NEW YORK, 1982
The first time we met, you were wearing borrowed clothes. You sat there in your too big platforms, bell sleeves and a neckline that plunged sharply to the right. Your yellow jumper hung loose over your thin frame. Your head was defiantly uncovered, your frizzy hair as rebellious as your nature, your heart-shaped mouth stubbornly set. Later you told me that your friend Yasmin had lent you the clothes because your mother stopped your monthly allowance. She thought it would make you give up politics.
Your mother didn’t know you well.
Looking deceptively sunny in that blinding yellow, you smoked as Yasmin stood behind you, searching through a high bookshelf. I had never seen a girl of your stature smoke. Or sit publicly without a veil.
‘Ashtray,’ you ordered and Yasmin came running up with one. To avoid staring, I looked up at the highest shelf, my neck craning as I tilted my head all the way up, then bending as I looked down to the last. I wondered if you had read all those books.
Perhaps it was my head bobbing up and down like a duck in water that caught your attention. Sit, you gestured, and I nervously looked around for a chair to park myself on. I noticed your forehead crease in a frown as you crossed your legs like men do. You leaned back, stretching your hand over your knee and it was then I knew. With downcast eyes, I settled on the floor.
‘What’s your name?’ you asked at the exact moment I opened my mouth to say, ‘I want to be in politics.’
You pretended you hadn’t heard and I knew from then on not to speak unless spoken to. Nobody can say I wasn’t a good learner.
That much, at least, is true.
Yasmin brought tea and as she handed around the cups, you asked me again what my name was.
‘Nazneen Khan,’ I said. ‘But everyone calls me Nazo.’
You smiled and I said, ‘Madam, I am working in Aijaz Sahib’s dry cleaners. You know Aijaz Sahib from Jackson Heights? He sent me to you. He said you help people fleeing the General’s regime. My whole family was murdered in the coup. My father was a doorman at the Parliament. He resisted when they tried to break in. Later the General’s men came to our house and killed everyone. I hid under the bed … survived somehow…’ I could not carry on talking.
You didn’t offer me any condolence. Instead you said, ‘Can you type?’
And that was how it all began.
Bailiff: All rise!
Clerk: Judge Muzzamdar will be presiding over this case. Bailiff: The court is now in session. Please be seated.
Judge: Good Morning. Calling the case of Mr Omar Bin Omar versus Miss Nazneen Khan on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rani Shah. Are both sides ready?
Prosecutor: Ready for the prosecution, Your Honour. Defending Counsel: Ready for the defence, Your Honour.
Clerk: Your Honour, the plaintiff Mr Omar accuses the defendant of premeditated murder and of espionage against the state. The defendant is represented by the able and veteran lawyer Mr Hamidi while the plaintiff, being a known human rights lawyer, has decided to prosecute the case himself. Given his knowledge of law, and his closeness to the murdered politician, the court requests that his lack of criminal practice be overlooked and Mr Omar be allowed to prosecute.
Judge: Permission granted. Prosecutor Mr Omar and Counsel Mr Hamidi, please present your opening statements.
Prosecutor: Your Honour, Miss Nazneen Khan, commonly known as Nazo, has been accused of conspiring to assassinate the country’s first female Prime Minister, Madam Rani Shah. Although the body was charred in the explosion, new evidence has revealed that her death was not due to the suicide bombing as was previously believed, but by a bullet shot at close range. Almost as if by someone seated right next to her…
Counsel: Objection! Judge: Sustained.
Prosecutor: Very well. Let me start by asking a very simple and straightforward question. Miss Khan must answer why it is that she, who sat right next to Madam Shah at the time of the assassination, managed to escape unscathed, while Madam Shah lost her life. Now, Miss Khan, tell the court who sat where…
The cushion next to your desk became my space. Every day after work I came to your Uptown apartment and positioned myself by your feet. At first Yasmin did all your correspondence but slowly, as my typing speed increased, the typewriter too found its way down to the carpet. Tahtahtahtah, I type like a machine gun, you’d comment from your throne on the sofa. I’d smile, silently collecting any scraps of compliments that came my way. For me, you were the saviour – the Prophetess who would rid us of the General.
I wasn’t the only one. Throngs of people came. Every day, the apartment grew, its walls stretched, and sometimes I thought its square shape would bend with the number of people who squeezed inside, each offering whatever service they could. We grew rich in people power. Students pledged support. Immigrants rallied outside the home embassy. Housewives sent us parcels of food, children came with little posters. The pressure in the house spilled out across the seas and into the country we had left behind. Our day grew to eighteen hours as we worked non-stop. And then one day, the Big Brother stepped in.
