By Ila Ananya
The Jane Austen Society of Pakistan (JASP), or at least some of its members, meet once a year for a tea party. Each of them picks a character — Marianne Dashwood, Caroline Bingley, Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot — and all of them, in their dresses and jewellery and hairclips, sit together over an elaborate tea of scones, sandwiches, and cake in a house in Islamabad.
This year it was called the ‘afternoon tea at Netherfield’ — like that famous dinner when Elizabeth and Catherine de Bourgh first meet — and at JAPS’ tea too, Lady Catherine de Bourgh sat at the head of the table in her red dress with pearls around her neck. The glass plates were white, and the table was lit with candlesticks. The women talk as the characters they’ve dressed up as, discussing Austen and her books. In their first ever Regency tea last year, they even played a Pride and Prejudice matchmaker game Marrying Mr Darcy: The Card Game, where Elizabeth ended up marrying Denny and Darcy married Kitty.
Laaleen Sukhera, the founder of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan, was twelve when she picked up her first Austen book. Like many others, she first read Pride and Prejudice, and since then, she has returned to Austen enough times to feel like her characters are real people. Soon after Pride and Prejudice, Sukhera went on to read Mansfield Park and Persuasion, and says she has related to different Austen characters ever since. When she was in school, Marianne Dashwood and Catherine Morland were interesting (Anne Elliot who is 27 in Persuasion seemed so old); when she was single and living abroad, she particularly liked Emma, and now, with three daughters, she feels sympathetic to Mrs Bennet, who managed to raise five girls.
Sukhera has been working as a media consultant and freelance journalist for the last 17 years. The Jane Austen Society of Islamabad started off as a literary community on Facebook because Sukhera realised that almost all of her activity on social media involved sharing articles on period drama, books, and the Regency era — posts that many Pakistani women seemed to enthusiastically respond to. Like Sukhera, many of the women who are a part of the society have incidentally worked as journalists, and she says that some are mothers, some aren’t married, and many are between 30 and 50 years old. The Facebook page then grew so much: it now has 1100-1200 members from 45 different countries, 96 percent of whom are women, that it has come to be known as the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan.
In some ways, JASP is a lot like the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). They both hold teas, with its members meeting as often as they can, and picking a book or particular character to discuss. JASNA even holds an annual Austen conference that Sukhera attended this year. For a moment, she can’t stop laughing about the many inside jokes (all based on really detailed references to characters) in the play ‘Emma is presented in Washington City’ that was performed. “You would need to know every small, completely random detail about every character to thoroughly enjoy the play,” she says.
But like JASNA, JASP is beginning to hold meetings in different cities. They have held many in Islamabad and had a few in Karachi, and Sukhera says they are getting ready to meet in Lahore for the first time later this month. On their schedules are discussions on characters they love and hate, and the similarities between Elinor and Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Windsor from the Netflix show The Crown. If time permits, says their schedule — “We never finish what’s on our agenda,” Sukhera laughs — there will be fun and games where they will play Guess the Quote.
But there is something different about women reading and re-reading Austen in Pakistan. Sukhera says that the lives of her characters are so similar to their own lives in Pakistan that very often, many of their discussions become about parallels between the Regency and contemporary Pakistani society. Some members of JASP have even decided to write a book of short stories tentatively to be called Austenistan, and due next year, in which each story is inspired by Austen (a book, a character, or even their quotes), but entirely set in Pakistani society.
“Austen’s characters are all around us. There are more similarities here than there are between Austen and the West,” Sukhera says about repeatedly returning to read Austen. She describes, for instance, what she calls the Season (usually in winter) in Pakistan, where families meet and introduce their sons and daughters to each other. A lot of preparation goes into these meetings, says Sukhera — much like the Bennet family’s preparation for the ball that Bingley holds at Netherfield. Here one can expect match-making, just like all the match-making that goes into Emma. There are also uncles and aunties passing judgements and trying to decide who the appropriate pairs are, just like Anne in Persuasion is convinced to break off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth when he was a navy officer with little money and family name.
Austen’s books are full of these pressures, not only to marry but to marry into a rich household — “It’s always about marriage in our households,” says Sukhera — the pressure to be well-dressed and respectable, to appear eligible, and to have a male heir. “These are familiar pressures,” she says, and it’s no wonder that women continue to read Austen with so much investment.
In her lovely book Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom, Deborah Yaffe writes about how Austen has somehow become “public property”, as though the characters in her books have taken on a life of their own beyond their stories. Perhaps this is what Sukhera refers to when she says that newer film and TV adaptations of Austen’s books are more about Janeites than Austen herself, or that Austen is a pop culture icon with entire industries wanting to use her stories. Perhaps this is why the members of JASP comment on each other’s photos from the Netherfield tea on Facebook, continuing to be the women they’ve dressed up as. The woman dressed as Jane Bennet asks her friend to drop by so they can play a duet on her pianoforte, and her friend tells her to hard the sound of her carriage for she will come visiting soon. Another photo’s caption with Caroline Bingley and Jane asks where Mr Bingley is, since the two women are getting along just fine. In the middle of all of this, there’s even a joke about Georgianna Darcy have Wickham’s child.
I was 19 and in college when I first read Pride and Prejudice. Until then I pretended to have read it because I vaguely knew the story from the three times I’d watched Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice. I had a very clear memory of Jaya (Jane Bennet) and Balraj (Bingley), and Lalita (Elizabeth Bennet) and William (Darcy) walking into the sunset sitting on elephants. When I finally did read the book, I loved it — Elizabeth was 20, and witty, and was sometimes so clear about everything in her head that I wondered if I would ever be this way.
But what Pride and Prejudice didn’t do for me was to push me towards other Austen books in the way that it pushed Sukhera to Mansfield Park and Persuasion. There is a moment in Yaffe’s book where she writes that if you have to ask the question, “Why Austen?”, then it’s likely that you’ll never be a part of this huge world of Austen fandom. I realised then that as much as I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice, I did ask this question, and it’s one that women at JASP have learnt to patiently answer.