“Most people lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
This quote is often attributed to US naturalist and author Henry David Thoreau, who in fact wrote in his 1954 book Walden, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
Saba Karim Khan, an instructor of social science at NYU Abu Dhabi, first heard the quote, or in this instance, varnished misquote, uttered by a guest speaker during a lecture on mindfulness in November 2017. The speaker, the headmaster of a school in the UK, asked the audience to think about what their song was and to share it with the person sitting next them. "It felt quite challenging to conjure up something consequential at that moment," Khan tells The National.
However, by the time she returned home later that day, the idea for her debut novel, Skyfall, published by Bloomsbury last month, was already finding form. "That was literally the morning the seeds of Skyfall got sown," she says.
The novel – like Khan's debut effort as a documentarian earlier this year with the film Concrete Dreams: Some Roads Lead Home – aims to introduce audiences to a side of Pakistan that is routinely overlooked in most mainstream depictions of the country.
But while the film pulls back the curtain on the lives of street children in Karachi, Skyfall takes readers to Heera Mandi, a neighbourhood in Lahore as famous for its tourist attractions as it is its red-light district.
Caught at the intersection of this juxtaposition is the novel’s protagonist, Rania, a tour guide who shows travellers around Badshahi Mosque and the nearby Lahore mosque but has dreams of becoming a classical singer. However, Rania is forced to keep her ambitions private, especially owing to the strife she faces at home at the hands of her father.
Khan, who spent her formative years in Lahore before travelling to the UK in 2007 to pursue a post-graduate degree in social anthropology, says she always struggled with the way female characters from the subcontinent were characterised in literature and film.
“We usually see women who are on one polarised end of the spectrum or another,” she says. “So they’re either oppressed and veiled or they’re vile and out there. I was aware of not succumbing to the pitfall of that neat arc.
"Rania has all these shades to her, all these nuances. She’s messy, she’s complex, she’s also contradictory. I wanted to strip away some of these boxes we place Pakistani women in.”
Through Rania, Khan also wanted to portray a more sincere and grounded version of her native country, to unravel it from stereotypical tropes, such as gender violence and poverty, often found in mainstream media.
“That’s not to downsize the problems that exist. In fact, many of those themes are front and centre in the book; I couldn’t shy away from them because that would be insincere to the place and the book itself.”
Rania's journey in Skyfall takes readers through some dark spaces, driven by hope.
It is the book’s male protagonist, an Indian filmmaker with whom Rania develops a relationship, who urges her to compete in a singing competition that eventually takes her to New York.
This series of events was put in motion to serve not only as an enthralling plot device, but to also upend the notion that a freed sense of self can be attained by leaving behind the subcontinent in favour of the West.
"I think countries like India and Pakistan are more sinned against than sinning. Because in some ways when we think about these countries, we think about them as oppressed and Third World, and in contrast, our ideas of the West are the product of what we read and watch and visualise," Khan says. It's not until Rania goes to New York that she develops an appreciation for her home country, she adds.
Khan says writing Skyfall was, in some ways, an experiment. "I was throwing everything I had into the book's first draft. Coming from a place like Pakistan, where you learn to self-censor so much, I wanted to work against that. I threw everything I had into the mix."