What Is Home, Mum? Review

By | Monday, June 27, 2022 Leave a Comment
I'm pretty sure that when Partition was covered in school, we didn't get much more than: India and Pakistan used to be one country and now they're not. There may have been a detail about making one country for Muslims and one country for Hindus, but there was certainly zero context provided. I did hear a bit more about it from an Indian-American professor I had in grad school, but that was in an economics course so it was almost more of a conetxtual aside than part of the formal curriculum. I do recall vividly, though, how he noted how abusrd it was and how, since he was from Jalandhar, he had more in common with someone from nearby Pakistan than he did with someone from Chennai, which is still in India but some 1600 miles to the south. The first time I saw Partition presented in popular culture was the 2018 episode of Doctor Who, "Demons of the Punjab," which was also the first time I had really gotten any real emotional context for how truly devastating it was to families at the time. This was reinforced with Ms. Marvel a couple weeks ago when Yusuf relayed the story of Kamala's great-grandmother, and Aamir added that every Pakistani family has a Partition story and all of them are tragic.

Which brings us to my reading from this weekend: What Is Home, Mum? by Sabba Khan which came out, I think, in April. Khan herself was born and raised in England, but her parents were both from Pakistan. And despite being born after Partition and having been on the "right" side of the new border anyway -- so her family didn't have to move off their ancestral lands in 1947 -- they still found themselves dealing with the repercussions of Partitions decades later and seeing their town deliberately flooded because of it. Over the course of years, Khan's family moved to England and she was born and raised amid a fairly large (at least by Western standards) extended family. The book then is a study of and reflection on self, identity, religion, and family.

While there are certainly elements of memoir here, I don't know that's really the point. Pretty much all of the personal incidents and anecdotes Khan relays are to provide a framework and context for the larger issues she's discussing. While the root of those issues, I suppose, is basically, "Who am I?" she is also trying to identify what is family (and who is her mother in particular), what does religion mean to me, and of course what is home. One thing I find particularly interesting here is that she doesn't hang these questions off a linear narrative. It's not an accounting of Khan's life in chronological order and she comes to realizations or understandings with time. As readers, we get more of her thought processes as she's trying to sort out these questions for herself. The questions are all intertwined to begin with and Khan's train of thought follows more along the lines of the issues in order of significance. We get, for example, an explanation -- both historical and familial -- of Partition pretty early on, as well as addressing some broad notes about her personal background. (Where she lives, went to school, etc.) She addresses the easy, borderline superficial answers first and adds nuance and complexity as the book goes on.

One of the ongoing topics in particular that I find interesting in the book is how Khan wrestles with religion. As with most people, she was initially raised in the traditions of her parents. However, as she grew older -- and, notably, in a decidedly more secular environment than her parents had grown up in -- she began questioning what she saw her family doing for faith that seemed to counter not only what she saw outside her home, but even within it. Particularly regarding the treatment of women. I don't often see personal accounts of losing one's religion, but Khan's story in particular is interesting in that she claims to have come closer to the divine in becoming more secular and embracing the love of an atheist.

Also interesting is her ongoing relationship with her mother. (Her father is not absent, but he doesn't figure nearly as prominently. Khan somewhat suggests that was a very deliberate choice on her mother's part, and that the her parents' relationship to one another was, at best, cold. That further suggests there's some additional generational trauma Khan hasn't even addressed here!) She has some insightful revelations when it comes to understanding where her mother is coming from, and that keeping an ongoing relationship requires both of them to meet the other halfway. Khan's upbringing was wildly different -- a different time, a different country, with parents dealing with very different issues. Of course, we're only seeing this from Khan's own perspective but I do get the sense that she's meeting her mother WAAAAY more than halfway (Khan's mother seems only barely tolerant of any non-Muslim ideas and openly passes judgement on Khan about them) even though Khan seems accepting of that.

I have said many times before that, as an able-bodied cis hetero white man, I have virtually all the privilege boxes checked. Popular entertainment caters VERY heavily to my demographic and it sadly requires too much effort to even find stories that are different. I don't doubt there were Partition stories that came out before that Doctor Who episode, but I didn't even really know that I was missing them beforehand! What Is Home, Mum? is not a Partition-specific story, but it is very much a story about a set of life experiences that are very different to my own. I don't know much cartharsis Khan experienced in sorting through everything to relay this story, but she does an excellent job of sharing what it's been like trying to wrestle with who she is and how she fits into both her own and her family's worlds.

What Is Home, Mum? was published by Street Noise Books and retails for $19.99 US. It should be available from all decent booksellers.
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