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In this one-of-a-kind retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in modern-day Pakistan, Alys Binat has sworn never to marry—until an encounter with one Mr. Darsee at a wedding makes her reconsider.
A scandal and vicious rumor concerning the Binat family have destroyed their fortune and prospects for desirable marriages, but Alys, the second and most practical of the five Binat daughters, has found happiness teaching English literature to schoolgirls. Knowing that many of her students won’t make it to graduation before dropping out to marry and have children, Alys teaches them about Jane Austen and her other literary heroes and hopes to inspire the girls to dream of more.
When an invitation arrives to the biggest wedding their small town has seen in years, Mrs. Binat, certain that their luck is about to change, excitedly sets to work preparing her daughters to fish for rich, eligible bachelors. On the first night of the festivities, Alys’s lovely older sister, Jena, catches the eye of Fahad “Bungles” Bingla, the wildly successful—and single—entrepreneur. But Bungles’s friend Valentine Darsee is clearly unimpressed by the Binat family. Alys accidentally overhears his unflattering assessment of her and quickly dismisses him and his snobbish ways. As the days of lavish wedding parties unfold, the Binats wait breathlessly to see if Jena will land a proposal—and Alys begins to realize that Darsee’s brusque manner may be hiding a very different man from the one she saw at first glance.
Told with wry wit and colorful prose, Unmarriageable is a charming update on Jane Austen’s beloved novel and an exhilarating exploration of love, marriage, class, and sisterhood.
Advance praise for Unmarriageable
“[A] funny, sometimes romantic, often thought-provoking glimpse into Pakistani culture, one which adroitly illustrates the double standards women face when navigating sex, love, and marriage. This is a must-read for devout Austenites.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Unmarriageable is a joy to read! It transforms a familiar story into something new and fresh and different, but keeps all of the warmth and intelligence of the original. I loved everything about these characters and spending time in their world.”—Jasmine Guillory, author of The Wedding Date
“Unmarriageable raises an eyebrow at a society that views marriage as the ultimate prize for women. Crackling with witty dialogue, family tensions, humor, and rich details of life in contemporary Pakistan, it tells an entirely new story about love, luck, and literature.”—Balli Kaur Jaswal
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Unmarriageable
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl can go from pauper to princess or princess to pauper in the mere seconds it takes for her to accept a proposal.
When Alysba Binat began working at age twenty as the English-literature teacher at the British School of Dilipabad, she had thought it would be a temporary solution to the sudden turn of fortune that had seen Mr. Barkat “Bark” Binat and Mrs. Khushboo “Pinkie” Binat and their five daughters—Jenazba, Alysba, Marizba, Qittyara, and Lady—move from big-city Lahore to backwater Dilipabad. But here she was, ten years later, thirty years old, and still in the job she’d grown to love despite its challenges. Her new batch of ninth-graders was starting Pride and Prejudice, and their first homework had been to rewrite the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s novel, always a fun activity and a good way for her to get to know her students better.
After Alys took attendance, she opened a fresh box of multicolored chalks and invited the girls to share their sentences on the blackboard. The first to jump up was Rose-Nama, a crusader for duty and decorum, and one of the more trying students. Rose-Nama deliberately bypassed the colored chalks for a plain white one, and Alys braced herself for a reimagined sentence exulting a traditional life—marriage, children, death. As soon as Rose-Nama ended with mere seconds it takes for her to accept a proposal, the class erupted into cheers, for it was true: A ring did possess magical powers to transform into pauper or princess. Rose-Nama gave a curtsy and, glancing defiantly at Alys, returned to her desk.
“Good job,” Alys said. “Who wants to go next?”
As hands shot up, she glanced affectionately at the girls at their wooden desks, their winter uniforms impeccably washed and pressed by dhobis and maids, their long braids (for good girls did not get a boyish cut like Alys’s) draped over their books, and she wondered who they’d end up becoming by the end of high school. She recalled herself at their age—an eager-to-learn though ultimately naïve Ms. Know-It-All.
“Miss Alys, me me me,” the class clown said, pumping her hand energetically.
Alys nodded, and the girl selected a blue chalk and began to write.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young girl in possession of a pretty face, a fair complexion, a slim figure, and good height is not going to happily settle for a very ugly husband if he doesn’t have enough money, unless she has the most incredible bad luck (which my cousin does).
The class exploded into laughter and Alys smiled too.
