Al though ungenerous readers might term this book barely a step above a beach read, Skyfall is a commendable debut novel by Saba Karim Khan, whose academic and professional interests boast a notable set of experiences, including a degree in social anthropology from the University of Oxford and working at the New York University Abu Dhabi.
It is evident that Khan engages in a labour of love when it comes to putting her creative work before us — the book is nothing if not sincere, and versatile in its incorporation of diverse topics. But having said that, even a more lackadaisical reader than I would realise that there is just too much going on in this novel.
On some levels, it is a fairly straightforward bildungsroman about the daughter of an avaricious madressah manager and his — ironically — dignified prostitute wife. The heroine, Rania, is a product of the famous Heera Mandi district in Lahore, and luckier than her darker-skinned sister Ujala, in that her fair complexion bestows a certain level of desirability on her.
With it comes protection from the social evils her mother had to grapple with most of her life. Rania is trained in music, and even acquires a makeshift education of sorts because of the efforts of her mother, who yearns for both her daughters to have a better life than her own. Moreover, her father is careful not to shackle her into prostitution, since he hopes he can force her into a lucrative marriage.
Enter Asher, an intelligent and sensitive filmmaker belonging to a Hindu family who justifiably wins Rania’s heart by appreciating that, behind her underprivileged exterior, lie genuine talent and an indomitable spirit. The romance achieves momentum rapidly and, contrary to most of those found in South Asian regional literature these days, is not destined for a tragic end. But, alas, that may be the only truly happy and refreshing aspect of the book.
Rania’s father’s treatment of his wife and elder daughter (Ujala is five years her sister’s senior) is nothing short of despicable — emotionally sadistic and often violent. What is worse is that society generally turns a blind eye to what he does.
A debut novel set in Lahore and New York and focused on the plight of the marginalised in Pakistan shows future promise even if the author’s ambition exceeds her grasp this time
Rania’s evil father eventually gets his comeuppance because he is foolhardy enough to board a paedophilic criminal, though I found the almost unabashedly negative portrayal of madressahs in the novel to be distasteful — like all social centres, they do contain both good and bad apples. But that is not before his overweening sense of hypocritical self-righteousness has sickened the heroine to the point where she claims, truthfully, that her natural feelings of love as due to a paternal parent have been irrevocably poisoned by necessary hatred.
The plot of the book is fast-paced and makes for easy, interesting reading. I do not intend to give away much of it, but it is impossible to review this book without dwelling on what centrally fuels the narrative, so I will delineate the plot in a veiled sense. An important character becomes the brutal victim of a hate crime halfway through the novel and Rania takes this issue personally enough to pursue justice regarding the matter, not simply in Lahore, but also by means of her connections in New York.
You must be wondering how Rania makes the leap from Heera Mandi to New York. Her voice stands her in good stead during a talent hunt competition, where her rendition of a Mehdi Hassan song impresses the judges because, according to them, she does not try to emulate the Shahenshah-i-Ghazal. Winning this local competition lands her in a musical training programme in New York, thanks partly to a sympathetic African-American visa interviewer.
Since the above-mentioned brutal crime involves the lynching of a homosexual, Rania immediately connects with LGBTQ groups in the United States who work round the clock to publicise the case effectively. In the end, however, more than Rania’s machinations, it is the fact that a member of the elite classes turns traitor on the establishment that helps the killers be brought to justice.
However, it is simply a Pyrrhic victory since, obviously, no amount of justice can restore a murdered person to life. Be that as it may, the fact that she never gives up is an essential part of Rania’s personality, and consistently demonstrated throughout Skyfall.
The author demonstrates a soft spot for minorities throughout, regardless of whether she is writing about a bomb attack in Lahore where the majority killed are Hindus, or semi-terrorist violence on the Islamophobic streets of New York. Though the most major murder in the book is that of the aforementioned homosexual, a Christian schoolteacher is shot down in Lahore later in the novel, and one of the finer elements of the story is its ability to underscore the gritty, seamy underbelly of Lahori nightlife, politically violent and relentlessly unsafe.
In contrast, the US scenes are aseptically bland, although it can be argued that that is fundamentally because of cultural divides. But what with homosexual love affairs gone wrong, heterosexual ones that succeed against all odds, the wretched plight of dancing girls, the hypocrisy of fundamentalist religious parties and the insular stonewalling of white judicial officials, the novel finds it impossible to do justice to its multiple themes of oppression and prejudice in a meagre 290 pages.
This type of novel requires an almost Dickensian panoramic canvas in order to come across as truly satisfying. While I am not advocating that Khan should have visualised writing something along the lines of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, her writing does suffer from being very sketchy in parts.
This is not to say that the writer cannot improve upon her debut as her talent matures and flourishes. She should be commended for her zealous penmanship and can hardly be faulted for falling victim to an over-ambitious agenda. It reminds one of the point at which Neo, the character played by Keanu Reeves, is getting initiated in the film The Matrix, and one of the other characters notes with world-weariness: “Everybody falls the first time.”
Khan’s writing has been compared to Mohsin Hamid’s, but she lacks Hamid’s almost obsessive attention to a couple of central, well-chosen themes. Her conceptions and visions are far broader, although the mechanics of her writing are just as sound. I am sure the richness of her imagination will delight us more substantively at a later point in time.
The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi
By Saba Karim Khan
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 7th, 2021