The tumultuous journey towards the search for identity is a trajectory that many characters deal with in novels. Likewise, this struggle forms a big part of Meera Syal’s Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee and Rukhsana Ahmad’s The Hope Chest, as both depict the growing up stories of a group of women. In Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee, Tania, Chila and Sunita are three friends who have to navigate between their natal Punjabi culture and the opposing values of the British world that they live in. Eventually, they are able to find their own unique identities through a return to their natal culture. Things do not go so well in The Hope Chest – while Rani manages to break away from an arranged marriage and assert her own agency, Ruth ends up a mentally unstable single mother, and Reshma is forced to leave her children and family after having an unauthorised abortion. When compared to the things that these characters go through, the struggles that Tania, Chila and Sunita have to contend with almost seem to be solved too easily. Ahmad’s portrayal of the female identity struggle in The Hope Chest suggests that Syal’s depiction may be an overly simplistic generalisation, one that largely glosses over the debilitating effects that a patriarchal society can have on the female identity.
While Syal’s protagonists face crises that are brought on by the destabilising of their identities, Ahmad’s characters start off with little to no personal identity. For instance, in Life Is Not All Ha Ha Hee Hee, Tania initially appears to reject her natal culture completely, breaking “loose from her traditional moorings and drift[ing] into an uncharted ocean with her English man and snappy Soho job” (Syal 18). She lives a life that does not follow “the ordained patterns for a woman of her age, religion, height and income bracket” within the Punjabi culture (15). Tania’s identity seems to be based off of Western values that are completely against those of her maternal culture, but it is later revealed that she is not as detached from the latter as she thinks she is. This can be seen in the way Chila notes that Tania still “[sits] like one with them, […] in a way that suggest[s] […] that part of her still respond[s] to them like Home” (19). In unconscious moments, Tania falls back to her natal culture – her identity, which she has formed on a completely separate sphere from Punjabi culture, starts to be destabilised throughout the novel as she realises that she cannot completely separate herself from her maternal culture. For instance, she wishes that her boyfriend, Martin, “would call her jaan” (72), a Punjabi endearment. This suggests that Tania still yearns for the maternal culture that she has tried so hard to distance herself from, implying that the completely Westernised identity she has formulated for herself may just be that – a synthetic formulation instead of an authentic identity.
However, despite the characters’ struggles with reconstructing their identities in Life Is Not All Ha Ha Hee Hee, it is notable that they still start off with some form of identity at the beginning of the story. In contrast, the characters in The Hope Chest are portrayed as ones with no personal identity at all; who they are is completely dictated by their gender and what society thinks that women should be like. For example, Ruth is described by her mother as having “no words, no dreams, no drive, [and] no ambition, […] reeking of the same greyness that had hung about her father” (Ahmad 25). She is depicted as someone with no colour of her own, possessing none of the qualities that could possibly define her as a unique person with her own thoughts and values. The female identity exists in The Hope Chest as a collective group identity instead of a unique individual one; within the patriarchal Pakistani society, women are expected to act in a certain and singular way. When Kamal, Rani’s husband, goes to her on their wedding night, he thinks to himself that “Rani’s person is so un-woman like! Almost as if she were sexless!” (182). Here, the idea that a woman has to be “woman like” suggests that society has its own set of rules for what it means to be a female. Rather than each having unique personalities befitting individual persons, women are simply expected to act like women – they are seen as a collective, homogeneous whole instead of unique individuals. As seen from the way Reshma’s father, Ajaib Khan, worries that her prospective husband “might hear of some other marriageable girl in Mardan, as pretty as Reshma, and change his mind” (42), women are interchangeable subjects with no individual quality. Aside from being a woman, the oppressive patriarchal society allows them to have no personal identity.
Compared to Rani, Ruth and Reshma, who have their identities dictated for them by society, Tania, Chila and Sunita have much more agency when it comes to shaping their own identities. When Sunita decides to figure out her identity and starts “putting unnatural colours in [her] hair, going out a lot and coming back late” (Syal 242), she is mostly free to do whatever she wants; she does not receive any backlash for any of her actions, such as when her parents do “not even [refer] to her bright red mini-dress” (278), a provocative choice of dressing that would usually be frowned upon in their culture. Similarly, Chila’s split from her husband, Deepak, is glossed over and barely spoken of in the text. The last time Chila is mentioned, she is “fe[eling] light as air, solitary” (333). While Chila is a deeply traditional woman at the beginning of the novel, with her “tomorrows […] built around a Deepak” (160), she manages to transition fluidly into a lone identity that is not tied around the idea of her husband. The end of her marriage has seemingly liberated her, as she plans to take her son to India, her home country, alone (333). The novel paints her current status as a single mother as something that is wholly positive, ending the story on a simple happy ending for the women, which fails to address the issues that they may face for acting outside of the cultural norms that are expected of women in society.
Ahmad complicates Syal’s sanitised depiction of the female search for identity by portraying how women can have a complete lack of agency in a patriarchal society. While Sunita has free control over her body and can freely communicate her identity through it, that is not the case for the women in The Hope Chest. Reshma’s mother, Rehmat Bibi, agrees to the marriage arrangement for Reshma as she thinks that “girls belong not to their parents but to the one who comes to marry them” (Ahmad 75). Notably, women are seen as objects that always belong to someone – first their parents, then their husbands. This is also seen through the way Ajaib Khan gets upset when Rani takes his sick daughter, Munni, to the hospital, angry “at the imperious way in which Rani Bibi had taken control of Munni, who was his daughter and, therefore, only his business” (38). He is upset that someone else has taken control over what he sees as his property, instead of being more concerned for his daughter. When Reshma appeals to Shehzadi to help her “get rid of [her new baby]” (210), it is an act of agency; she decides what to do with her own body.
