#DesiReads: Shubnum Khan reads from her essay collection, How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo

Author Photo Credit: Nurjahaan Fakey

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Hello and welcome to Episode 43 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today, in the #DesiReads segment, we have Shubnum Khan reading from a new essay collection titled How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo And Other Strange and Wonderful Stories.

#DESIREADS WITH SHUBNUM KHANINTRODUCTION

Shubnum Khan is a South African Indian writer and artist. Her first novel Onion Tearsabout three generations of Indian Muslim women in South Africa, was shortlisted for the Penguin Prize for African Writing. She has written for The New York Times, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and Huffington Post. She is a writing fellow at Art Omi, an Octavia Butler Fellow at Jack Jones Literary Arts, and a Mellon Fellow at Stellenbosch University. She is currently working on her second novel and lives in Durban, South Africa.

When Shubnum Khan signed up for a photoshoot as part of an art project in college, she hadn’t imagined that the photographs would be plastered on billboards and advertisements all over the world. Two years on, her smiling face had sold condos in Mumbai and Florida, drawn subscribers to dating websites, and convinced desperate customers of the supposed wonders of skin-lightening creams. This is but one of the many astounding misadventures she writes about in How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo And Other Strange and Wonderful Stories. In this part-memoir, part-travelogue, Khan takes the reader on unpredictable journeys far from her family home in South Africa. Whether it’s going off the grid in the Himalayas, getting pulled out of the ocean in Turkey, or becoming a bride on a rooftop in Shanghai, she is quirky, moving, and vulnerable in what she shares. All the while, she reflects on what it means to be a woman, especially a single Muslim woman, in the modern world. Drawing from her diverse personal experiences, Khan shows us how to courageously take on life’s most absurd surprises with good humor and a fistful of hope. Her book is a helpful reminder that once “you step off the edge, anything can happen.”

How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo And Other Strange and Wonderful Stories by Shubnum Khan is part-memoir, part-travelogue and covers unpredictable journeys far from her family home in South Africa. An excerpt read by her in #desireads .@DesiBooks

The transcript of this excerpt is also up on the website.

And now, here’s Shubnum Khan.

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DESIREADS WITH SHUBNUM KHAN

[Excerpted with permission from How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo And Other Strange and Wonderful Stories by Shubnum Khan. Copyright © 2021 Shubnum Khan. NOTE: The excerpt text is from the Indian edition and follows the required style there.]

from the essay, ‘A Remote Village in the Himalayas’

When I was 22, my family decided to visit Kashmir and to say it left a lifelong impression is an understatement. There’s a reason why it’s touted as heaven on earth, why it’s used as a backdrop in Bollywood songs and why it graces the verses of poetry and novels. It has ancient gardens of roses and tulips, lakes of lotus, looming snowy mountains, rich forests, a legacy of handmade goods like embroidered pashminas, delicate woodcraft, papier-mâché and a cultural mélange of language and foods. Even the mighty Mughals whiled away their summers there with picnics on the Jhelum River eating apples, designing gardens and having paintings commissioned of the valley.

Ironically, it is also one of the most tragic places in the modern world, abandoned in some constant twilight zone caught between the forces of Pakistan and India for over 7 decades. It is the most militarised place on earth with reportedly more than 700,000 Indian soldiers and a history of torture, half-widows and mass graves that testify to its trauma.

Between its beauty and pain, it is also one of the most hopeful places I know with a people constantly persevering and refusing to break, despite the injustice in their land.

 Such a place leaves a mark on you.

 […]

Five years later someone on Twitter told me about a school in a Himalayan village in Kashmir that needed volunteers to teach the children. I discovered another South African, a girl from Durban no less, had taught there and I knew in that moment I had found my way to return.

