By Lakshmi Menon

this-wide-nightSarvat Hasin’s This Wide Night has been described as Little Women meets The Virgin Suicides. While this is not entirely wrong and there are some clear parallels between the works, the description belies the levels of meaning the author has packed into this work, and the comparisons fall short.

The majority of the story is told through the eyes of Jimmy, who, like Laurie in Little Women, is fascinated by the women who live in the house across the street from him. As he learns more about them, to live among them and love them, so do the readers. We grow to share his fascination with the Malik sisters – the beautiful Maria, firebrand tomboy Ayesha, shy Bina and the petulant Leila, and their mother Mehrunnisa who is as lovely as she is mysterious. In the absence of the patriarch of the household, Captain Malik, these women form parts of a whole that does not leave any room for outsiders. Even as Jimmy feels welcomed into their world he is aware that he will never be completely privy to it. They share “an invisible net of sisterhood” that he cannot penetrate, try as he may.

Through the course of the novel, we watch Jimmy try to find a balance for the failings of his own life. A loner in many respects, it is in this intimate shared space that he is invited into that he finds solace, even as he is aware that their world isn’t exactly considered “ordinary”.

No one lived as these girls did, no other mother would have allowed these freedoms. But even this freedom was not boundless. There were things you could live in the world without and things you could not. This was not a city for hiding sins or secrets.”

The isolation of the Malik girls from society in general becomes a real, physical thing in the latter part of the book, when circumstances force them to move to an island off Karachi, and Jimmy is aware of what it entails to share a roof with the women.

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They were married there in Paris, just the two of them with Khalajaan and witnesses gathered from the local mosque. It was not the wedding he remembered her having talked about as a girl; she’d wanted a grand reception at the Metropole and large golden-yellow tents. She’d wanted white silk tablecloths and rose petals down the middle of the aisle. I want a palanquin, she’d insisted, even when Maria had pointed out they had no male relatives to lift it.

There’s Papa and Jimmy, Leila said. That’s only two.

I’m sure you’ll all be married by then, she’d sniffed.

Your husbands can help.

And there she was in the small clerk’s office, dropping her head with the anachronistic coyness of brides. At dinner, Khalajaan told them to be good to each other and asked no  questions  about  anything: not  the  rush, not  the  secrecy, not  the  dumb fact of it here in a city that did not belong to them. Her hands folded on the tabletop, the glow of her rings in the candlelight. She looked at them with an indulgence he hadn’t expected, a flash of warmth in her smile like butter in a pan. She was fond of Leila, he knew. She was the only one of the girls who had followed, in some way, in her image.

Marriage is hard, she said, and she pointed at the space between them with her fork. You will have to work hard. You will have to compromise.

She had never been in his room before. He realized then, as she stood by the windowsill with her hips angled against it, that they had never really been alone together. Only in parks and restaurants, never in the deafening silence of a hotel room. She shifted in the window till she was the whole room, all he could see. He sat down, held on to his bed.

Did you mean what you said about loving me? she asked.

Her question small, and nearly swallowed up in the space between them.

They came together as lonely travellers will do. The ugliness of his proposal was buried under the language of their bodies. This time when he reached out to hold her there was a sureness to it that seemed separate from the wreckage of his nerves. He felt disconnected from his body, as if he is watching them from a great distance: the two of them in the empty room. Her body shivered, his hands shook.

Leila curved into him, fit a hand along his waist. The boldness of her touch pushed him back into the room. Here it was cold and she was near enough for his mouth to catch her breath if he opened it.