In an age where important feminist debates are on the front pages of daily newspapers, Undying Affinity, Sara Naveed’s debut novel is a time capsule of traditional romance from another era. With all the winsome stage setting of those unchanging Mills & Boon novels, Naveed presents us with 22-year-old Zarish, a virginal, impetuous and beautiful heroine whose entire life revolves around winning and keeping the heart of a passionate, handsome and challenging older man named Ahmar.
Packed with tumultuous scenes and challenges, the plotline has their love affair run into stormy waters. That both of them operate within the predictable and gender appropriate range of movement accorded to the hero and heroine of a romantic genre novel, is somewhat expected. In fact, there are similarities to one of the iconic Pakistani television dramas, from the Eighties titled Dhoop Kinare, in the age and lead pair dynamics as well as the name of the hero, Ahmar.
Bollywood references are not far behind; Undying Affinity seems to fuse the endings of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Jab We Met, to achieve a pastiche that is only satisfying when one wants one’s fiction to be far removed from the grit and surprises of real life.
That their romance takes place in a college where the older man, Ahmar, is a professor, who grades Zarish’s papers, indulges her transgressions and has intimate chats about her progress with her parents, is a kind of icky ethical minefield that a more experienced writer might have negotiated well. In Naveed’s hands, however, the main item being served up is romance with generous helpings of lovers’ drama and everything else is insipidly prepared — which is not to say that this subject should be off-limits. The romantic world is by nature one that can involve the breaking of taboos, and social conventions, and there are heady and breathtaking examples of novels that did so and pushed the envelope to take readers somewhere new or offer a type of social commentary. However, taking on a sensitive subject like student-teacher romance and treating it like a varnish or gloss on an already-fabricated object where the main goal is romantic love, brings it into an uncomfortable terrain.
The boundaries between Zarish and Ahmar’s personal and professional relationship dissolves and the result is some cringe-worthy dialogues. As Ahmar remarks, on a date, (I’ve seen you evolve over the months. You’re quite good in academics, and you’re not irresponsible, careless or ill-mannered anymore.) And then, (There are some flaws in you too, but those can be amended. I’ll help you.) It’s hard to say whether he’s speaking as professor or lover, but in either case his language is proprietorial and out of register. That this takes place in an age of #MeToo protests from around the world, where women have been bringing down filmmakers, judges, and college professors for taking unseemly personal advantage of their status makes it even less palatable.
This blinkered attitude, focussing only on romance at the cost of real storytelling, permeates the novel all through. To this effect, the narration is tightly controlled; we are told everything we must take at face value because it helps the narrator package the goods. So, Zarish is introduced in terms of her context. (She was glad she lived in a posh suburb, D.H.A. She had two brothers, Zohaib and Zahaan, and was the youngest of the three. Zohaib lived in Canada with his wife and two children. Zahaan lived with them and took care of the real estate business with their father, Zia Mumawwar.) These brothers, worked into the first page to serve as foils for the only daughter of rich parents, are practically non-existent throughout the novel, asides from a similar cursory mention in the first and last few pages.
The hero, Ahmar, is introduced in much the same way. (Ahmar had just returned from the US after completing his MPhil degree from a renowned university. Muraad wanted his son to come back and work in his own country. Ahmar’s mother had died right after giving birth to his sister, Samira. Muraad had brought up the two kids all by himself. His friends, and relatives, including his children, had tried hard to convince him to remarry but he never agreed.) Here we have Ahmar’s eligibility as foreign-returned post graduate, a status symbol that permeates Pakistani romance fiction, as in the 2017 published Austenistan, laid out for us. Zarish’s best friend, Haroon, who is meant to represent the conventional object of her affections, says in the first few pages. “I have to look after the business. Dad can’t handle it any more. Plus, I’m the only heir.” It’s hard to imagine why Haroon would be calling himself the only “heir” instead of “son” or “child” unless one assumes it is the narrator’s own preoccupation with his eligibility that’s getting in the way.
Naveed paints a passionate picture of her young heroine and shows her capacity and gradual movements towards maturation to prepare us for the twists and turns ahead. They remain, however, predictable enough to stay within the trope of a spirited young girl who only needs an opportunity to show her culturally appropriate behaviour. So Ahmar’s father having a heart attack is a chance to have her go from a spoilt and entitled brat to a selfless girl slaving away and covered in sweat in the kitchen because nothing speaks of her eligibility for marriage like preparing chicken and corn soup and vegetable sandwiches with her own hands.
Undying Affinity delivers the vortex of passion it promises, and has its characters travel a long journey to be together, and yet it still leaves you wanting a richer diet.
Karishma Attari is author of I See You, and Don’t Look Down, and runs Shakespeare for Dummies workshops. Twitter: @karishmawrites...