“During my childhood and adolescence, I saw my parents go through life grappling with injustices and abominable difficulties in order to bring well-being in the lives of their children, while their own withered away as they lurched from one misfortune to the next. I could not let all this be forgotten by their children and not be known to the grandchildren. By bringing it out in the open I hope to add a little more shelf-life into the fading memories of my parents’ sacrifices in the minds of people whose lives they touched and embellished.”
This is the reason Omar Khan provides for writing his memoir entitled Sawdust Castles. Revolving for the most part around the years immediately after Partition when his parents decided to move to Pakistan, the book is set in the area of Gawalmandi in Lahore where they settled. It shares the tribulations of an erstwhile affluent Urdu-speaking family as they struggle to survive and adapt to their drastically altered circumstances. Or so it appears on the surface.
The book is divided into fairly short chapters that initially focus on some of the different ‘characters’ in the author’s life: his mother and father, Choti Amma and Bhayya, his grandfather and uncles and his cousin Yasoob. Khan names chapters after these people and the action therein pertains to that particular individual. All this happens after a brief and less than flattering introduction to their Gawalmandi area. Of his home of 36 years he writes, “It is said that home is where you go to when no one else wants you. For me Gawalmandi was a home that I would never wish to return to — even if no one else in the whole wide world wanted me.” The latter half of the book switches to a chronology of sorts after a chapter simply entitled ‘Me’: his education, his early professional years and finally his move from Lahore to the vocation that he pursued thereafter.
Omar Khan’s memoir explores the idea of home and what its loss for his parents means for his identity
This seemingly simple ordering of chapters is, however, grossly misleading because the hitherto unmentioned first chapter — ‘Alone’ — is perhaps what best captures the tenor of this book. The reader is grabbed by the lapels and forced to look through the eyes of a young boy at a world that is bewildering and frightening and where people act in bizarre ways for reasons beyond one’s understanding or control. It is a world of inexplicable prejudice and violence, of few safe places and of palpable haplessness. We are also introduced to the workings of this young boy’s mind as he tries to balance self-protection, moral rectitude and the demands of a family in financial and other difficulties; a theme that runs throughout the book.
There is no going gently into the world of Khan’s memories. The stench of horse and cow dung permeates humid, claustrophobic rooms and the “drone of flies” assaults the senses. The cacophony of sounds — including, but definitely not limited to, neighbourhood men’s ablutions and “short bursts of “aakh … aha … aha … aakh” and “a jarringly long-drawn-out “aaaaaakh thoo” — provide the background score. Myriad minor characters like vendors and beggars and roadside bullies, each with their own set of vendettas, serve as obstacles in the day’s happenings. There is little to rest one’s eye on that could provide some respite, all of which is heightened by a sense of loss. This loss is something that the author knows only vicariously; as his memories are not of the comfort his parents left behind in Gali Nawaban, Bareilly, where “[e]verything desirable in life was in place.” His was the “environment of unrelenting and indeterminate hostility” that they migrated to.
It is perhaps this vicariousness that creates disjuncture for the reader. The events from his own life that Khan describes are both vivid and candid. Sharp in their portrayal, we feel the smart of blows that his elders mete out with unmitigated regularity. Their apparent remorselessness at what the modern eye can only judge as abusive childrearing practices — Yasoob, the author’s cousin, is a particularly poignant case in point — is not glossed over in its description. Yet, every now and then, an older authorial voice steps in to urge you to consider the circumstances. Different from the aforementioned balancing act of the author as he tries to make sense of his experiences at the time, this voice is polite and far more cautious in its rendering.
