Saba Karim Khan's Debut Novel Takes Readers On A Gripping Journey From Heera Mandi To New York

The Heera Mandi of Lahore is brought alive in Saba Karim Khan’s dazzling debut novel, Skyfall (Bloomsbury; 2021). Skyfall brings forth stories from the nooks and crannies of the red-light neighbourhood in the Walled City, famed for its courtesans in an age gone-by and for sex-workers presently. Woven intricately, the narrative of the novel brings to life the delicate strands of filial, social and romantic relationships; societal prejudices and the receptors of their consequences; unquestioned religio-political systems that are pitched more vehemently against individuals than against any groups; and many other compelling details set in an exquisite pattern which unapologetically bares the soul of Lahore to readers.

The novel, divided into three parts – Nightfall, Day and Dawn – rather courageously explores uncommon themes and settings, such as enforced and systemic prostitution that burdens women in the district, the grim issue of children being used as tools in the same industry, the insecurity that looms over the workers as they go to work among strangers in unknown places far from home, et cetra. The most interesting thing about the writer’s style is how every character is addressed by name and not their relationship to the protagonist-narrator Rania.

Rania’s mother – in essence, the matriarch – is Jahaan-e-Rumi. Rania mentions her by name, as she does Sherji, her father, which might appear to the readers as symbolic of an unquestioned, misogynistic, patriarchal figure who has pushed his wife into prostitution, together with her illegitimate daughter born after a professional encounter with a client. His hatred for the illegitimacy of the girl, as compared to the comparatively safer passage he provides to his own daughter, his hiding under the guise of pseudo-religiosity, and every time he calls his wife “randi,” even though he lives off of her earnings, are reflective of a system that relies upon tightening the noose of all kinds of pressures upon victims. However, Jahaan-e-Rumi refuses to cut a sorry figure as a matriarchal symbol by being stoic and resilient, and one who makes remarkable efforts to enrich her daughters’ perspectives from their youngest ages. There are other such figures, whether or not motherly, who fight their own battles in their own orbits. The sizes of their fights vary and so do their respective outcomes, but the writer makes sure that they hold on to their ground in whatever whirlpool they have been caught in. The Christian girl Marzi, together with the idealistic and poetic Roohi are brilliantly round characters who have many demons of their own to fight, but they do so with inspiring resilience.

Saba Karim Khan profusely explores the theme of female friendships and how important the women are to each other in situations that are as varied as feeling secure in an otherwise hostile environment to putting up a fight to hold on to dear life itself. The tropes in this regard that Saba explores include killing in the name of honour and blasphemy, and of being disposed of as collateral damage after being a victim to lechery or lynching – all of these themes form parts of the story itself. There’s the element of death, marred with tragedy for characters whose only exorcism, as per the narrative, was possible through the Keats-ian passage of death, one that would “seal the hushed casket of my soul.”

Yet it isn’t all melancholic, for if the section Nightfall is replete with knotted tales of enjoined gloom, there is the spark of love and the subtlety of romance between the tour guide Rania and an Indian tourist Asher, a supportive male hero, later. In Rania’s words, Asher manages to do a lot for her but he shrugs it off by saying, “I don’t have to do much at all.” With sheer economy of words, the writer skillfully elaborates upon his charming personality as well as the undeniable chemistry between the two star-struck lovers. The romance is subtle and soulful, which makes it the invisible glue that threads the whole story together, without being assertive or overpowering other themes and arcs of the story. Despite all the battles Rania is fighting, aided with her new and old friends, it is Asher’s presence and comfort she seeks and so does the reader, every time Rania is in turmoil – emotional or physical. They are both apart more than they are together but the writer makes sure their connection is never lost.

Saba Karim Khan takes the reader from Lahore to Kashmir and from there to New York. As Rania travels through these places, so does the reader. The imagery and scenescapes are exquisitely drawn, right from the neighbourhood map of the Shahi Mohalla to the beauty of Kashmir and the opulent skyline of New York, enough to enthrall a seventeen-year-old from Heera Mandi, on her pursuit for justice. The characters are carefully rounded, allowing the reader a peep into their innermost selves that reflect a spectrum of emotions at various curves of the narrative – affection, fear, repressed states of mind, delusions, romance, courage, stoicism and, most of all, the sensibility and sensitivity to choose one’s battles. The reasons are implicitly there, whether between the lines or explicitly embedded in the text. The characters thus, speak in a way that they seem real. The passages that breathe life into tragic incidents of harassment of different women cause heartache because they are relatable, even when they are from the point of view of characters in a story. Those sections which celebrate love are heartening and add the element of hope consistently, which keeps the story afloat.

Apart from the brilliantly crafted novel itself, the additional spark of Urdu poetry carefully selected, Romanised, translated and properly contextualised, is a remarkable feature, which, even though it has been done before in Pakistani novels, has its own way of delighting the reader. Lastly, the title page of the book brings together both the worlds the novel is set in – Lahore and New York – in image form, building the foundations for the riveting debut novel that is Skyfall.