Wedded to patriarchy

Fehmida Zakeer | Updated on September 07, 2018 Published on September 07, 2018

Tied in knots: Tahira’s prospects narrow abruptly after her status changes from daughter and sister, to wife, daughter-in-law, and sister-in-law   -  ISTOCK.COM/TAHIR ABBAS

A nuanced debut novel that captures the erosion of both public and private freedoms in a Pakistan reeling from Partition and hurtling towards military rule

In Sadia Abbas’s The Empty Room, the rumbles in the life of a young, educated girl from an affluent family in Pakistan are intertwined with the troubles facing that country in the decade before military rule stamped its chilling presence. Abbas delicately braids the details of the strife and erosion of public freedom with Tahira’s growing realisation of the narrowing path of her life, as her status changes from daughter and sister, to wife, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law.

When Tahira gets a marriage proposal from Shehzad’s family, her parents happily agree, their only condition being that their daughter should be allowed to continue to paint. What they do not realise is that the favour granted could turn into a weapon to taunt Tahira later in life. This grace allowed to Tahira by her otherwise mean-spirited marital family is by no means in recognition of her talent; it is rather a trophy for them to display, a means to draw admiration from society. When the unhappy situations of her life make it impossible for her to paint, her in-laws make it yet another means to heap insults on her. Finally she embarks on a series of paintings, a collection she names ‘The Empty Room’, showing spaces filled with inanimate, lifeless objects, mirroring the emptiness in her life as well as the state of the nation, which seemed to be changing hands from one feudal power to another.

In a sense, The Empty Room brings to mind the brilliant book Sunlight on a Broken Column, which focuses on the changing attitudes of three generations of a family in India during and after the turbulence of Partition. Though not as expansive in scope as the seminal book by Attia Hosain, Abbas’s work speaks of a country bracing for the turmoil in the aftermath of Partition and the internal wars thereafter. In both books, female characters, especially the younger, educated ones, are forced to walk a narrow path even as they attempt to break free from misogyny and repression. Any attempt to move away from the set path is fraught with hurdles from within and outside the families, and other unseen variables. Abbas, like Hosain, points to the inherent patriarchal roots in society.

While Laila, in Hosain’s novel, manages to get around societal norms with great effort, Tahira chooses to endure unhappiness. Her refusal to act pains her best friends, brother Waseem and lifelong pal Andaleep, so much so that they avoid her company rather than watch her weary acceptance. Andaleep, who seemingly has a better degree of freedom, has demons to face that are quite different from those faced by Tahira, though not any less heartbreaking. In both books, we see that a privileged birth does not guarantee a life without suffering or exclusion, especially in societies steeped in patriarchal attitudes.

Though the story of Tahira’s marital life drives the narrative in the first part of the book, the events in the larger society take over the latter half. Waseem and Andaleep, along with other friends, turn their attention to the breaking down of freedom in civil society, leaving Tahira to cope with her demons on her own. The losses that arise from the protests against the high-handedness of authorities finally propel Tahira to shake off her passivity.

The Empty Room Sadia Abbas Zubaan Fiction ₹495


Divided into four parts, the narrative incorporates the view points of various characters, giving readers a firsthand insight into the reasons governing their actions. Using the colours and textures of paintings and embroideries and fabric, Abbas effortlessly draws for the reader the richness of the inner atmosphere as well as the bleakness of the outside world. While the rich palette of colours used by Tahira for her paintings reveal the layers of her personal life, the sepia tones of the city, coloured by violence and senseless brutality, provide glimpses of life in Pakistan during a decade that seemed to have laid the foundation for the regime following it. Abbas’s nuanced debut compels the reader to yet again reflect on the tears and blood witnessed in the subcontinent at various times, and to wonder at the senselessness of the power games that never seem to end.

Fehmida Zakeer is an independent writer based in Chennai

Published on September 07, 2018
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