“People in the street would also jeer at me but it was easy to avoid them by walking away quickly. With Rafik this was not possible. Once inside his shop there was no escape, as I had to be with him until I got what I had come to buy. I held back the abusive words that I was so eager to react with. While putting together the groceries he would repeatedly come up with degrading anecdotes about my family. It could be our migrant status, our ‘funny’ mother tongue, Urdu, our upper-class background, or our clothes. For every topic of denigration he had a range of sexually-oriented terminologies that I had to swallow while customers around laughed their heart out. In the early days, I remember having shown annoyance at his derision. But instead of feeling any remorse, he would simply snicker maliciously, following up by his intimidating sentence, “Do you want the groceries or not?” I could not risk antagonising him since groceries on credit were not easily available and so stopped reacting to his insults.”– Excerpt from the book
Khan writes about his mother, for example, “Growing up and until about the period of early adolescence, I thought of her only as a despotic disciplinarian. As I matured to comprehend the totality of the peculiar times we lived in, I understood the rationale for the discipline she enforced.” He proceeds to elaborate on that rationale, which, like other explanations in the text, returns to the stark contrast between life before and after Partition, and therefore before and after comfort. The explanations do not appear to serve any purpose other than to blur the outlines of an otherwise striking image.
To be fair, this is a memoir and not a work of fiction; it is therefore not a simple task to truthfully represent all persons in their utterly fallible glory. There is only one individual that Khan retains an “intense dislike” for — his maternal uncle, Mamoo Sahib — but not without trying to understand (and explain) what caused this reaction. In this case, his “loathsome fixation” and contempt for “people with dark complexion.” All others are eventually forgiven, their transgressions rationalised and their often horrifying behaviour brushed aside as an odd little eccentricity. Subtle humour and thoughtful soul-searching is the strength of the latter part of the book. The former, in comparison, seems clumsy in its attempt to honour memories that are essentially rather hard to honour. A particular exception is Khan’s description of his and Yasoob’s escapades growing up.
Khan is at his candid best when he writes primarily about himself. Here, perhaps, he felt less of a need to preserve a kinder version of the actual memory or offer rationalisations. He explores instances where he felt he acted less than noble, shares deeply personal encounters that shaped his persona and does not shy away from the subject of growing up, emotionally, physically and spiritually. There is an amusing and somewhat endearing prudishness in some cases, such as the fact that colourful language of the cursing kind is censored. He explains in the Glossary, “The hyphen is used to denote obscene terms that for obvious reasons could not be written down in their exact words expressed” [sic]. There is also the absolute absence of squeamishness, for example when describing injuries and illnesses and treatments and cures of various kinds, which, given the brutality and hygiene of the area, abounded in ways that leave no question about mortality rates. The same graphic quality is retained in his dealings with various domestic animals and an extremely unfortunate pigeon.
In his foreword, Javed Jabbar has commented on the “dramatic but rather abrupt end” of the book. The reader is, from the outset, thoroughly engrossed in the world Omar Khan has painted. One is invested in the choices he is confronted with and rooting for those not mired in the expectations of others. It is, therefore, an abrupt and slightly disappointing end in a way (being a memoir, this should not really qualify as a spoiler!). The silver lining is that there is ample room for a second book. Should the author decide to undertake that venture, one suggestion is to be far more fastidious about proofreading; the typos and errors do much to detract from what is otherwise a pleasurable reading experience.
Is Sawdust Castles only about migration? Maybe. It is grounded in the reality of a migrant family after “one of the greatest forced migrations in human history.” Khan claims it is not written to “unfurl a political agenda,” though it is hard to ignore the politics of existing as an Urdu-speaking migrant in thoroughly Punjabi environs — such politics are alive and well today. The fact that the reader is constantly aware of the narrator’s status as an outsider is what makes this about migration. More so, however, it reads like a book about growing up. The times in which this growing up takes place form the backdrop to the inner workings and reflections of the writer as he comes to terms with events and actions of people. He is quite removed from the castles that his elders knew and benefits little from their illustrious lineage. In his mention of people who are still alive, he is remarkably courteous, placing them like cardboard figures in this vibrant and memorable cast of characters.
Returning to Khan’s stated reason for writing his memoir;Sawdust Castles is then ultimately less about the sacrifices and lives of others as it is a catharsis. There are moments when it stubbornly rages against the dying light, where words do fork lightning, and where it is unabashedly and unapologetically solipsistic — that is where it shines the brightest.
The reviewer is a writer, editor and an educationist with a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction.
Sawdust Castles: A Memoir
By Omar Khan
BBCL Publications, Karachiu
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 26th, 2016