In the “Introduction” to his wonderful anthology Inventing the Truth: the Art and Craft of Memoir Writing, William Zinsser observes that a good memoir requires two elements to work, art and craft. “The first element is integrity of intention. Memoir is the best search mechanism that writers are given. Memoir is how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us. If a writer seriously embarks on that quest, readers will be nourished by that journey…The other element is carpentry. Good memoirs are a careful act of construction. We like to think that an interesting life will simply fall into place on the page. It won’t. …Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events. With that feat of manipulation they arrive at a truth that is theirs alone, not quite like that of anybody else who was present at the same events.”
What is valid for literary memoirs ought to be valid for kiss-and-tells too, I thought, as I spent the last few days reading Pakistani-British activist and film producer Reham Khan’s recent book, titled, with a fair bit of narcissism, simply Reham Khan. It’s a voluminous account (even though my version seemed bowdlerised in parts with the Waseem Akram story missing from it) and follows the traditional arc of an autobiography – from childhood to the present (fame/controversy).
At the outset, the complicated circumstances of writing are outlined. In the “Acknowledgements”, Khan states, “It is strange to write an acknowledgements section when there is hardly anyone to acknowledge. The sad fact is that this was a mountain that I had to climb largely on my own.” Since I do not follow Pakistani politics closely, I’m taking Khan at her word – about the kind of pressures that operated in order to stop her from writing this tell-all book in the wake of her divorce from iconic cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, the sort of nasty divorce that was announced on twitter and where she found herself locked out of Bani Gala, where IK, the Chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf party (and many say, the next Prime Minister of Pakistan), maintains a large estate. She had spent the last year decorating this very home. Even before she could return to collect her stuff, it was packed and sent away.
The very public, very bitter nature of the fallout, which drew in her children, led to Reham Khan’s embarking upon what Zinsser calls the “quest” to piece together her own story, as one might narrate it from a therapist’s couch. And since it was too libellous for any publisher to touch, there were no professionals involved in its editing or redrafting. Naturally, the manuscript suffers from this.
The BI (Before Imran) days
Khan’s memoir begins with a prologue written in the third person, where she recreates the fateful night in England when she decided to leave her abusive first husband, Ijaz Rehman, even though she had three young children and no money of her own. Here, the voice and writing style are similar to those in hundreds of the survivor stories (which are also called misery-memoirs in publishing circles) that are immensely popular in the UK, where authors bash parents or partners and freely share stories with lurid details of abuse and co-dependence. More power to you, Reham! That’s the sort of thing you can hear the sisterhood chanting at the time. (Later, “sisterhood” is going to come in for a fair bit of criticism, both metaphorically and literally – since IK’s sisters are painted as wicked witches.)
After this, we wheel back to the beginning as it were, to Libya, where Reham was born: “I remember Libya as a happy place, characterised by fresh-baked baguettes, khubz, and huge Egyptian chapattis.” In the late 1960s, Reham’s father had left Pakistan to practise surgery – he was an ENT surgeon – and she grew up in a home which while deeply religious (her people, the Pashto-speaking Swatis, took Islam very seriously) was “neither bigoted nor intolerant”.
This sort of a middle-path upbringing is further reinforced by her very middle-class British values in her long years in Britain when she struggled, as a single mother with two jobs, to educate herself and her children and provide them with a stable and loving home. The widely recognised BBC weather girl, Reham Khan, in her own telling, remained essentially a middle-class single mother, investing most of her free time in her children, and not dreaming of giving up her hard-won freedom (the account of her divorce from the allegedly psychopathic Ijaz is a truly harrowing one).
But all that changed once she arrived in Pakistan, in December 2012, with an extremely handsome salary at a prestigious network, to be an anchor with her own show. It is at this point that the narrative is transformed from the story of a plucky brown woman overcoming all odds in Britain while remembering to pray five times a day, even managing to find time to participate in Strictly Come Dancing, a classic survivor story, to a Durbar-style personal account of her encounter as an ingénue with the murky world Pakistani politics, and the unholy nexus of corrupt politicians, greedy journalists and amoral financiers, many of whom are also extremely patronising to women professionals. (Except, unlike Tavleen Singh, whose Durbar, while vitriolic in parts, is powerfully written, Khan’s writing leaves a great deal to be desired. You might encounter a highly detailed section, followed immediately by a sketchy bit where you find yourself asking, what now, or suddenly a new character is introduced as a great familiar and you say, wait, whom did I miss?)