However, the novel suggests that acts of agency such as this come with dire consequences for women, as they are in fact acting on something that does not belong to them. In the end, Reshma is banished from “[her husband], from her children and her home”, and sent back to her parents’ house (Ahmad 271). Her fate is described to be an “exile”, and her abortion a crime for which her husband has “tried her, condemned her and punished her” (271). This suggests that even by exercising agency over her own body, Reshma is committing a crime against the patriarchal society, which decrees that her body is not hers. Unlike Tania, Sunita and Chila, who are able to formulate new identities in a fluid transition, Reshma is unable to do so, as she does not even have any rights to herself.
While there are patriarchal values that permeate the Punjabi culture in Life Is Not All Ha Ha Hee Hee, the characters interact with them self-consciously – they are always aware of the limitations that the patriarchal culture places on them and question those values. For instance, Sunita is very much aware of the gender dynamics within the Punjabi culture, from the way she notices “the way men would […] wait to be served while the women ran in clucking circles around them” (Syal 82). She, however, does not mindlessly accept this subservient dynamic between men and women, instead championing female empowerment by getting “heavily involved with the Uni Women’s Group” in her university, advocating the idea of a “strong female”(87). She questions the validities of the values that are being instilled in her, and is not afraid to fight for women’s rights when she realises that she does not agree with those values. Similarly, when Sunita cracks a dirty joke about the doli suit that she got from her husband’s mother on their wedding day, Tania teasingly calls her a “bad Indian woman” (21), implying her awareness that the so-called good women of their culture are not supposed to make sexual jokes. However, they ignore this unspoken cultural rule, thereby recognising it as an arbitrary rule instead of an inherent one that must be followed, and not allowing it to control who they are as people.
In making her characters clearly aware of how patriarchal society works and giving them the abilities to act outside of these gendered norms, Syal neglects the fact that not all women are capable of resisting the mandates of society. According to Louis Althusser, every person goes through a process called “interpellation”, in which an individual is “always already a subject”, and is inducted into the “practices and rituals of ideological recognition” at the time of birth, as they are born into the ideology (Resch 209-10). When one is born into a society, one is taught since birth the values and beliefs of that certain society, and thus, may internalise those views and values as one’s own. An example of an interpellated subject can be seen in the form of Reshma in The Hope Chest. On her wedding day, despite hoping that “she could jump in for a quick swim” in the stream, she stops herself because “she [knows] only too well that she [has] to sit decorously amidst the women” (Ahmad 80-1). How Reshma knows she should act is at odds with how she wants to act, which is to “[leap] down the slope of the river bank, […] kneeling on the smoothly polished boulders at the edge of the bank, her clothes flapping in the wind” (80). However, despite the difference in her desires and how she is told to act, she never once questions the reasons behind things being so. Later on, despite not wanting to lie down, she “rose to obey, out of sheer habit” when her husband tells her to (131). Reshma is so deeply ingrained with the values of the patriarchal society that she unquestioningly obeys them, never stopping to question why she is doing the things that she does, leading to a suppression of her own identity in favour of the one that society has created for her. By only depicting characters who are completely in the know about how their society works and functions, and constantly question the values that are being imposed upon them, Syal neglects the complexities behind patriarchal ideology and how it may impact a woman’s formation of identity.
Indeed, breaking out of the patriarchal ideology in one’s search for identity is never as easy and smooth a process as Syal depicts in Life Is Not All Ha Ha Hee Hee. When Reshma is driven from her home and wants to learn the skill of midwifery, the first thing she is asked is if she is married, and if “[her] husband [has] given [her] permission to learn midwifery” (Ahmad 279). Even then, she has no control over herself, and needs authorisation from her husband to be able to do something. While Reshma manages to sign up for the classes by lying that her husband is “dead” (279), this cannot be seen as her successfully breaking out of patriarchal rules. Rather, she is still operating within the rules of the patriarchal society, as a dead husband means that she can make use of the authority of his name as his wife, yet have no one to control her. She is known as his “widow” (281), hence, her identity remains not fully her own – it is still very much tied to her husband.
The bittersweet ending for Reshma in The Hope Chest provides a strong contrast to the trajectories of the three friends in Life Is Not All Ha Ha Hee Hee, in which there are little to no consequences that they have to face for their actions, which defy patriarchal cultural norms. Syal’s novel suggests a journey towards personal identity that is easily navigated and conquered, while Ahmad’s The Hope Chest complicates this narrative, presenting a more cynical viewpoint that questions if the effects of patriarchal ideology on the female identity can be transcended, and if women can create an identity that is separate from their gendered bodies.
Ahmad, Rukhsana. The Hope Chest. Virago Press, 1996.
Resch, Robert Paul. “Althusser: The Interpellation of Social Subjects.” Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory, University of California Press, 1992, pp. 209–213.
Syal, Meera. Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee. Black Swan, 2000.