By Awais Khan
I have been trying to find the right words to capture the essence of Awais Khan’s latest novel No Honour, but what I can say with absolute certainty is that readers will find it a heavy and harrowing read.
Starting out innocently enough, the story stuns just a few paragraphs in, when a 16-year-old boy publicly murders his twin sister.
In a flashback, we learn that the murdered girl, Shabnam, of the village Khan Wala in Punjab, was engaged to a man 15 years her senior. He showered her impoverished family with lavish presents, jewellery and clothes, but then abruptly disappeared.
Tragically, the abandonment occurred after the man had taken Shabnam’s virginity, albeit with consent. Much like the titular heroine of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the now-pregnant Shabnam bemoans that her mother “did not warn her about men and their ways”, and wishes that she “hadn’t raised her to be so naïve.”
A novel about courage, family and the meaning of love in an atmosphere so clogged with misogyny, it’s a wonder that the characters come out alive
In the name of ‘restoring the family’s honour’, Shabnam and her new-born are led to the village square where her twin brother first drowns the baby in a bucket of milk, then casts Shabnam into the depths of the river.
As news of the dreadful act of karo-kari, or so-called ‘honour killing’, spreads, we meet Abida, the novel’s protagonist. Like Shabnam, Abida is also 16 years old and lives in Khan Wala.
Abida is involved in a romantic liaison with Kalim and she is determined to defy convention in the face of the archaic and stringent rules imposed upon her. The repercussions of doing so will be devastating, of course, but her rebellious spirit yearns to make a home with the man she loves. This should be enough for readers to predict that the lovers are spiralling towards a great misadventure.
Since Abida has dared to tread the unacceptable path of making her own decisions, she must face the same fate as Shabnam. But, Abida has an ally: her father, Jamil. Even as patriarchal mores threaten, love for his daughter wins and Jamil saves Abida from being punished by the jirga [assembly of village elders], which is always eager to spell out punishment for ‘disobedient’ women.
Fuelled by her determination to resist everything socially and morally evil, and aided by her devoted father who puts his own life at risk to help her elope with her chosen husband, Abida flees to Lahore and disappears in its winding streets. But there is no respite for our heroine, as Kalim succumbs to the lures of heroin and, to fund his addiction, sells his wife to a brothel.
Forced into prostitution, Abida suffers a multitude of cruelties. Meanwhile, back in the village, Jamil harbours hopes that she is safe with her husband. Failing to connect with her, he goes to Lahore in search of her. What he discovers is that the city is a place where the bigotries ruling his small village take on new and more horrifying forms.
Overcoming insurmountable odds in his quest to reunite with his child, Jamil finds Abida and the two get caught up in a vicious circle of prejudice and intolerance. Riddled with poverty and religious fervour, the dangerous streets of overpopulated Lahore trap the father and daughter in a dark, desperate world, where drugs, prostitution and corruption are the norm.
In this world, abhorrent in its small-mindedness and judgement, Jamil begins to question what “kind of a man” he has been for pardoning his daughter’s “behaviour.”
No Honour is a gripping novel. Rife with uncomfortable scenes of graphic violence, it begins and ends with the debate of ‘honour’, but most of it is about the criminal underbelly of Lahore and surrounding areas. Its depiction of rampant drug use by the poor and the elite alike, atrocities of the sex trade and the inhumane treatment of Pakistani women in general has a contemporary relevance that stretches far beyond. It is an onslaught on the senses.
At the same time, it is a story of family, of the indomitable spirit of love, of courage and perseverance when all seems lost and the inextinguishable fire that lights one young woman’s battle for change.
Jamil is an exceptionally well-sketched character, a devoted father who cares only for his daughter, the rest of the world be damned. This is how he was raised by his mother and it is her teachings — not the culture of the community — which inspires him to do right by his own child. Through this character, it is as though the author is reminding us that societies can change and culture can shift, person by person.
Kalim has a good arc, a classic rise-and-fall. Just when one thinks he will betray Abida — as Shabnam’s lover had betrayed her — he surprises with his genuine affection. But it’s hard to tell if he really is an ally, the way his complex character changes, sometimes gradually, sometimes overnight.
Pir Sahab, the head of the village jirga and Rana Hameed, the drug lord who buys Abida from the brothel, are classic misogynist villains who convincingly encapsulate the worst of entitled patriarchy and are swift to exact revenge on a woman who dares to step out of her ‘limits’.
Khan’s writing style this time round is rather different from that of his debut novel, In the Company of Strangers, which left plenty to the readers’ imaginations. No Honour lays it all bare, explaining the motives of everyone involved.
The author’s portrayal of deplorable, unpardonable reality is brutal, but he handles the subject with empathy and compassion. However, peppering the story with somewhat too much happenstance does, at times, leave it bordering on the theatrical.
Readers will come away with dozens of questions about the ugly reality of ‘honour killings’. How is such an archaic tradition still alive in the modern world? How can it be tackled? As the book illustrates, governmental intervention and legislative change isn’t enough.
A major cultural shift is required. The power of the pir must be challenged by a greater power from outside the village, but historic power structures, cemented by the reluctant powerless, are only part of the picture. Even in urban spaces, the bitterness spewed by men on International Women’s Day and Aurat March is a sad reaffirmation of the fact.
The shift can only begin at the fundamental level, in individual lives, one family at a time. The way out rests on everyday struggles and ordinary rebellions, not in one-day protests, marches and hollow, vapid sloganeering.
However much has been done to create outrage against it, ‘honour killing’ remains business as usual. With his novel, Khan highlights how far we are from achieving our goals and leaves us wondering if we’re just playing a game of whack-a-mole, making repetitive yet futile endeavours to right the wrong, only for another social disorder to pop up elsewhere just a second later.
The reviewer is a Karachi-based writer and tweets @sarashraf
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 25th, 2022