Duty Free by Moni Mohsen

This is supposed to be Emma in Lahore. I don’t think so.

I suppose the narrator is playing with the idea that Emma thinks she can educate everyone else when really she desperately needs an education herself—that is, I hoped that’s what the narrator was doing until the errors started popping up in the narration itself, and not just in Emma’s words and thoughts. Even if the errors are there for comedic purposes, they are so frequent as to be distracting. A sampling: “So us four went” (2). “I have a very good sick-sense like that” (10). Black Hawk Down is “a nature documentary” (10). Eton becomes “Eaten.” Its fees “are more than Pakistan’s GDB” (11). “Guvment” (13). “Good radiance” (14). “Die-vorce” (14). She finds fault with Jonkers’ ex-wife for not being able “to speak English properly,” for being “a total uneducated,” and for not wearing “deodrant” (16, 18).She worries she “would become a laughing stop” (20). “He told me to stare her in the right direction” (21). “We have a group of ten friends, very reclusive and all because we don’t just invite anyone to join” (27). “Who does she think she is . . . Mitchell Obama?” (50) “I’ll go and see your prospectus brides” (23). Illiterate becomes “illitred” (27). “The garden was all land-escaped” (33). “Zafar works for a bank called Golden Sacks” (35). (I guess that’s logical!) A concussion becomes a “con-cushion,” and a CT scan becomes “city-scan” (8). Emma wasn’t completely ignorant of basic things. Why do this to the Pakistani Emma? She can’t multiply thirty by 40,000 because she “failed in Maths in Class” (34). When the maid first arrived, she was “a real down-and-out pheasant” (61). “All yesterday I was on tender hooks” (90). “At once I made a bee-hive for her” (92). “And it gets more worst” (69). She “was already up to her waste in it” (70). “I was dump-founded” (72). When Jonky stands up for himself, he goes “up in [her] steam” (56). She reminds herself that “looks can be receptive” (187). She watches Bride and Prejudice, which she calls an “adoption of an English TV series” (57). She thinks she has “soiled a suicide bomber all by” herself (58).

There are several interesting changes with the language that were more fascinating in linguistic studies than annoying like the mistakes (though to be honest, I know I’m supposed to be an adult, but I found “Aunt Pussy” a distracting name from the start 1). The narrator calls terrorists “beardo-weirdos” (25). The “situation” becomes “the sich” (62). “Get Togethers” are “GT” (64). Many italicized words (kothis, tau, Haan) have no immediate translation, and the lilt of the English is different (“it’s a bit bore that you have to climb fifty-five thousand steps” 2).

The premise of the story is that the narrator is married and has a kid and somehow gets roped into helping marry off her cousin Jonky, age 37, who is basically damaged goods. If she fails to secure him bride #2 by the end of the year, his mother, Aunt Pussy, will put some sort of spell on the narrator’s son, Kulchoo.

The narrator doesn’t appreciate Janoo, her husband, who could, I suppose, be Mr. Knightley-esque in that he’s smart and moral and hard-working. She considers him “serious,” with an interest in “world affairs and crops and his bore charity school that he runs in his village” (16). They are, of course, from the same “bagground,” which is very important to her, her mother, and her aunt (17). She thinks that because she has “a full house” and “everyone is always saying what a nice life” she has, she is happy (19, 18). Quickly we see that they have a terrible marriage; their values are completely at odds. He won’t go to a wedding with her because he “doesn’t like corrupt, crooked types” of people, and she won’t do “something useful,” like help their maid with her finances or teach English “to the girls in his charity school” (26, 28). Janoo thinks the women “should just let Jonkers find his own wife” (32). I thought briefly that Jonkers could be Mr. Elton, but no—Jonkers speaks well, corrects his cousin, and, other than being a little pathetic, seems like a good guy.

The narrator is completely self-absorbed. Of her appearance, she comments that she “put on green contacts (blue is so past it) and [her] new Tom Ford red lipstick and now [she is] looking just like Angelina Jolly” (5-6). Her maid’s mother dies, and the narrator’s big concern is “not only will [she] have to find a new wife for Jonkers [but also] a new maid for” herself (47).  When her husband disagrees with her that the maid is a “back-stabber-may-she-rot-in-hell,” she tells him that he doesn’t “deserve” her and should have “married [his] Oxen memsahib” (75). She’s “so depress, so depress” because she has “no maid to” pick up her clothes, straighten her shoes, bring her tea, and “plumb” her cushions—and oh, incidentally, she isn’t speaking to her husband (77). She steals a friend’s maid and then changes the girl’s name, denies the theft to her friend, and tells the maid to hide if ever the friend comes to visit.

