All that knowledge from the previous blog posts should now be stored in your brain, and I hope that you are ready to dwell deeper into The Empty Room. Leave your thoughts regarding the novel below, and through that we will be able to discuss Abbas’s literature in more detail.
Five other Pakistani novels you need to explore:
Ice-Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa: A novel based around India’s 1947 Partition.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid: A contemporary novel set in post 9/11 (there is also a film adaptation staring the only and only Riz Ahmed).
Minaret by Laila Aboulela: Although not a Pakistani novel, I just had to add this one to the list as it really is a marvellous read. It follows the life of a young Muslim girl, who faces many challenges.
Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam: A heart-breaking story about the issue of honour killings.
It was Muneeza Shamsie who said that:
‘By the end of the twentieth century, it [Pakistani literature in English] had grown from a little-known genre to a vital, dynamic body of work’.1
Pakistani literature over the years, has become more and more successful. Literature like The Empty Room, which focuses on real-life issues shows how the purpose of literature is not to just serve as entertainment, but is also there to educate. This genre is only expanding further into the 21st century, with pieces of art that engage the mind, and change perception. You could say it is revolutionising literature.
 Muneeza Shamsie, Hybrid tapestries: The Development of Pakistani literature in English (Oxford University Press, 2017), 347.
Zubeida Agha was born in 1922, in Faisalabad, Pakistan. She is described as “A Pioneer of Modern Art in Pakistan” 1 as she was the first painter to introduce modernist art to Pakistan. Agha studied Philosophy and Political Science at Kinniard College, in Lahore. However, she realised that this is not what she wanted to do and took on painting at BC Sanyal studio. Yet she seeked
to do something original, rather than the conventional painting she was taught at the studio. Once she met Mario Perlingieri, a student of Picasso’s, she began to find her own way of painting. It was 1949, when she had her first ever solo exhibition in Karachi, and changed how people viewed Pakistani art.
Anna Molka Ahmed.
Born in 1917, Ahmed was a painter of the fine arts. She converted to Islam when she was 18 years old, and studied painting, sculpture and design in London’s St. Martin School of Arts. In the 1940s, she moved to Lahore and began to teach fine art at the University of
Punjab. She is known to be the first Pakistani art teacher, to make her students paint outdoors, and focus on the landscapes and people. Ahmed worked throughout her life to promote fine art in Pakistan, and make it a prominent subject in Universities.
These two infamous Pakistani painters contributed immensely to the arts in Pakistan, and still today their respected names are recognised. Two female painters who, regardless of the negative attitudes a South Asian woman would face for working, at the time, carried on with their passions.
We have seen Tahira’s role as a wife who lives in a patriarchal world, but what about her artistic role as a painter? Before she was married, Tahira’s mother told Shehzad and his family, that they should allow Tahira to continue her painting, to which they agree. Tahira is a passionate painter, who uses it to express herself as a woman who experiences many changes in life.
Tahira describes ‘the sheer sensuous pleasure of wielding brush and mixing oil and pigment’.2 The alliteration: ‘sheer sensuous’, portrays how she finds satisfaction and happiness in completing a painting. It captures Tahira’s enjoyment, and how painting is her happy place away from her marital problems.
She uses her painting to mourn the death of her brother Waseem, and best friend Andaleep, by painting them in a happy setting. Tahira exclaims how, after completing this artwork, she ‘cried for the first time since their deaths’.3 The fact that her painting is a way for her to remember them, links to David Aberbach who states that through creative work:
‘The artist may confront and attempt to master the trauma on his own terms and, in so doing, complete the work of mourning’.4
Creative artwork and writing, can help one to release their emotions, and grieve over a loss. Tahira cries after the painting is finished, as her creativity has allowed her to let out suppressed feelings, over the loss of her dear friend, and beloved brother.
Struggling to paint.
