- "Close Distance":Class and Intimacy in South Asia
In a powerful photo series, "Close Distance" (2013), Bangladeshi photographer Jannatul Mawa employs a simple device: she asks middle-class urban housewives and their housemaids to sit together on the drawing room sofa, a space usually forbidden to housemaids who may clean the furniture but typically not sit on it. The resulting photographs reveal with startling effect the social distance that exists between mistress and housemaid, even as they are unified by the space they occupy on the sofa and, by extension, the middle-class household. Like Mawa, Maryam Mirza is interested in the particular and sometimes peculiar forms of intimacy and distance that characterize cross-class relations in South Asia. In Intimate Class Acts: Friendship and Desire in Indian and Pakistani Women's Fiction, she brings together a set of ten Anglophone novels by Indian and Pakistani women writers to ground her inquiry. While Arvind Adiga's novel The White Tiger (2008) and Daniyal Mueenuddin's short story collection In Other Rooms Other Wonders (2009) have attracted much acclaim for their explorations of class relations in India and Pakistan, especially how these exist at the intersections of feudalism and globalization, Mirza's attention to women writers widens the scope of critical interest in novels about class, allowing us a glimpse into the relationships between women and girls in the novelistic worlds she explores. [End Page 404]
Intimate Class Acts joins an interdisciplinary field of scholarship that foregrounds the dissident potentials of friendship, while also pointing to its limits, as seen for instance in Leela Gandhi's Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship (2006) and Elora Chowdhury and Liz Philipose's edited volume Dissident Friendships: Feminism, Imperialism, and Transnational Solidarity (2016). Mirza's introduction quickly details the postindependence economic trajectories of India and Pakistan and the specificity of domestic servitude in South Asia, which forms the backdrop of the majority of interclass relationships in the novels she examines. No surprise, for as Mirza explains, the middle-to upper-class domestic household is one of the few spaces of sustained interclass contact in India and Pakistan. Existing South Asian scholarship on servitude in postcolonial societies, particularly work by Ambreen Hai, Raka Ray, and Seemin Qayum, forms an important part of the theoretical scaffolding of Mirza's book, and she advances this scholarship by her close and sustained exploration of how "cultures of servitude"1 shape cross-class intimacies in complex, power-laden webs of affection, friendship, sex, romance, and abuse.
The book begins with two chapters that explore female friendships across class and age. In chapter 1, Mirza considers the friendship between an elite female child and a housemaid in Bapsi Sidhwa's Ice Candy Man (1988), Rukhsana Ahmad's The Hope Chest (1996), and Moni Mohsin's The End of Innocence (2007)―a selection that reflects Mirza's commendable attention to less discussed texts, in addition to better-known ones. In all three Pakistani novels, Mirza explores why friendship bonds that were possible in childhood do not survive into adulthood and how socioeconomic hierarchies upend conventional South Asian age hierarchies. In Ahmad's The Hope Chest, for example, the scene of children's play is revealed as a site of labor for the maidservant's daughter, Reshma, whose hunger pangs distract her while she plays with the upper-class child, Shahzadi (Mirza 12). Reshma also spends much of her time assisting her mother in housework or the care of younger siblings; here, Mirza shows how the experience of childhood is determined [End Page 405] by classed access to leisure, pleasure, play, and freedom from adult responsibilities.
Friendships and solidarities between adult women across class lines are equally difficult to sustain, as Mirza suggests in chapter 2, which focuses on Shashi Deshpande's The Binding Vine (1993) and Thrity Umrigar's The Space Between Us (2005). Umrigar's novel perhaps best illustrates the frequent disingenuousness of middle-class claims of cross-class friendship. As Mirza shows, the...