Published in Daily Times / Saturday, July 10, 2010
Author: Sabuha Khan
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Sabuha Khan, a Pakistani, is on a quest of her own as she steps into Toronto — a city she wryly observes to be ninth from the top from a place that is probably ninth from the bottom. She has witnessed the impact of such a decision firsthand when her children moved away but now casts a wider net to allow other characters to step forward and add to the tale.
The book includes interviews with fellow Pakistanis and other nationalities spread out over three continents to determine the collective toll the act of migration takes on families and the ensuing identity crisis. This also gives her the opportunity to assess the lure of the West while examining the pull of the East: one is inexplicable, the other is irresistible.
The resultant essay is part travelogue, part history lesson and part cautionary tale with a powerful message and a not-so-gentle reminder of our failings as a nation. Afterwards, one has a better understanding of what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, a misfit in one’s own home, an unwelcome guest without bearings or a simple wanderer savouring the delights of other cultures.
The fact that her people seem to acquire a newfound respect for the law the instant they descend on foreign soil provides her with an opening to analyse Pakistanis outside their natural habitat and take stock of the country they leave behind. Consequently, the plight of an average citizen will also be given a place in this narrative.
There could be a million reasons to abandon one’s home, and the majority of her subjects had traded up. Whether they are seeking sanctuary, a better life or a change of scenery, she finds that most will readily surrender their motherland but are reluctant to part with their heritage.
According to the writer, how they see themselves and how they will be perceived by their hosts are two very different things. She believes that immigrants, no matter how well entrenched they are in society, continue to represent their country of origin despite what their passport claims.
Apparently, globalisation ensures that they feel at home wherever they live but something within determines where they truly belong. We meet Pakistanis in the throes of nostalgia, holding onto precious memories but right beside them are their countrymen who cannot hide the contempt for this land and seek to distance themselves from all things Pakistani; Greeks and Chinese, fiercely protective of their heritage, join in followed closely by the Frenchman who considers himself a citizen of the world and, yet, remains French at heart.
The travelogue portion sketches the home to which these people remain forever tethered and draws contrasts with the place they now inhabit. One welcomes them with open arms but insists they become American. Another allows them to be who they are and celebrates diversity. Still another refuses to give them nationality and considers them outsiders. She takes readers inside what she calls the gilded cage that gives a Third World émigré access to every conceivable luxury and the right tools to carve out a place in life; the sole caveat in this scenario is that “everything is mortgaged from their car to their home to their lives”.
This is not a senseless indictment of other cultures but a well-balanced analysis that attempts to showcase the best and worst of both worlds. She scrutinises her own land for signs of growing fault lines, and corners Pakistanis who have decided to stick around, trying to make them acknowledge their role in making or breaking this country. The book also compares the irrational fear of modernisation with the rational fear of a new world order that threatens to remake everything and everyone.
Mehwar Ki Talash is an introspective look at the effects of a centuries-old phenomenon on the modern day immigrant.
The audio book version is in Sabuha Khan’s voice. She has spent 10 years as a newscaster for Pakistan Television (PTV) (from the early 1970s to the early 1980s), which makes her an ideal narrator. (The book can also be ordered from email@example.com.)
Sabuha has also authored Apna Des Apney Log and Dilli Se Defence. Mehwar Ki Talash is her fourth book and her second audio CD.
Academy Bazyaft; Pp 224; Rs 250 and Rs 350 (audio book)