New York calling Lahore: Harish Trivedi reviews Saba Karim Khan’s ‘Skyfall’

A novel filled earnestly with creaky plot, Urdu verses, and comic phrases

July 03, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated July 04, 2021 07:25 am IST

Getty Images/ IStock

Getty Images/ IStock

Many debut novels in English by South Asian writers tend to be set partly in the home country and partly in the West, and to contain, for the enlightenment of the foreign reader, a whole portfolio of evil practices still prevalent in our region. Skyfall has a long list of such boxes to tick and it goes about its business earnestly.

The heroine, Rania Mirza Kasturi, is born and brought up as the daughter of a prostitute mother and a brutally exploitative and ironically “honour”-conscious father in Lahore’s red-light area, Heera Mandi. Rania, her mother and her sister are all sent out by him night after night to dance and sing for, and sleep with, rich customers to make money for him. But both the daughters rebel in their own ways, with different consequences.

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Source of wonder

Rania wins a mohalla-level singing competition for which the prize is a music scholarship to New York and a chance to take part in an international singing competition there. This may sound improbable, especially as she sings in Urdu, but Saba Karim Khan seems to find nothing the matter with it. Nothing deters her from bending the course of events just as she likes, according to her schematic agenda.

The sub-plot has for its protagonist Rania’s sister, Ujala, who, back in Lahore, is discovered to have a lesbian relationship. She is punished for it by her monstrous father by being murdered, mutilated, and literally hanged from a lamp-post.

Before leaving for New York, Rania moonlights — or should that be daylights? — as a tourist guide and meets and instantly falls in love with a “Hindu, Indian, upper-caste man” who just happens to bear the Muslim name Asher. The names of some other characters here are equally a source of wonder. Rania’s sister is called Ujala, a word which in Urdu is not feminine but masculine: ujala ho gaya, not ho gayi.

But it is their mother who takes the cake. She is called Jahan-e Rumi, which means the World of Rumi — as if she were not a woman but an international Sufi festival curated by Muzaffar Ali.

Hit and run

On the plus side, Khan uses more Urdu in the novel than most diasporic writers would dare display of their native language. The verses that Rania sings now and then are given here first in Urdu transcribed in Roman, though the English translations that follow are sometimes less than convincing. The opening words of a famous ghazal by Faiz, Aye kuchh abr, are rendered as “Should the heavens relent,” while what the poet wishes for is the opposite, not a clear but a cloudy day.

Elsewhere, ranjish is translated as “anguish” while it means bitter estrangement or lasting displeasure. What may displease connoisseurs of Urdu no less are instances of Urdu words transcribed here in the Punjabi manner: barosa for bharosa , samje for samjhe .

As if even-handedly, the English used here has its own idiosyncrasies. For example, “My thoughts were full,” and strong women were “dictating their husbands.” Best of all, “he took his hands in mine,” a physical feat apparently made possible by all-conquering love.

To get back to the creaky plot, Rania stays in New York with two other singers similarly brought there, a Japanese named Daichi and an Indian, Amitav, who is from Kashmir. This seems to hold possibilities which Khan entirely ignores. Amitav remains hazier than Daichi and Kashmir is no more than a name, a place to which Amitav (a Bengali?) hardly bears witness. The presence of two Indian characters, Asher and Amitav, in this novel by a Pakistani writer could have introduced a new kind of frisson , but Khan is content to hit and run rather than stand and substantiate.

Lahore is repeatedly said to be just like Delhi, just because in both cities there are “naked wires” hanging dangerously overhead. A one-off one-day cricket match is held between India and Pakistan, and Pakistan wins. A visit takes place, apropos of nothing, to the mock-combative evening ritual at the Wagah border. Rania and Asher make an overnight trip from Lahore to (Pakistan-held?) Kashmir where they hear the Indian national anthem being played in a houseboat. But all these tantalising events flicker past us randomly without context or consequence, as if Khan had no clue as to how to endow them with thematic significance.

The novel ends instead with Rania being arrested in New York as a suspected terrorist. But she is released when a people’s protest is organised by Asher in her favour. Tell me another, as we used to say.

Skyfall; Saba Karim Khan, Bloomsbury India, ₹599

The writer taught English in Delhi University.

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