Indeed, Tahira’s painting liberates her. However, she faces a constant battle with struggling to allow her creativity to flourish. After motherhood and giving birth to both her children, Tahira finds it difficult to reinstate her painting ability:
‘She heard her children and wished she could join them. The thought surprised her. She had wanted for so long to be able to do this. She had even resented her own children, she thought with prickling guilt, as if her inability to paint were their fault’.5
Whilst trying to concentrate in her room, Tahira displays mixed emotions. Whilst she longs to play with her children, she blames them for being the reason as to why she is unable to paint. She repeats this feeling when she says that after her pregnancies, she ‘wouldn’t even draw because I was unhappy’.6 Perhaps this is a sign of post-partum depression, as she is constantly sad and has no energy to paint, or to be with them.
The Empty Room.
However, once she overcomes this, Tahira creates a series of paintings and titles it ‘The Empty Room’. Sound familiar? Well it’s the name of the book! Now what is symbolic about these paintings is that: ‘each of the painting would have an open book, and each book would have some script, a signature, lines from different novels, short stories or poems visible on the open pages’.7 As well as having a desire for art, Tahira adores literature and incorporates both her passions into one series. In one painting she includes poetry by the famous Pakistani poet, Mirza Ghalib:
‘When there was nothing there was God, had there been nothing there would have been God’.8
This line adopts religious imagery to discuss the existence of God. Ghalib says how before anything on this earth, there was God, and even if nothing existed, God still exists. The second line reads:
‘Existence took me under, but had I not existed what would it have mattered?’.9
Ghalib states that his being alive, has ‘took him under’, so it has worsened him. This denotes that humans in themselves have caused harm in the world and are accountable for it. Yet, the second half suggests that even if he was not alive and did not exist, there would have been no consequences for his behaviour, not even with God existing. He is almost challenging God’s authority. The poem may be significant for Tahira as she is questioning her existence in life, which involves God. This questioning may be down to the hardships she faces, which is why she incorporates it into her painting.
The character of Tahira is an interesting one, through which we as readers are provided with another side of Pakistani culture, it’s art. The novel takes you through a journey, and almost becomes a bildungsroman novel as Tahira grows as a Pakistani woman in the 70s.
 Rabbya Naseer, “Zubeida Agha,” Aware.
 Abbas, The Empty Room, 199.
 Ibid., 319.
 David Aberbach, Surviving trauma: loss, literature and psychoanalysis (London: New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 3.
Let’s take a step back and discuss, what literature really is. Have you ever really thought how novels and poems are classed as literature? It may seem too broad of a question, but everyone has their own opinions.
In the 1930s, Queenie Leavis suggested that: ‘the effect of the increasing control by Big Business… is to destroy among the masses a desire to read anything which by the widest stretch could be included in the classification ‘literature’’.1 In simple terms, she believed that literature is read by select groups like the elite and not the masses. She was fearful of big businesses commodifying literature by making it easier to read and turning it into something other than what is being read by higher culture, and is easier to read. But this view is outdated.
The more contemporary voice, Arthur Krystal says that ‘although writers may be good or bad, literature itself is always good, if not necessarily perfect. Bad literature is, in effect, a contradiction. One can have flawed literature but not bad literature; one can have something “like literature” or even “literature on a humble but not ignoble level”’.2 Thus, literature must provoke thought, and have an impact on how one views the world. Or it should deepen our understanding towards time periods in history and issues which occurred. This makes us question ourselves and how we view certain things. It jogs our mode of enquiry and maintains our interest. Whether it’s classical Shakespeare, or Harry Potter, if it challenges your mindset, then it is indeed literature.
How do you define what is literature, and what is not? Do you agree with Leavis’ view, or Krystal’s?
Picture this. It’s 1977 in Pakistan, the heat is scorching hot as always, and you hear the news of Pakistan’s new president being elected. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. An officer in WW2, who worked with the British and then fought during India’s Partition, now the sixth president of Pakistan.
