June 10, 2018

Of Bhutto and Boredom: Sabyn Javeri's Nobody Killed Her is the next Bollywood masala drama

There’s this shelf I have on Goodreads which I call ‘Good idea, bad execution’. This novel is the lord and master of that shelf.

Weirdly enough, I can’t exactly pinpoint why it’s that bad. On the surface, it looks so good. Two complex female characters whose main focus is politics and intrigue and each other. It can’t get better than that. Except, turns out, it very much can.

Nazo, our protagonist, is the personal assistant to Rani Shah, who is heir to a political dynasty. Except that for this title, you can replace Rani Shah with Benazir Bhutto and Nazo with Bhutto’s real life political secretary Nahid Khan. I’m not sure how closely this book follows the bond between these women, but most of it is pretty parallel in terms to politics, husband, scandals, etc. In retrospect, the reason I didn’t love this book at all might have had to do something with its political leanings. I’m not a big fan of politics, and I’ve never pretended otherwise, so a book only retains my attention if it’s unusually compelling in terms of its intrigues in government dealings - The Goblin Emperor, while not set in our times, has the best political intrigue set-up I’ve ever read, even if it is a character driven novel. This book did not manage to make its politics compelling enough, or for that matter make me care about its characters enough. Which is quite sad since Pakistani politics can make for great entertainment, given their crazy, often unbelievable, and mostly volatile nature.

You slammed the telephone into the wall after yet another call about delayed elections. You slapped a party worker reading a paper that blared the headline ‘No Polls Ahead’. You knocked off the radio when it announced conditions were too hostile for electioneers. You nearly smashed the TV screen during the General’s address in which he told the public that he simply could not put the country’s future into the hands of corrupt and power-hungry disbelievers – in other words, politicians. But it was only when the bastard announced that women could neither vote nor contest for office that you broke down.

Again and again I am amazed at how frustrating and boring reading this book was, given that there were so many things on the surface I could have loved. There were paragraphs in the text that I wanted to highlight, but they came so rarely and the book stretched on for so long that by the end I was just begging it to end. Even though we follow the story of Nazo, a refugee whose family has been killed by a military dictator (a stand-in for General Zia-ul-Haq), and through Nazo the story of Rani Shah, whose father (Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, of course) has been hanged by said dictator, it still manages to retain none of the fascination with history while meandering on in the manner of a never-ending soap opera.

In a discussion with one of my friends, she pointed out that this story could be a really good TV series. It has enough twists and turns that a really good number of episodes could be made out of this. I agree, but also disagree because while the twists and turns are multiple, they are also multiple. My god, they’re never ending! I got sick of waiting for the book to end and the drama to finish. It’s all a circle of Rani being incompetent in Nazo’s eyes, who attempts to take the narrative into her hands with some political manoeuvring, who then finds out Rani had her own plans, so she plans something in return, and on and on and on. And even while I’m talking about this I realize how interesting it possibly sounds, but I remember the death-defying boredom I felt while reading it, and just no.

Suddenly you looked up at me and said, ‘Nazo, do you think I can do it alone? Do you really believe in me?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘More than myself.’
‘Then let’s do it. It’s now or never.’

We also need to talk about Nazo’s obsession with Rani. Obsession is really an understatement here; Nazo’s mania when it comes to Rani’s life and her presence and her habits borders on creepy. At one point in the book Nazo is accussed of Schizophrenia to explain her obsession, which gave me all sorts of bad vibes for possibly really bad representation of mental illnesses.

Refugee didn’t look too happy to have me back in his kitchen, but I ignored his grumbling. After all, I was back where I belonged. In my rightful place. With you.

At the beginning though, I was quite happy with all the female protagonist focus. In fact, in terms of the Bechedel test, this book passes with flying colours. They talk about Rani’s relationship with her corrupt, manipulative husband (a stand-in for Asif Ali Zardari), and Nazo’s relationship with a soldier, but their conversations don’t just revolve around men. There are discussions about politics and women’s rights and how Rani is being controlled and how Nazo doesn’t understand the pressure of governance. Both these women are distinct in their opinions and their ways of being, and yet – I really can’t say it any other way – they are also so repetitive and bland and boring.