I worked up the courage (involving many pep talks with myself) and told my father what I wanted to do and he couldn’t understand what had got into me. Why would I want to live in a village in the mountains to teach children? Why would I give up the safety and comfort of our home to go to a place that was, to him, basically a war zone? I didn’t know myself but I knew I had to do it. I knew that you could read a hundred books about being brave but if you couldn’t actually be brave then it meant nothing. I was 27 and by that stage I felt like life had been passing me by. Everyone I knew had moved on in their careers and relationships and I was still stuck; I was in Durban, unmarried, childless and I was still not allowed to travel by myself. I was living in a city that was becoming increasingly small for me and I felt not only had I not lived my life yet but opportunities were passing me by. My parents loved me and went out of their way to protect me but I knew if I continued like I was, I was going to stay stuck and I had to learn how to live.

If I look at it now, I would say it was as if there was some deep rumbling in my life, as if something was moving under me, a shadow beneath the ice. A shifting had begun but I did not know it clearly then. All I knew is that it felt like I was at the bottom of some deep hole and I was looking up, searching for some light.

So I fought my father hard for this. He kept refusing, saying that as a Muslim woman I wasn’t allowed to travel alone but I kept bringing it up until finally he reluctantly relented and said he would only allow it if he accompanied me and left me at the bottom of the mountain.

It was a compromise we could both agree on.

My parents and I planned the trip for months; we pulled out maps, examined borders, traced routes and read guidebooks. First we would visit Pakistan, a place my parents had longed to see and then we would travel into India. India and Pakistan, brothers violently split from the same womb when the British departed and partition was declared, never recovered from the separation and declared one another mortal enemies. As a result, there were no flights between the two countries and only one land crossing available; the Wagah border near Amritsar where we would be able to cross into India. From there we would drive to Jammu and my parents would leave me to continue the next part of my journey. The area I had to go to was not the Kashmir I had been to before; it was in the mountains – the Pahari area and it was nothing like the valley. Srinagar, with its meadows, lakes and green gardens had rosy-cheeked locals, whilst the mountain, with its sun and rugged terrain, had hardy folk who were weather-worn after working long hours in the field and herding their animals to remote hilltops to graze.

As someone who strongly advocates for being prepared, I spent months researching the village, the region, stalking the director of the school, Sabbah Haji, and basically reading every single thing online that I could find. I made friends with Safiyyah, the South African volunteer who had been there the previous year, and interrogated her about everything, what I needed to take and how I should prepare. I combed through her detailed blog chronicling her stay in the village and read up on hiking gear and mountain living. This much was clear from the beginning: it was not going to be easy. It was not some millennial gig for Instagram photoshoots, it meant living in a real village and being serious about teaching the children. Sabbah was very clear about this from the beginning and I appreciated her candidness. In preparation, I bought expensive hiking shoes, a travel bag with too many zips, a raincoat, antibiotics, thermal socks, adapters and lots of sanitary pads (my ultimate village nightmare involved being stranded on the mountain without any). What you took up with you is what you had with you and it was unlikely you would be able to get anything else while you were there. The village was 7,500 feet above sea level and could only be reached by foot or horse and the nearest road was seven kilometres away.

In Jammu, on the night before I left my parents, I was suddenly overcome with anxiety. I felt frozen with fear. It was all very well to say, ‘I want to see the world! I need to be my own person! I have to learn how to be an adult!’ Because when it came down to the moment, I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to see the world.

I just wanted to go home.

As it was, the trip was turning out to be touch-and-go. Rebel fighting had broken out in Kashmir and things were already tense. Curfew had been implemented just a few days before I was due to arrive and everyone told me it would be okay if I returned home. And to be honest, it would have been such an easy out. I could have said I went so far, I packed my backpack, I bought the hiking shoes, I had the nausea tablets but there was rebel fighting and for the safety of my life I had to return home. The truth was now that the moment was here the reality was dawning: what was I thinking? I’d never travelled anywhere on my own and now I wanted to live in a remote village on a mountain.

“Rebel fighting had broken out in Kashmir […] I’d never travelled anywhere on my own and now I wanted to live in a remote village on a mountain.” #DesiReads with Shubnum Khan .@DesiBooks

Without proper electricity or internet?

With strangers?