Haq wasn’t the best of leaders. He organised a military coup, and overthrew Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Straight after he was appointed, he fixed the martial law, which allowed the military, as part of the government, to control civilians. With this came restrictions and abuse of power including censorship of the media and oppressing human rights. He put in place laws which allowed the publical stoning of women, who were accused of adultery or pre-marital sex. The novel is set around his regime, where the rising political tensions overlap into the personal relationship amongst characters, and their own individuality.
Waseem and Safdar.
‘Intense and passionate and absorbed’. 3
Three words which describe both Waseem and Safdar perfectly as characters.
Waseem, Tahira’s brother, and Safdar, his best friend, are both rigid political activists who oppose the restrictions of the new military administration. They both attend and organise protests against the government, and boldly chant:
‘Nahin lenge hum yeh rusvai’.4 (We will not take this humiliation)
‘Khun paseene ki kamaai. Khun paseene ki kamaai’.5 (‘“The earnings of our blood and sweat, blood and sweat”’.) 6
This reflects the reality of 1970s Pakistan, where Haq took acres of lands from citizens, who worked hard and put their (as the saying goes), blood, sweat and tears, into forming assets. Both characters rebel against this repression, and are passionate with their views.
Safdar states how: ‘“too long have we let the military run this country. There is too much injustice in this land. There is unconscionable, intolerable poverty in this land”’.7 This novel deeply informs you of the issues with Haq’s reign, in which he allowed poverty to increase and the people to suffer. The characters recognise this injustice and try to make it right.
However, how the political affects the personal is that, Waseem’s passions for his political beliefs, lead him to staying unmarried and results in his death. Safdar also gets caught up with the protesting, and lives with the ache of losing his best friend. He is also unable to unite with his lover Andaleep, who loses her life to the protesting as well.
Abbas brings light to Pakistan’s historical past, and broadens the reader’s understanding of this juxtaposition between the political and personal. According to Krystal, this would then qualify The Empty Room as a piece of literature. The political freedom was left missing for the residents of Pakistan, under their new government, which then strips them away from their personal freedom. Freedom of equality. Freedom of expression of opinion. All taken away.
 Queenie Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (Pimlico, 1932).
 Arthur Krystal, “What is Literature?,” Harper’s Magazine, 2014.
Arranged marriages and the domestic life of a married Pakistani woman.
Tahira and Shehzad’s relationship began from an arranged marriage set by their families. Tahira had only ‘met him once before’,1 when it was finalised, which, in 1970s Pakistan, would have been a common practice. Across South Asia, marriage is held in high regard, and are seen as sacred unions between a man, woman, and their families. Arranged marriages are the traditional route, although in the 21st century this has somewhat changed. Yet they should not be confused with forced marriages, in which consent from the bride and groom to be, is not considered.
Sadly, a Pakistani society would look down on women who are in their late twenties and unmarried, whilst for men this is not the case. Although this cannot be true for every Pakistani household, when talking about different time periods, the 70s would have been a challenging time for them. You could say that arranged marriages are the norm of South Asian societies.
Now Tahira and Shehzad’s marriage, is not a representation of how all arranged marriages turn out. Some work well, my own parents had an arranged marriage and they’re still going strong! However, Tahira struggles when living with her new husband…
What is a dowry? A dowry is when the bride brings: money, cars, a property, land, or gold, from her maternal home, to her husband and in-laws. It is the groom and his family who benefit from this payment and may even demand higher amounts. Socially and culturally a bride’s family is expected to pay the amount they ask for, even if it is out of their budget. However, this practice is now becoming less popular amongst Pakistanis, especially those who are Muslim, as Islam looks down on dowries. Instead, women are entitled to a ‘mahr’, in which the husband must give some amount of money etc, to what he sees fit, as a gift which is hers to keep.
But why do some give dowry?
