Book review

There’s much more to Reham Khan’s memoir than Imran Khan’s scandals

But the writer is a little too intent on destroying her famous ex-husband.

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).

Hello, Pakistan

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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.