Awais Khan’s third novel highlights the challenges faced by survivors of acid attacks
t is difficult to separate social dilemmas from fictional narratives. Indoctrination would have us believe that a meaningful work of fiction must draw attention to the prevailing crises that have afflicted modern society. Be that as it may, the ‘social novel’ hasn’t always been viewed as an admirable creative exercise. The problem-based novels that emerged in Britain during the 19th Century have often been criticised for their propagandist elements and occasional descent into sentimentality. Still, these novels feature in school curricula and are valued by readers for their deep-rooted social consciousness.
Awais Khan’s Someone Like Her falls neatly into a Pakistani ‘social novel’ category but doesn’t lapse into sentimentality. Instead, it offers a biting critique of gender inequality and patriarchal values in our society. Khan’s third novel is written in the same vein as his previous novel No Honour, which spotlights the distressing reality of honour-related crimes in rural Punjab. However, here the author shifts his focus to another pressing concern that plagues our society: the alarming increase in cases of acid violence.
Someone Like Her tells the heart-breaking story of Ayesha, an independent twenty-something from Multan, whose life takes an unpredictable turn after she is subjected to an inhumane act of vengeance by a spurned lover. Reluctant to accept that Ayesha doesn’t love him, Raza exacts his revenge by throwing acid at her. The novel traces Ayesha’s efforts to seek justice and rebuild her life in a foreign land with Kamil, who is grappling with his own predicaments.
1,485 cases of acid attack were reported in Pakistan between 2007 and 2022. Unfortunately, these figures present a modest estimation of serious social malaise. A vast majority of such incidents likely remain unreported as survivors and their families fear reprisals. In recent years, the sheer magnitude of the crisis has been examined in documentaries and films. However, the issue hasn’t been widely explored in Anglophone literature from Pakistan. A notable exception is Feryal Ali Gauhar’s 2002 novel The Scent of Wet Earth in August, which depicts the social and psychological consequences of acid violence on a child.
Someone Like Her, therefore, comes through as a meaningful endeavour to highlight the challenges faced by survivors of acid attacks. Even so, the text doesn’t seek to answer critical questions about this social problem or offer policy recommendations to deal with this crisis. Before approaching this novel, readers must recognise that Khan’s emphasis isn’t on addressing this theme through a strictly sociological or anthropological lens. With the eye of a storyteller, Khan fashions a narrative that reveals the unprecedented effects of such acts of vengeance on survivors and their families.
Someone Like Her has been written in the same vein as Awais Khan’s previous novel No Honour, which spotlights the distressing reality of honour-related crimes in rural Punjab.
Sceptics might question whether it is prudent to address such a sensitive issue within the confines of a narrative that valorises romantic love. Nevertheless, the technique allows Ayesha’s ordeal to become all the more realistic, memorable and relatable. This is necessary because the title of the novel imposes a disproportionate burden on the protagonist and creates unrealistic expectations in the minds of some readers.
If the title is anything to go by, Ayesha must emerge as a paragon and a symbol of a struggle against systemic failures. Encumbered by these heavy labels, Ayesha stands the danger of being dehumanised and reduced to the sum of her misfortunes. Kamil’s sudden appearance, though a convenient plot contrivance, allows her to come across as a full-blooded individual with dreams, aspirations and personal ambitions.
Kamil’s trajectory, which runs parallel to that of Ayesha’s, is also presented with care. The challenges and conflicts he encounters rescue him from becoming a mere ancillary to the crux of the main narrative: Ayesha’s quest for justice. At its core, the novel offers a captivating glimpse into the emotional and psychological battles Pakistanis have to fight in and outside the motherland.
Some characters are deliberately spared the benefit of nuance. Ayesha endures numerous adversities at the hands of a wily, manipulative Raza. His villainy stands the danger of becoming caricaturistic. Even so, Khan’s antagonist mirrors the sensibilities of those who perpetrate revenge crimes with reckless abandon. In most cases involving such impulsive, aggressive offences, nuance isn’t always a vital consideration.
Someone Like Her benefits from functional, cinematic prose and some readers may find it easy to get through the novel in a single sitting. Others might also feel that the plot has all the suitable ingredients for a television play or film. Sensitive readers might find the novel difficult to stomach as it deals with seemingly tough, traumatic themes. The novel is steered by the burgeoning impulse to unpack Ayesha’s private distress and ‘rehabilitate’ her for the conscientious reader’s benefit – a creative process that isn’t suited for the faint-hearted. Even so, Someone Like Her is a painful indictment of our times.
Khan’s previous novels have drawn attention to the injustices faced by women in the public and private spheres. His latest novel isn’t a radical departure from his oeuvre insofar as it symbolises a sincere desire to shed light on gender-related injustices.
Someone Like Her
Author: Awais Khan
Publisher: Orenda Books, 2023
Pages: 300, Paperback
The reviewer is a freelance journalist and the author of No Funeral for Nazia