You were not the only one who’d lost interest in the General’s hide-and-seek elections. It was your pregnancy that dominated the media more these days. In fact, even the uncertainty of the elections was drowned by it. Instead of ‘Will he or won’t he call the elections?’, the question on people’s lips was, ‘Will she or won’t she quit after motherhood?’ It was hard enough for people to digest that a woman was vying for the top position, but a mother-to-be, out of the question.

What’s amazing about my dislike for this book was that it tackled so many important things in terms of fighting for the rights of women, which is an issue that’s particularly close to my heart. I’m waging a daily battle with sexism and misogyny wherever I go, so books which address this war path I’m on help balm my wounds. You would think this book would have been a welcome relief, because it’s very honest about how politics is a tough path to navigate for a woman. In fact, in terms of their gender, Rani and Nazo repeatedly traverse a path few have travelled before them. And again and again they discuss things that are so repeatedly frustrating about living in a country like Pakistan.

Truth is, Madam, if I was getting raped, it’d be better for me to kill my rapist than to go knocking for justice on the door of a society where a raped woman has to provide four eyewitnesses!

And while we’re on the topic of being frustrated in Pakistan, let’s talk sexuality! I remember back when I read A Case of Exploding Mangoes and just about fell off my chair at the realization that there were gay characters in it. I’m used to homosexuality in the books I read by our Western counterparts, but reading about it in the context of characters with Pakistani names is a whole new experience. So the fact that we had a bisexual protagonist in this book was still controversial and rare enough for me to be amazed at the fact that Sabyn Javeri actually fully embraced that part of Nazo’s being. And it wasn’t just hinted at either, so you can’t accuse this book of queerbaiting.

The maulanas were on your case. Every day a new slander on your character, a new insult, a new rumour. If you even stood next to a man, they had you sleeping with him. If you were photographed talking to one, you were deemed his mistress. If you were caught looking at one, he was proclaimed your dirty secret. Even the women around you were not spared. They dug up old photos of you and Yasmin in New York and proclaimed you lovers. Strangely, we were never linked.

So, ok, lgbtq representation, complex female characters, and lots of discussion about the right topics. And yet, so bad. So blah. How? I don’t get it. I’m tempted to blame the length, except long books have never put me off. Maybe it was the format of the book: in present time, Nazo is being blamed for orchestrating the assassination of Rani (this really isn’t a spoiler though), and is standing in court defending herself, while a lawyer attempts to question her in what is the most ridiculous court room dialogue ever. Now I’m no legal expert; my whole exposure to lawyers and judges has been ridiculous TV shows or pulpy thrillers. But there’s a difference between a scene in a courtroom that I want to read and a scene written for an Indian Star Plus serial. It’s hard to explain just how bad the courtroom drama was without you having read this book.

Prosecutor: I can see you hesitating. What is it? There is something you are not telling us. What are you holding back, Miss Khan?
Defendant: Some things must be held back. Should be held back, Omar Sir. With time, those unspoken words and secrets become like the air we inhale. Totally unnoticed but wholly necessary.

You can almost hear the dramatic background music, the camera zooming in, the wind blowing through the defendant’s hair as she holds forth on this spectacle. For god’s sake, it’s a court room. Can we cut out the dramatic dialogues, the cheesy pointlessness? Where are the facts, where is the smart back and forth? Where is the actual scene of importance?

Defendant: All I can say, Your Honour, is that politics is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby.

Oookay you crazy.

It’s just not good, that’s my point. It could have been so much better, but stupidity keeps cropping up. Take, for example, the random Urdu word that appears here and there. Now historically Pakistani authors have had a very complicated relationship with writing in English. They either italicize every random Urdu word, or they start describing what Eid is or how a dupatta looks or what qorma is made of. The problem with writing in English is, of course, the problem of whom your audience is. That, and also what your publisher’s policy is in terms of different languages. Overall though, most books remain consistent throughout, except of course in Nobody Killed Her, five random Urdu words come up. Why? If you’re going to write your whole damn book in English, what is with the five pointless words in another language?

but you know what they say about gold dust and lust – two things one can’t hide, chhupay na chhupti.
Idiocy galore. I rest my case.

Recommendation

It tries to do a lot of things right, and my best friend quite liked this book, so it’s clearly a matter of opinion. Personally, I could have done much more interesting things with my time than slog through this crap. Try it if you feel like you must.