Review: Imaginary homelands

The Runaways

Dawn: October 7, 2018

When I was 16, I moved from Karachi to London and was enrolled in a school on Baker Street. I mention where the school was located because I lived in Mile End — a world and a long train ride away. Today, Mile End is hipster central but, then, we lived on a council estate, near a park that, if you had any sense, you would not venture into once the sun set, and one night the windows of our flat lit up in blue and red because the police found a body in a garbage bin.

I was the only Pakistani transplant at my school and the girls there did not live on estates — at least, I never met a single one who did. When they asked me where I lived, I said, “Mile End”, and I later found out they liked to ask me this because there was a joke about how I sounded like I was saying “my land.” I figured that they weren’t big on geography or other cultures at this school because I was persistently asked if I was really from Africa, if I had a camel, how I managed to get anywhere in my country without a car, and the only answer that seemed to make sense was that I came from “near India.” Very quickly, I developed a mongrel accent. I didn’t want to try and fail at sounding British, so I did the next best thing: I tried to sound American. If I was going to be different anyway, if I wasn’t going to be one of them, perhaps I didn’t have to sound like I was from “near India.” One day at a traffic light, a British woman asked me for directions and, as I answered, she stared at me and asked admiringly, “But how do you speak English so well?” Tired, I said, “I learned it from the TV.” She nodded like, of course.

I thought of those days, 16 years ago, when I read Fatima Bhutto’s latest novel The Runaways. There’s a character named Sulaiman Jamil in it, a man who watches every Bond film he can find in Lucknow. In dark cinema halls, he takes in every shaken-not-stirred martini and car chase, every secretary in an MI6 office, every sharp suit and each seduction, and emerges bleary eyed into the world and exclaims, “Bhai, those offices… they were so neat and clean!” When Sulaiman books a one-way ticket from India to the United Kingdom to make his fortune there, he doesn’t dream of being Bond, doesn’t hope for the suits and martinis — no, it is enough that he is near them. Near the possibility of offices filled with secretaries with beautifully manicured nails tapping away at their typewriters, near all the order and neatness and promise of that world.

Full review here

Author: Sanam Maher

Karachi-based journalist and author My work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Caravan Magazine, Buzzfeed, Scroll, Women in the World, British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound, Boat magazine, The Express Tribune, Herald, Daily Times, The Friday Times and Newsweek Pakistan. My first book, The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch is out in South Asia now, and the UK in 2019. You can find me on Twitter @SanamMKhi Or follow me on Instagram @topbastard

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