Eventually she is introduced to the “Great Khan” of Pakistani politics, and after protesting how unimpressed she is, slowly but surely Reham finds herself falling for his charms – he cradles her feet when the mosquitos of Bani Gala attack – and one way or the other she becomes Mrs Imran Khan, the object of much envy and constant criticism in a nation obsessed by IK ever since the historic World Cup win.
What Reham Khan wants to clarify again and again is that unlike IK’s other women, she was not in love with the handsome superstar, but, rather, she believed in him as an agent of change in Pakistani politics, and their union was in aid of the Pakistani cause. Combine this with IK’s fantasy that her “pure” love might change him for the better. Unfortunately, for a 62-year-old icon with baggage dating back to the time Reham was born, neither “idealism” nor “change” are anything more than politicians’ speak.
Meanwhile, our Pashtun Pollyanna is shocked by IK’s life as a full-time politician in a still-feudal set-up – all bills are paid by others (who will no doubt extract favours later), there is no seeming logic to handing out party tickets, IK presides over a corrupt party while leading a dharna against corruption, his political secretary and financiers certainly have more say in choosing their wedding date than Reham herself – and is horrified by her eventual discoveries of his drug abuse and constant sexual adventures. Reham is a practising Sunni Muslim herself and finds IK’s reliance on Sufi mysticism as well as the prescriptions of his pir (rubbing his genitals with black mustard seeds, in one instance) and belief in black magic, both un-Islamic and irrational.
These are not the only parts where she sounds judgemental. There is also a disapproving tone about his bi-curious past. Most of these details have already been widely publicised in reports about the book, so there is no need to repeat them here.
However, the account of the year of Reham’s marriage with IK is not merely filled with salacious details of his life – as well as stories he told her, in confidence, which she has now spilled to the world. They also offer a detailed, vividly observed insider’s account of contemporary politics in Pakistan, a troubling and dark tale of such corruption, nepotism and complete amorality – a real-life Sacred Games type of narrative with a great deal of sound and fur – that, in the end, it can only leave one depressed.
From therapy to rant
If a lack of post-divorce closure provided the impetus for Reham Khan to revisit her past, clearly the therapeutic value of writing down the story of a difficult life has helped since her book ends on a positive note, with the story of her success as a producer (Janaan, the film she co-produced, is a charming and highly watchable romcom available on Netflix) as well accounts of her activism in Khyber Pakhtunwa raising awareness against child abuse and working for the rights of the Internally Displaced People or IDPs.
Unfortunately, this very therapeutic element that might have helped Khan get closure (and revenge) is what mars the book massively. One of the prescriptions that turn personal material into compelling literary memoirs is employing a certain distance between the subject and the narrator; to craft a book, even a tell-all book, to become the best version of itself. Reham Khan is still angry and her need to “expose” Imran Khan – and his coterie and “harem” – reduces a part of this book into breathless ranting. One presumes there wasn’t much time to be wasted and certain revelations – for instance, the fact that IK has neither read the Quran nor can offer namaaz – are clearly meant to affect the coming elections in which he is the frontrunner, backed by the Army. Unfortunately, in the ambitious task of intervening directly in the political destiny of Pakistan, Reham Khan might well have fallen short – IK’s voters are unlikely to get affected by the allegations, and everyone anyway has known about his illegitimate children and Rothschilds connections forever.
Missing the editor’s touch
The other area where the book flounders is in the aspect of craft – what Zinsser has called “carpentry”. Written while the emotions were still raw and unprocessed, there are sections where she moves from a specific anecdote to general advice-giving, whole paragraphs which a sharp editor would have incised ruthlessly. Sample this. “Be wary of sycophants: they are boring and will never give good advice. Power-hungry, egotistical people are only ever surrounded by greedier subordinates, who will all jump ship the minute the one they are on shows signs of sinking. We, as parents and society, put too much emphasis on achievement. We teach our kids that the love they receive is conditional: Bring me a trophy and I will love you more.” Nuggets of this sort pepper the narrative.
A sort of modern-day, twitter-updated sequel to Tehmina Durrani’s famous (and post-colonially problematic), My Feudal Lord, a novel that signified Pakistan to many for years, Reham Khan’s story proves that, sadly, for Pakistan, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Netflix might find this worthy territory to invest in, but if you are into salacious details of Pakistani politics and the bizarre sex lives of the rich and famous of Islamabad, I would rather recommend Nadia Akbar’s startling debut novel Goodbye Freddy Mercury. And if, much to the contrary, you would care for a different take on Pakistan this weekend, then Reham Khan’s refreshing film Janaan ought to win over this book.
Reham Khan, Reham Khan, SK Publishing.