“Skyfall” by Saba Karim Khan

Saba Karim Khan Saba Karim Khan

Once home to the cultured, artistic world of courtesans, Heera Mandi is now a crumbling red-light district in Lahore. Raina is a young tour guide committed to fighting the injustice and violence now endemic there. But she’s part of the world she’s fighting: her mother Jahaan-e-Rumi works there; her father, Sherji, manages her mother’s career and uses those earnings to run a fundamentalist madrassa.

As Saba Karim Khan’s debut novel, Skyfall begins, Rania is however halfway around the world, locked in a New York jail. She wound up in the US after winning a music contest—“Shahi Mohalla Has Talent”—and a scholarship to study and compete in an international singing contest in New York. Rania understands that her mother’s profession had once been  well-respected and one that gave women a fair amount of independence. Back then, long before Partition separated India and Pakistan, tawaifs were cultured and honored courtesans who underwent extensive training in music and dance. Those times are long-gone:


Now, in contemporary times, Jahaan-e-Rumi and her eldest daughter Ujala are not as fortunate. My mother, Jahaan-e-Rumi, was the sanguine tawaif in Heera Mandi. They don’t call them tawaifs anymore; the more common terms are randis, call girls, dhandewaalis.


Skyfall, Saba Karim Khan (Bloomsbury, December 2020)
Skyfall, Saba Karim Khan (Bloomsbury, December 2020)

Although Ujala had little say but to follow her mother, Rania is able to avoid this fate and work as a tour guide, where she meets Asher, an Indian Hindu filmmaker in Pakistan to work on a documentary about Heera Mandi. Rania is hired to show Asher and his crew the city. After hearing her sing, Asher encourages her to try out for “Shahi Mohalla Has Talent”, the name of the contest referring to another term for Heera Mandi. She had vowed to never leave her mother and sister because she felt they needed her protection as the one woman in their family who wasn’t tied to the red-light underworld. Yet once she starts dating Asher and tells her father about it, the chance to study in New York seems like the only way out. Before that can happen, Sherji forces Rania into the underworld.


I was to perform my first mujra, wearing anklets and garish lipstick, eyes cloaked in kohl that concealed the sweeping rage and humiliation racing through my veins. We drove with a chauffeur in an SUV, meandering through Lahore’s leafy, tree-lined boulevards and concrete, newly tarmacked road networks, crossing stretches of business districts and swanky housing colonies, before pulling up in front of the manicured lawns of a private farmhouse.


Rania dances for hours while men throw her around the room, slapping her and trying to kiss her. She fights back, which only incites the men to beat her up. Rania’s sister Ujala is treated even worse when she tries to date someone of her choice. Skyfall can be difficult to read in places. Rania, with “Shahi Mohalla Has Talent” under her belt, seems to slip her father’s grasp a little too easily.

New York is not however the promised land Rania had envisioned. She befriends other musically-minded young adults from around the world and meets other activists, including some that agree to travel to Pakistan to free Rania’s sister Ujala. But Rania becomes caught between the two countries and the two cultures, fitting into neither. There was enough, in the minds of the US government, to suspect Rania of espionage.


According to the FBI, I came to the US to scout for my country’s intelligence agencies, a perfect explanation for why I had abandoned my family and strengthened ties with an Indian man despite living in time zones diametrically across the world.


Skyfall tells an engaging and often difficult story of a young woman struggling to find justice. No matter how many obstacles she overcomes, she is blocked by someone or some country that by nature is more powerful than she. With each little victory there are greater setbacks, yet it’s in these little victories where she finds hope for a better future.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.