She is also far more clueless than Emma; the lack of self-awareness might be amusing if it weren’t so appalling. She worries more about what people “will say” than about her son’s quality of life (84). She scorns her son’s “stuppid housemaster calling to say that [her] poor baby had been hit on the head with a cricket ball” but then is concerned primarily about “pass[ing] away [her]self” (7). Yet she keeps calling everyone else “stuppid” (21). (At least the kid takes after his father.) Thinking she’s charitable, this empty-headed woman sends fashion magazines and expired tranquilizers to a refugee camp. She comments on her own gentleness and gives as an example how, when she was little, instead of “squat[ting] flies with a big thump like everyone else,” she would “do it gently, slowly with four, five little taps” (138). Much more enjoyable for the flies, no doubt.

Her friends aren’t much better. The women are catty. At a wedding, they talk smack about the mother of the bride—right after praising it. Then they ask “what can you expect from someone whose name even no one had heard nine years ago?” (95) Sunny claims her own son “had three fatal accidents while playing polo” but “he’s still fine” (7). Fatal accidents? And he’s fine? And the narrator isn’t fazed by that but by the competitive nature of the boast. Mulloo finds fault with “a gay” who is dating an “American, even worse, [a] Christian” (42). The Emma character wants to defend the girl as being not “as bad as a Hindu or something” (42). Shaukat says the Americans, not the Taliban, are “doing the bombing” and that “they’re taking orders from Israel” (36-37). Zafar says “it [is] impossible for a Muslim to kill another Muslim” (39). In response to evidence to the contrary (who killed a million people during the Iraq and Iran war?), Zafar claims that the Americans did it. Jammy blames the Israelis. The main character is at least uncomfortable with these lies and shifts the chatter to ask about Zeenat’s highlights (39).

Her perspective is fascinating. She calls the Talibans “selfish” and “unconsiderate,” acting “as if Pakistan belongs to them” (87). Kulchoo says she is “polaroid about the Talibans” (80). In fact, the moments when she discusses what’s happening (“someone who Nina knows had her arms slashed with a naked blade . . . by a beardo [who] said he did it because she was wearing sleeveless”) are among the only compelling moments of this story (82). What is it like to be a middle-class Pakistani in this climate? War and bombings are constant backdrops. Perhaps it’s some justification for her focus on frivolity. She and her friends are religious, and the book does a good job showing the difference between regular observance and what she calls the “fundos” or sometimes, the “beardos.” She is, however, unbelievably naïve, not believing her intelligent husband when he tells her the mullahs are running “madrassahs where they take poor boys . . . and make them into suicide bombers while they send their own sons to nice schools” (158). She does, though, see that the mullah to whom she makes a donation reminds her too much of the man who attacked her and her friend.

Still, maybe these women are not quite “religious.” One character resentfully complains that she has “kept [her] fasts, said [her] prayers, done [her] charity, even gone on Umra twice and this is how Allah repays” her (173). Even our narrator, supposedly a pious woman, thinks her cousin hasn’t asked his mother for permission to marry because someone “must have slaughtered a black hen outside Aunt Pussy’s house and done something with the blood” (218). At least her “beliefs” are, sometimes anyway, to protect her son; she wants to “kill two sheep” because she’s “not taking any risks with Kulchoo” (225). But why would she think “there’s nothing like killing sheep to make G-d happy” (225)?

I liked our heroine for a brief moment when she visits a prospective bride for Jonkers and tries to encourage the poor, repressed girl to speak, but when it suits her personal needs to encourage Jonkers to marry into this despicable family, she changes her advice to him. I liked her again for a second when she talks back to a robber, but then she becomes a manipulator again. She “thinks” her husband believes she is traumatized by the robbery “because now he comes quietly” when she calls him. As a result, she thinks she’ll “keep it up for another five, six years at least” (164).

I kept looking for links to Emma. There are beatroots. Is that it? (169) Mulloo is sort of like Harriet—the robbery is like the gypsy attack (but no Frank to save her), and the advice the narrator “carefully” gives her not to start a catering business could be like the “say no to Robert Martin”—but not really (213).

At the end, when things start to change, our narrator really tries to fight her superstitions, even telling her mom she’s not “supercilious any more” (243). Though that’s not what she intended to say, she’s not wholly mistaken. When Janoo defends Jokers’ right to marry a “partner . . . with whom he feels at ease and with whom he shares interests [lest his]marriage [] be a very lonely experience,” our heroine is at least smart enough to ask her husband if he is lonely (220).She continues to name her make-up and her shoes, to judge a family for having a maid (rather than a guard) open the door, to scoff at a shawl for being wool (rather than “shahtoosh . . . or even pashmina” 229). Finally, though, she has an epiphany—inspired by Janoo, Jonkers, and the bravery of the woman Jonkers loves—and does what she can to make things right.

In boasting of her accomplishments in so doing, she says, “We had those standing-up heater-type things . . . they’re called brassieres” (245). Maybe her little mistakes have been funny all along, or maybe now that I can stand her, she’s finally amusing.



Published in: on June 21, 2013 at 2:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

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