And with my introverted ways, control-freak habits and my dependence on a first-world life, could I even do it? I mean, let’s be honest, I’d lived a pampered life until then. I may not have lived in Westville but I certainly had hot water, reliable electricity, internet access and hours to idle away watching series.

I didn’t even know why I was doing this anymore.

That night I tossed and turned and had nightmares of falling off the mountain. I mentally went through all my checklists and notes; my bags were packed, my emergency light was charged, my hiking shoes were broken in and I had enough sanitary pads.

Everything was ready except me.

The next morning, I felt numb and I barely spoke to my parents for fear that I would either break down or beg them to take me back home with them (which I knew they would gladly do).

I jumped into the car of the kindly couple that the Haji family from the school had sent to pick me up and didn’t look back but found to my horror that I was somehow crying. The poor couple kept throwing me, and each other, stricken glances as if they hadn’t signed up for a crying volunteer in the back of their car.

At the family’s house in Jammu, I joined another South African volunteer, Nabila, who I didn’t know but had been in touch with about going to the school at around the same time. A driver then took us to another town, Doda, which was six hours away. We were steadily making our way into the Himalayas and the roads deteriorated and began to wind with sharp bends, potholes, narrow ledges and sudden drops off the edge that fell off the mountain into chasms. I’ve always suffered from carsickness but my nausea was so extreme on this journey I had to push my face into my backpack and hold on to Nabila as wave after wave of nausea hit me. We spent one night in Doda and were then driven to the tiny town of Premnagar about an hour away, through more rocky, winding mountain roads that left me reeling.

[…]

When we arrived in the village the mountain was green and full of life. It was August in Breswana so the fields were bursting with corn and the trees were loaded with apples, apricots, pears, quinces and walnuts. Everything felt alive; calves were being born, chicks ran in fluffy bundles behind their mother, puppies sucked at teats and hawks circled above looking for prey. It also meant that bears and leopards were around, Sabbah, the school director, told us casually as she took us on a tour of the village on our first day. She pointed out a trampled patch in the cornfield where she said a bear must have visited the night before. They didn’t usually come this close to the house but because it was harvest season, they were looking for food. Don’t worry though, she said, there’s usually someone in the machan, the wooden perch in the field, who whistled and beat drums to chase away scavenging bears at night. If you did happen to come across a bear, she said, you should never run but just stay still. If you run, that’s when you’d have a problem. I tried to imagine how I would react if I saw a bear and I knew in that moment I was going to die because my only instinct was to run.

‘Can you outrun a bear?’ I asked nervously.

‘Outrun a bear?’ asked Sabbah, with an incredulous look that made me think she was wondering how on earth she had allowed me to teach at her school.

Later, I learnt the best way to avoid a bear or leopard was to not see one at all. If you had even a slight inkling that one of them was nearby, then you ran. Madhuri, a volunteer from Bangalore, would go for early morning runs with Peter the dog and she told us that one morning he suddenly stopped during their run, pricked up his ears, yelped and turned and ran back down the path as fast as he could. Madhuri said she needed absolutely no convincing that something dangerous was nearby and she turned and ran after him.

The main house where I would live with seven other volunteers had an apple orchard, a garden where we got our fruit and vegetables, an animal shed with a variety of animals including sheep, buffalo and bulls, a school library, an upcoming volunteer’s quarter and a mosque. The school itself was down a path close to the main house. It had been started by the Haji family when they realised the quality of the local government schools in the mountain region was terrible. They built the school themselves and through their passionate leadership, a thorough curriculum and a stream of stellar educators brought a quality of education to the Pahari children that would have never been possible before.

In short, it was magic. 

How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo And Other Strange and Wonderful Stories by Shubnum Khan is part-memoir, part-travelogue and covers unpredictable journeys far from her family home in South Africa. An excerpt read by her in #desireads .@DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 43 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. Today’s #DesiReads segment was from Shubnum Khan reading from a new essay collection titled How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo And Other Strange and Wonderful Stories.

Episode 44 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Email at desibooks@desibooks.co. And please go to the website, desibooks.co, if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. That’s desibooks.co.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

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