newspapers about human rights and as soon as he’s back in the country, he turns straight into a caveman again.”
Occasionally, some stories wear thin. One also wishes Hasin had dug deeper into the political outcomes of their class privilege. This book is also far too slim to adequately mine the rich character possibilities of this incestuous group of characters.