The amount a bride brings with her, determines how comfortable her life ahead will be. For instance, when Shehzad gets angry at Tahira’s family, he says: ‘“you humiliated me with a second-hand television, with an inadequate dowry”’.2 Even though Tahira’s family had given them the best they could, for Shehzad and his family, it was not enough. The fact that he felt ‘humiliated’, conveys how it is to do with the concept of upholding respect in a social circle, when being part of the middle/upper class.
By her in laws being unsatisfied by her dowry, this become the reason for Tahira being mistreated. Her mother-in-law Shireen builds into patriarchal stereotypes of the roles of men and women, in which the man is the breadwinner, whilst the woman is a housewife. She tells her son that: “dulhan is not accepting her brother’s death in the proper manner. It’s so unseemly this neglect of her family. You shouldn’t have to make your own tea. It’s a disgrace”’.3 Dulhan is the urdu term for bride, and after Tahira’s brother passes away, Shireen disagrees with how she is mourning. Again, like Shehzad, who was humiliated by the dowry, Shireen believes it to be embarrassing that Tahira is not in the kitchen, making something as simple as a cup of tea. She constantly taunts Tahira with degrading phrases like: ‘“you still haven’t lost the weight you put on when Saira was born”’.4 After freshly giving birth, Tahira is fat-shamed for not having a skinny figure, even though she has just experienced immense pain.
Many state that ‘the literature on arranged marriages among South Asian women has focused on […] main themes – [such as] the practice of dowry’. 5 Indeed, Abbas focuses on dowry, and through Tahira, represents how because of it she is emotionally abused, even though Shireen herself selected Tahira for her son.
Misogyny refers to the hatred towards women and the belief that they are lesser than men. Shehzad adopts these views against Tahira, when he gifts her a book titled Heavenly Ornaments. The book dictates the rules a wife must follow to serve her husband. Believe it or not, this book exists!
Shehzad believes that through this, ‘he would teach her to behave with propriety that was pure in intention as well as behaviour. Yes. He would purify her in thought as well as deed’.6 Teach her to behave properly? Purify her thoughts? Such phrases convey how Shehzad fits well into a patriarchy, by seeking to belittle and control his wife. To save her marriage, Tahira goes forward with accepting this gift.
Tahira reads passages like: ‘‘The Prophet has said that had he ordered women to bow to anyone other than God, it would have been to their husbands’’. 7 It seems like Shehzad’s book has manipulated what Islam says, to downsize the role of a wife, into being solely to satisfy a man’s needs. Whilst it is true that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, quoted how wives should respect their husbands, he also stated that husbands should do the same, as shown in the image on the left. Hence, how Shehzad degrades his wife, is wrongful in the eyes of Islam.
He further displays his idea of a dutiful wife, when he claims: ‘wasn’t it her duty to make things smoother for him, […] to know his desires before he knew them himself?’.8 Now, although Abbas discusses that she ‘didn’t want The Empty Room to become part of the oppressed brown woman narrative in the West’,9 which is why she first published it in Asia. Through Shehzad’s personality as a character, it is evident that Tahira is an oppressed woman. However, those of South Asian background, are able to understand the situations Tahira is placed in, whilst the Western gaze may view them by building into stereotypes of a all Pakistani men as suppressing their wives.
F. Scott Fitzgerald states:
‘That is part of the beauty of literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong’. 10
This anthropological approach means that literature allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of others to find a mode of commonality, and understand their experiences more. Abbas allows us to understand the struggles Pakistani women face, through abusive arranged marriages. One feels sorrow for Tahira who is bounded to Shehzad, and unable to leave due to what society teaches. It may be set in the past, but till this day, many Pakistani women experience hardships in their marriages, arranged for them.
 Sadia Abbas, The Empty Room (Zubaan Publishers, 2018), 7.
 Abbas, The Empty Room, 124.
 Ibid., 311.
 Ibid., 197.
 Raksha Pande, “I arranged my own marriage’: arranged marriages and post-colonial feminism,” Gender, Place and Culture 22:2 (2014), 174.
 Abbas, The Empty Room, 22.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 92.