“My cousin’s biggest complaint,” the girl said, her eyes twinkling, “is that he’s so hairy. Miss Alys, how is it fair that girls are expected to wax everywhere but boys can be as hairy as gorillas?”
“Double standards,” Alys said.
“Oof,” Rose-Nama said. “Which girl wants a mustache and a hairy back? I don’t.”
A chorus of, I don’ts filled the room, and Alys was glad to see all the class energized and participating.
“I don’t either,” Alys said complacently, “but the issue is that women don’t seem to have a choice that is free from judgment.”
“Miss Alys,” called out a popular girl. “Can I go next?”
It is unfortunately not a truth universally acknowledged that it is better to be alone than to have fake friendships.
As soon as she finished the sentence, the popular girl tossed the pink chalk into the box and glared at another girl across the room. Great, Alys thought, as she told her to sit down; they’d still not made up. Alys was known as the teacher you could go to with any issue and not be busted, and both girls had come to her separately, having quarreled over whether one could have only one best friend. Ten years ago, Alys would have panicked at such disruptions. Now she barely blinked. Also, being one of five sisters had its perks, for it was good preparation for handling classes full of feisty girls.
Another student got up and wrote in red:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that every marriage, no matter how good, will have ups and downs.
“This class is a wise one,” Alys said to the delighted girl.
The classroom door creaked open from the December wind, a soft whistling sound that Alys loved. The sky was darkening and rain dug into the school lawn, where, weather permitting, classes were conducted under the sprawling century-old banyan tree and the girls loved to let loose and play rowdy games of rounders and cricket. Cold air wafted into the room and Alys wrapped her shawl tightly around herself. She glanced at the clock on the mildewed wall.
“We have time for a couple more sentences,” and she pointed to a shy girl at the back. The girl took a green chalk and, biting her lip, began to write:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you are the daughter of rich and generous parents, then you have the luxury to not get married just for security.
“Wonderful observation,” Alys said kindly, for, according to Dilipabad’s healthy rumor mill, the girl’s father’s business was currently facing setbacks. “But how about the daughter earn a good income of her own and secure this freedom for herself?”
“Yes, Miss,” the girl said quietly as she scuttled back to her chair.
Rose-Nama said, “It’s Western conditioning to think independent women are better than homemakers.”
“No one said anything about East, West, better, or worse,” Alys said. “Being financially independent is not a Western idea. The Prophet’s wife, Hazrat Khadijah, ran her own successful business back in the day and he was, to begin with, her employee.”
Rose-Nama frowned. “Have you ever reimagined the first sentence?”
Alys grabbed a yellow chalk and wrote her variation, as she inevitably did every year, ending with the biggest flourish of an exclamation point yet.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a husband!
“How,” Alys said, “does this gender-switch from the original sentence make you feel? Can it possibly be true or can you see the irony, the absurdity, more clearly now?”
The classroom door was flung open and Tahira, a student, burst in. She apologized for being late even as she held out her hand, her fingers splayed to display a magnificent four-carat marquis diamond ring.
“It happened last night! Complete surprise!” Tahira looked excited and nervous. “Ammi came into my bedroom and said, ‘Put away your homework-shomework, you’re getting engaged.’ Miss Alys, they are our family friends and own a textile mill.”
“Well,” Alys said, “well, congratulations,” and she rose to give her a hug, even as her heart sank. Girls from illustrious feudal families like sixteen-year-old Tahira married early, started families without delay, and had grandchildren of their own before they knew it. It was a lucky few who went to college while the rest got married, for this was the Tao of obedient girls in Dilipabad; Alys went so far as to say the Tao of good girls in Pakistan.
Yet it always upset her that young brilliant minds, instead of exploring the universe, were busy chiseling themselves to fit into the molds of Mrs. and Mom. It wasn’t that she was averse to Mrs. Mom, only that none of the girls seemed to have ever considered traveling the world by themselves, let alone been encouraged to do so, or to shatter a glass ceiling, or laugh like a madwoman in public without a care for how it looked. At some point over the years, she’d made it her job to inject (or as some, like Rose-Nama’s mother, would say, “infect”) her students with possibility. And even if the girls in this small sleepy town refused to wake up, wasn’t it her duty to try? How grateful she’d have been for such a teacher. Instead, she and her sisters had also been raised under their mother’s motto to marry young and well, an expectation neither thirty-year-old Alys, nor her elder sister, thirty-two-year-old Jena, had fulfilled.