‘Senator Ted Kennedy called!’ You burst into the room and although I had no idea who he was, I found myself feeling inexplicably happy. You reached out and hugged me. ‘The day is not far,’ you said. ‘Don’t forget.’
I won’t, I thought, as I felt the warmth of your bony hands seep into my rough palms. Later I folded my hands into the tiniest of fists and tucked them into the folds of my hijab.
‘I won’t ever forget,’ I said to your receding back.
No one can silence us now. No one can take our voice away, now that our words have become the voice of so many.’ It was 1983 and you were speaking at a rally in Downtown Manhattan. Afterwards at the flat, you explained that Washington had begun to listen. ‘The world is finally looking beyond the communist threat. Now is our chance. We have to get in there.’
‘He can’t keep us out any longer, Miss Shah,’ said a man so thin he could have been a reed. He sidled up to you and started talking in a low, oily voice. ‘The General has been exploiting the country. Sending our people to the borders to fight a war that isn’t ours. In fact, it’s nobody’s war. The Americans have exaggerated the threat. What do you think?’
I thought he was standing too close to you.
‘The General is cashing in on USA’s fears,’ you replied, exhaling smoke. ‘He’s fleecing them.’
The man leaned his thin body in. His drooping moustache towering over your petite frame.
You didn’t push him away.
Excerpted from ‘Nobody Killed Her’ written by Sabyn Javeri, published by HarperCollins.
Nobody Killed Her is a literary thriller set around a court trial, following the murder of a female political leader, Rani Shah, in an unnamed Muslim country. The suspect on trial, Nazo Khan is her assistant and confidant who, surprisingly, escapes unscathed in the blast that rocks Rani to her death. The style is unusual–an experimentation of form- an attempt to involve the reader directly into the narrative. The writing is deliberately sparse and staccato; the plot- a fast moving page-turner.
The anti-hero, Nazo, is the main narrator. She is a young asylum seeker who escapes to America (where Rani is in political self-exile) after witnessing her family massacred by the Army in a dictatorial military coup. The experience has hardened her and she is keen to climb the political ladder to bring about change, especially for the women of her background who are treated worse than animals under the General’s dark regime. Although a hardcore realist, she is impressed by Rani Shah’s idealism and comes to work for her. With the course of time her skepticism turns to adulation which gradually turns into an obsession.
On the other hand, Rani has been thrust into the world of politics by circumstances. She carries the weight of the world’s expectations while still grieving for her father, a political leader killed by the General. When Rani returns from her self-exile to fight for democracy, Nazo is by her side. Together they take on the General fighting for free and fair elections till Rani does something that leaves Nazo feeling sidelined. She marries for love. As Rani moves into motherhood and her priorities change, Nazo’s paranoia increases.
As the novel progresses there are signs that Rani’s idealism is only skin deep and what she craves more than running a country is a simple life of domesticity. But for Nazo, that is nothing less than betrayal. Can a world leader be allowed such a concession as wanting the ordinary?
Dramas like ‘The Crown’ have explored this and this book takes it a step further by pitting female ambition against motherhood. Nazo has had to fight for even basic rights like education. She knows what it is like to be a poor, uneducated woman in an orthodox society and she begins to resent Rani for wasting her privilege and agency. With time Nazo’s own ambition begins to show, making the reader doubt her reliability. It is here the question lies-will the love of power surpass the power of love?
A surprise twist at the end lets the reader decide.
In the trial scenes intersecting the main narrative, we have conflicting points of view, which add to the tension in the story — thus making the reader question as to who is telling the truth. The unreliable narrator features a big part of this novel but it is up to the reader to choose who that is. The themes of love and betrayal are at once familiar and unknown.
Along with being a fast paced political thriller, it is a novel with depth and insight as to what it means to be a woman in a man’s world. It is not a story about politics but about people to whom politics happen. With Hilary Clinton’s recent defeat due to the binaries set by her gender, it is, finally, a novel about our times.
About the Author:
Sabyn Javeri is an award winning short story writer and the author of bestselling crime thriller, Nobody Killed Her, published by Harper Collins, India. Sabyn’s short fiction has been published in The Oxonian Review, The London Magazine, The South Asian Review, Bengal Lights, Wasafiri, World Audience, Trespass and Sugar Mule amongst others. Her short stories explore issues of gender, identity and displacement. They have been widely anthologised, and her essays on craft have appeared in Creative Writing textbooks in the UK. She has won The Oxonian Review short story award and was shortlisted for Meridian, Leaf books and the first Tibor Jones South Asia Prize.
Sabyn holds a Masters from the University of Oxford and has a PhD in the pedagogy of Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. She currently teaches at Habib University, Karachi.