- An anthology series that questions the norm
Bathed in a crimson shade reminiscent of a sunset, the cover illustration of ‘The Girl with the Paisley Dupatta’ reverberates with two very powerful emotions; freedom and triumph. Set delicately against a paisley patterned backdrop, the silhouette of a woman; hair flowing in the wind and arms stretched above her head as she waves her dupatta behind her, speaks of strength and tenderness all at the same time. As the world gradually continues to break through stereotypes, challenge patriarchal mindsets, and send tremors through the conventional foundations of outdated cultural and social norms, an author brings another small earthquake to the landscape, hoping that it widens the already forming rift in these restricting and primitive constructs.
Mahvash K. Mohtadullah hails from Pakistan, where she received her education through 10 years of boarding school under the tutelage of Irish Catholic nuns in Murree – an island resort town in the country. With 15 years of expertise in financial customer experience and process optimisation, Mohtadullah decided to take a sabbatical shortly after her mother’s passing in order to figure out her life beyond a corporate career. Her search brought her to Sri Lanka, and what was meant to be a year of sabbatical turned to six. On 13 January 2022, her female-centric anthology series The Girl with the Paisley Dupatta was released; the culmination of years of observation, inspiration, and a mammoth effort to make social impact. Brunch chatted with Mahvash for more insight on The Girl with the Paisley Dupatta.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
If you had to talk about ‘The Girl with the Paisley Dupatta’ in a nutshell, what would you have to say?
This is an anthology of tales which is very female-centric. Most of my protagonists are female and these tales are built around the social, cultural, and even faith-related challenges that they experience in their day-to-day life. I would say that these stories are from outside the bell curves of our lives, and are not often discussed openly. However, my endeavour has been to address these hushed whispers and give them a more everyday look and feel, so that people can relate to them, be more comfortable around them and perhaps even make these issues and challenges more mainstream. I think our psyche has a tendency to throw up walls when things do not fit well with the boxes that have been predetermined for us. This is my attempt to challenge those mindsets and bring more relatability to them. I also think that I have tried to highlight the triumphs of my protagonists instead of giving them defeated endings. The last three stories are political satire, which I will not speak about, because I would like my readers to explore those themselves.
How did you find your inspiration to compile this anthology series?
I think this book has been a long time coming. I always wanted to be a writer, but never really found the fodder for it. My writing also took a back seat because of how in this subcontinent, success is largely measured by careers such as a doctor, engineer and so on, coupled with what we commonly say, ‘life happened’. However, during the last two years, the lockdowns gave me time and space to do some serious writing, and everything that was in the back of my mind took flight. I am also an empath and have the ability of reading energy and situations quite quickly, which I was able to bring to my plot lines and my characters.
I have also been very aware of the gender imbalance no matter where I was, be it a workplace, social circles or otherwise. While I was working in the bank, I was quite insistent that the male to female ratio be equal, if not slightly in favour of the female side. Even when it comes to domestic help, I had a Hindu girl who was helping me around my home, which did not sit very well with my two other domestic help members who were Muslim. Pakistan is a largely Muslim-dominated country, but we do have Christians, Hindus, Parsis, and Zoroastrians. So, I made sure that I did not tolerate faith based biases in my home and she ultimately became an integral part of my family. I hope that even if it was just changing two minds, the ripple effect hopefully changed a few more. We are products of a very conventional patriarchy in the larger subcontinent; I am talking about Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and maybe to a lesser extent, even Sri Lanka, and that plays out in pretty ugly ways in many aspects of our lives. But as the world has become smaller, women have started to realise the potential they bring to the table, which has shaken the patriarchy. Through my writing, I have attempted to make that crack even bigger, and let women realise that it is no longer alright to be afraid for one’s mental, physical and emotional well-being. And that it is not alright to sacrifice your dreams and aspirations for social norms and primitive culture, and that rather, it is alright to be the best version of yourself, whatever that may be.
Is it possible that this inspiration was born out of challenges that you may have experienced yourself?
You know, being born in the Indian subcontinent, you don’t feel safe walking on the streets alone after a certain time. You are told by your family to not go out after a certain time, and to not wear certain types of clothing, or to conduct yourself in a certain way. Like it or not, as women, we have all had to go through this social construct and one day, you wake up and realise that women always have to go through that glass ceiling. It is always harder for women to prove themselves, be recognised in the workplace, or start a business, for example. I have spent 15 years in the corporate world and have had to work much harder to come to the level of my male colleagues, or to be taken as seriously as they would be. And I was fortunate enough to work for multinational banks that had a more westernised ideology which trickled down from the parent companies. That made my situation much better than that of my contemporaries. I went to boarding school for 10 years, and many of my classmates come from very conservative families. They got married at just 16 or 17 years of age, and one of those girls has now become a grandmother. This was the sum total of their lives, the majority of which was dedicated to raising a family. Boys are allowed to go abroad and study. Girls are allowed to study, but not so much in the case of going abroad, because of the fear that they will be exposed to too much freedom. So the question becomes: “How will they fit in the box when they come back?” So yes, I feel these challenges everyday. I live in Sri Lanka now, and while the society is much more liberal, sometimes I notice the way a man would look at a woman up and down, and that is definitely not alright. Rather than preaching about this, I felt the best way to open a dialogue was to weave stories around it.
Where can readers purchase a copy of your book from?
It will be available at The Jam Fruit Tree Publications as well as in Sarasavi Bookshop, from 13 or 14 January onwards.