Let the sky fall

In her debut novel, Pakistani writer takes a stand against injustice in a tale that travels from Lahore to New York

Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo: HOMOCOSMICOS

Saba Karim Khan’s debut novel Skyfall begins like the book of Genesis: with a god. Like the Biblical All-father, Sherji too has put his words and intent to action – or, at least he thinks so – and out steps Rania. He is determined in his plot, inflated and Machiavellian. Yet, for the first six months, he is disappointed. Rania is a ‘misfortune’, his ‘grand trial’. Has her mother, Jahaan-e-Rumi, anything to do with it?

Jahaan-e-Rumi too has her own scheme. In a kind of balancing act, she picks up a pen and paper in the hospital, and writes for Rania: ‘She will be no stubborn, malevolent lunatic, but the fiercest girl in all the galaxies – a tempest, but never unkind.’

The scene shifts and we are whisked from Lahore to the Metropolitan Correctional Facility in Manhattan, where we find Rania is an inmate. The reason for this could be anything, but Khan does not dwell on them yet. All will be revealed in good time. For now, in the cold, solitary, and sleepy pace of the prison, Rania thinks back to her past, growing up in Lahore’s famous Heera Mandi, the shadows of Kashmir, and falling in love. Thus begins Skyfall.

There is an uncanny mix of hope and dread from the very first page, which goes on to characterise much of Khan’s novel. Here, Henry David Thoreau’s quote 'The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation' from Walden, and its famously misquoted addendum 'and go to the grave with the song still in them' is central.

Set in two seemingly disparate worlds, the novel moves fluidly across the walled city of Lahore, through the streets that switch identities every 12 hours, and later in starkly different New York. The times are desperate and dangerous, and the book raises questions on freedom and autonomy, while, under the lights, music and memories become the bridge between the past and the present, East and West.

Rania herself grows up in two different worlds. Sherji, her father, a resolute fundamentalist, sends out her mother and sister every night to dance and sing for, and sleep with, rich customers to make money for his madrasa. By day, she works as a tourist guide. The past is wonderful while the present cursed, and it is in music and a young Indian Hindu boy Asher that Rania finds refuge while she loathes her abusive father and her own incapacity to help her mother and sister.

At the outset, the novel seems like a classic retelling of doomed romance. It checks all the boxes: violent families, star-crossed lovers, a historic and beautiful setting, mujra, India and Pakistan, Pakistan and America. But under the surface runs a searing fire. Skyfall is indeed a love story, with even higher stakes. The self struggles not just for its own independence but for an entire country’s, against injustice and violence.

When Sherji finally sends Rania into the underworld because he is running out of money, it is strangely reminiscent of when God tells Abraham to sacrifice his prized son Isaac on Moriah. Things go well for Isaac, naturally, and Abraham is rewarded.

But as Rania fights the men who throw her around the room, slapping her and trying to kiss her, no angel appears, no Ram. Between the two thousand years that separate Sherji from Abraham, faith is no longer a leap into the unknown but calculated and capitalist, sentenced by men, and women, in blindfolds, the innocents always under the yoke.

Then later in detention, Khan pulls back the curtains on the delusions of the land of so-called freedom, as officers hurl questions at the racially profiled Rania that are leading to a conclusion drawn well before the interrogation. “Do you know the Quran by heart? Do you believe in jihad? Love jihad?” they ask. “Who forced you to fall in love with an Indian? Don’t you believe Hindus are non-Muslims?”

For Khan, who teaches at New York University in Abu Dhabi, Skyfall is the soul of a Sufi love song and an attempt to imagine a world where coexistence is the currency. In the pages, the victory of light over darkness is in fact be possible, and we can outdo our starting points.

"Literature becomes even more important in an increasingly polarising milieu," she says, "not least of all because it allows us to address uncomfortable issues without pedaling or peddling an agenda or reducing things to a headline ticker." In fact, it is rather an act of co-creation between reader and writer, an invitation to go for a walk or dance or recite a piece together.

As such, Skyfall is an entirely enthralling book. It weaves the reality of brutal violence with love and hope: engaging and beautifully written, interspersed with Urdu verses, following the journey of a young singer from the mohalla half-way around the world. As one delves deeper, the reader reckons with injustices fuelled by cults and mobs, by governments and families. Adds Khan: "I didn't want to downsize the problems but also didn't want to craft a world without the glimmer of hope and possibility."


by Saba Karim Khan

Bloomsbury, 2021

290 pages

Paperback: INR599

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