 Sadia Abbas, interviewed by Shireen Quadri, “‘I wanted to understand how women live with misogynistic values’: Sadia Abbas on ‘The Empty Room’,” Scroll.in, Jan 21, 2020.
 Micaela English, “The Best F. Scott Fitzgerald Quotes,” Town&Country, Sep 8, 2017.
Whilst reading The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas, I found myself annotating and jotting down the many thoughts it provoked in my mind. This led me to create a blog which contained my ideas around what Abbas touches on through her novel, and to explore the significance of them. I believe that it is important to almost dissect a novel as we read it, to understand the deeper meaning behind what is written.
The blog is mainly aimed at young adults who are studying Pakistani Literature in English, or who are more specifically looking at Abbas’s novel. This is the reason why the posts will include secondary theory, which will be useful for academic students. However, those who seek to learn more about Pakistani literature, may find this blog equally as useful as it provides a detailed insight into Abbas’s novel, which I believe is a good addition to the world of Pakistani literature. The novel also touches on a variety of different topics, which are portrayed in many other Pakistani novels.
Sadia Abbas is a Pakistani writer, based in the USA, yet was born and raised in Pakistan and Singapore. Growing up, she faced a dominant patriarchy in her family whereby the men had ownership over the women and limited them. However, Abbas broke the rules of the patriarchy by being the first person in her family to marry a non-Pakistani, and also the first person to endure a divorce. Marrying outside of one’s culture, and divorce, are both issues which, till date, are looked down upon by many South Asian families.
Abbas completed a PhD in English Literature from Brown University, and now teaches at Rutgers University, within the English department. She wrote At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament, a monograph about the ‘new Islam’ following the Rushdie affair in 1988, to the attacks of 9/11. The Empty Room was her debut novel which was published in 2018, by Zubaan Books, an independent publishing house based in New Delhi, India.
‘‘Zubaan’ is a Hindustani word meaning tongue, voice or language. It is often used in a pejorative sense to refer to ‘women’s talk’, or ‘gossip’ – generally for women who talk too much! We are proud to reclaim the term on behalf of all those whose voices are silenced or marginalized by the mainstream, and will continue to be heard no matter others say’. 1
Thus, this publishing house focuses on fiction by South Asian women, like Abbas, written on the experiences of South Asian women. The Empty Room, is one such a novel which follows the life of the female protagonist Tahira, who undergoes an arranged marriage with Shehzad. The novel is set amongst the politics of Karachi in the 1970s, and touches many subjects around familial life in Pakistan, marriage, and a woman’s role. Tahira is a painter who is suppressed by her in-laws and husband. She is almost unable to escape her married life and faces many losses and grief. The novel was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2019, showing its literary merit in the world of contemporary Pakistani literature.
The overlapping themes are what I will be examining and focusing on through the different blog posts. Each post focuses on a different theme present in The Empty Room.
The posts are as follows:
‘How can you not know what I mean? We were raised to be married’. Arranged marriages and the domestic life of a married Pakistani woman.
How the Political affects the Personal.
Tahira: The Artist.
A Concluding Page.
When discussing these themes of: Arranged marriages, political vs person freedom, and the presence of art, I will be conveying how the following characters are situated within each theme:
Shireen (Mother in law)
Waseem (Brother) Safdar (his friend)
Indeed, themes in literary novels are important as they are the leading thoughts and dominant ideas within the plotline. Thus, my reason for structuring the blog around themes in the novel, is so that the reader is provided with a wide idea of the issues that are present in a Pakistani society, as explored by the author. Now you might be asking, why would I want to read this blog? Well by the end, I hope that you as a reader, will have enough knowledge of the novel, through the analysed quotes and explanations. I also aim to encourage you to indulge in your own thinking, about the ideas I have explored, and build on them. If you are someone who is not familiar with Pakistani literature, then this blog should provide you with a detailed insight into what it has to offer, before you leave to explore more novels.