In the year 2000, in the lovely town of Dilipabad, in the lovelier state of Punjab, women like Alys and Jena were, as far as their countrymen and -women were concerned, certified Miss Havishams, Charles Dickens’s famous spinster who’d wasted away her life. Actually, Alys and Jena were considered even worse off, for they had not enjoyed Miss Havisham’s good luck of having at least once been engaged.
As Alys watched, the class swarmed around Tahira, wishing out loud that they too would be blessed with such a ring and begin their real lives.
“Okay, girls,” she finally said. “Settle down. You can ogle the diamond after class. Tahira, you too. I hope you did your homework? Can you share your sentence on the board?”
Tahira began writing with an orange chalk, her ring flashing like a big bright light bulb at the blackboard—exactly the sort of ring, Alys knew, her own mother coveted for her daughters.
It is a truth universally acknowledged in this world and beyond that having an ignorant mother is worse than having no mother at all.
“There,” Tahira said, carefully wiping chalk dust off her hands. “Is that okay, Miss?”
Alys smiled. “It’s an opinion.”
“It’s rude and disrespectful,” Rose-Nama called out. “Parents can never be ignorant.”
“What does ignorant mean in this case, do you think?” Alys said. “At what age might one’s own experiences outweigh a parent’s?”
“Never,” Rose-Nama said frostily. “Miss Alys, parents will always have more experience and know what is best for us.”
“Well,” Alys said, “we’ll see in Pride and Prejudice how the main character and her mother start out with similiar views, and where and why they begin to separate.”
“Miss Alys,” Tahira said, sliding into her seat, “my mother said I won’t be attending school after my marriage, so I was wondering, do I still have to do assign—”
“Yes.” Alys calmly cut her off, having heard this too many times. “I expect you to complete each and every assignment, and I also urge you to request that your parents and fiancé, and your mother-in-law, allow you to finish high school.”
“I’d like to,” Tahira said a little wistfully. “But my mother says there are more important things than fractions and ABCs.”
Alys would have offered to speak to the girl’s mother, but she knew from previous experiences that her recommendation carried no weight. An unmarried woman advocating pursuits outside the home might as well be a witch spreading anarchy and licentiousness.
“Just remember,” Alys said quietly, “there is more to life than getting married and having children.”
“But, Miss,” Tahira said hesitantly, “what’s the purpose of life without children?”
“The same purpose as there would be with children—to be a good human being and contribute to society. Look, plenty of women physically unable to have children still live perfectly meaningful lives, and there are as many women who remain childless by choice.”
Rose-Nama glared. “That’s just wrong.”
“It’s not wrong,” Alys said gently. “It’s relative. Not every woman wants to keep home and hearth, and I’m sure not every man wants to be the breadwinner.”
“What does he want to do, then?” Rose-Nama said. “Knit?”
Alys painstakingly removed a fraying silver thread from her black shawl. Finally she said, in an even tone, “You’ll all be pleased to see that there are plenty of marriages in Pride and Prejudice.”
“Why do you like the book so much, then?” Rose-Nama asked disdainfully.
“Because,” Alys said simply, “Jane Austen is ruthless when it comes to drawing-room hypocrisy. She’s blunt, impolite, funny, and absolutely honest. She’s Jane Khala, one of those honorary good aunts who tells it straight and looks out for you.”
Alys erased the blackboard and wrote, Elizabeth Bennet: First Impressions?, then turned to lead the discussion among the already buzzing girls. None of them had previously read Pride and Prejudice, but many had watched the 1995 BBC drama and were swooning over the scene in which Mr. Darcy emerged from the lake on his Pemberley property in a wet white shirt. She informed them that this particular scene was not in the novel and that, in Austen’s time, men actually swam naked. The girls burst into nervous giggles.
“Miss,” a few of the girls, giddy, emboldened, piped up, “when are you getting married?”
“Never.” Alys had been wondering when this class would finally get around to broaching the topic.
“But why not!” several distressed voices cried out. “You’re not that old. And, if you grow your hair long again and start using bright lipstick, you will be so pret—”
Soniah Kamal’s debut novel, An Isolated Incident, was a finalist for the Townsend Prize for Fiction and the Karachi Literature Festival–Embassy of France Prize. Her TEDx Talk is about regrets and second chances. Kamal’s award-winning work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Catapult, and Literary Hub.