Part horror, part romance: Shubnum Khan’s new novel is perfectly Gothic

Lives intertwine across two centuries inside a grand but neglected haunted house in ‘The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil’

25 February 2024 - 00:00
By Mila de Villiers
Shubnum Khan.
Image: Nurjahaan Fakey Shubnum Khan.

The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil ★★★★
Shubnum Khan
Pan Macmillan

Apparitions and superstitions. Djinns and deceit. Family and foes. Love and loss. Redemption and revenge. Blood and fire. And one house which intertwines it all.

Shubnum Khan’s The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil reads like a Scheherazade-meets-Shirley Jackson tale: a novel in which the art of storytelling shares a symbiotic relationship with the Gothic. 

Gothic Khan’s second novel certainly is.

“I think the Gothic is perfect for it because the Gothic encapsulates so many different types of genres: romance, horror, mystery,” Khan said of the genre

“I didn’t have the intention of writing a Gothic novel. I was trying to put my love for so many things into one piece of writing: I like romance. I like a tragic romance, I like a little bit of a horror, I like mystery.

“The Gothic was perfect for that. I didn’t intend to write it as a Gothic novel. Now it seems very obvious,” she said, adding “the haunted house on the hill” and “tragic love stories” as Gothic tropes manifested in The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil. 

The haunted house is the eponymous Akbar Manzil (which roughly translates to “great mansion”), introduced to the reader as “the grandest house on the East coast of Africa” in 1932, constructed by wealthy Indian immigrant Akbar Khan, which — come 2014 in contemporary Durban — had fallen into neglect, becoming a haven for those who have no place to call home.

'The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil' by Shubnum Khan.
Image: Supplied 'The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil' by Shubnum Khan.

Alternating between the early 1930s and 2014, the novel’s main protagonists are Khan’s second wife, Meena, and 21st century teenager Sana who, along with her widowed father, finds herself in Akbar Manzil.

Two women who will never meet, yet a room in the east wing of Akbar Manzil draws them together. A room in which Meena found solace during periods of alienation, taking to diarising as escapism, and which Sana happens upon per chance:

The room is thick with cobwebs and the smell of timber. There are two dormer windows whose filthy panes filter in murky light. Beneath them sits a mahogany writing desk and a wooden chair. In the dim background are boxes and trunks covered in dust. 

Sana pushes open one of the dormers; the silence revolts as a deep creak cuts the air. 

The djinn follows Sana up; it has not been here since the incident in 1932. It has not even glanced into the mouth of the monster since then. It runs its finger over the thick dust on the dead woman’s table; it peers at her papers and books and crawls onto her chair and lays back, overwhelmed suddenly. It remembers the last time it was here.

A few cockroaches scuttle about. On the writing desk are pens and loose papers, but right in the middle of the table sit two leatherbound notebooks. Sana picks one up, dusts it off, and opens it. 

On the yellowing pages in small, neat writing it reads: 

9 November 1931

It’s windy at night. I’m not sure if I should bring the baby upstairs because of the draft but I feel I can’t leave him alone for a moment. I don’t trust them after what happened. 

They watch me. Especially the children.

I only feel safe when I’m up here. 

The concept of literal and figurative space and place serve as leitmotifs in exploring Meena and Sana’s sense of belonging.

“Sana,” Khan said, “is interested in spaces because she takes up very little space in life. Initially she’s described as someone who disappears and nobody notices her. And she’s always been curious about the little spaces that people forget about, like under the cupboards.

“She’s interested in the shape of things and obviously that means she’s interested in the space of things. That’s why she’s afraid of the ocean, because the ocean is so huge and she can’t understand how to place herself in that space.

“I think she’s also very interested in making — because she has no space in the world she feels insignificant — a space for herself and that’s why the house is so interesting to her.

“It's a new place that is open to her, that she can explore, and that is why she takes the room as her own space, sets out to clean it and find out everything out about it.

“She’s now found the place where she can fit into the world.”

Meena’s ideologically driven sense of space and place stems from a colonialist perspective, rejecting the imperialist, exploitive system, stating “... the British were the same, whether in Africa or India. It was still slavery, just in different packaging”.

“Meena is always fighting against the space she’s in, from the time she was growing up in a little village in India. She was going into the landowners’ house, she wasn’t welcome in that space,” said Khan.

“Then she leaves for South Africa with her family. She expects it to be a better life but realises ‘this is not a better life, it’s very similar to what they had back home’.

“She’s basically forced into Akbar’s home, another space she doesn’t want to be in, initially. For Meena, it’s a lot about fighting the spaces she’s in as a woman, as an Indian woman, as someone who was brought in to work in the sugar cane fields.

“She’s fighting colonialism and she’s fighting patriarchy,” Khan said the feisty, socially conscious Meena.

“She’s in all those spaces she doesn’t want to be in. When she does finally find space, which is ironically the same room Sana finds herself, then the world changes for Meena. She’s not fighting, she’s herself, she believes she’s changing, like a fish in the water, she comes alive and she’s no longer fighting the space she’s in.”

With regards to the physical embodiment of space, the 2014 inhabitants of Akbar Manzil almost read like the dramatis personae of the community found at 28 Barbary Lane in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series owing to their individualism. There’s Zuleikha (“She’s magnificent! She’s cool,” said Kahn); Doctor (“He’s kind, he’s been through a lot, Doctor lives with a lot of guilt and remorse.”); Razia Bibi (“She’s bitter, determined, courageous, misunderstood.”); Fancy (“Fancy’s lovely, not very complicated.”), and Sana’s widowed father Bilal (“He disappears into the background of the novel, and the most confident character of the lot despite his loss and trauma. He seems to know more about who he is and what he wants in life. He’s a good man.”). 

Could Akbar Manzil be a near-autonomous character in itself?

“For sure,” the author resolutely replied.

“The house is almost another live thing. It swallows them all up. It becomes a home for Meena and also becomes a home for Sana. The house is a broken thing. 

“I think a haunted house is a representation for a haunted person. You can represent how people carry their things with them when you're doing it with a house because the rooms represent parts of a person. You might put a nice coat of paint on the house but on the inside there's pain and grief you have to deal with to get to the foundations of things.

“I like the idea that a house is always an example of a person who is haunted.”

Drawing on the haunted and characters, one finds the omnipresent djinn (referred to as “it”) and Sana’s dead twin who also remains unnamed and appears as an apparition to Sana throughout the book. Khan decided to omit a name for Sana’s sister as it adds a sense of “unrealness, it plays on the idea that it could be another version of Sana. It’s an alternate identity to Sana, it gave her more of a ghostly presence”.

Yet, lest we forget that before Akbar Manzil became synonymous with a literal sense of hauntedness and haunted inhabitants, it was Akbar Khan’s aim to construct "... a palace. He wants a mansion that merges Western sensibilities with Eastern elegance”. 

“Akbar has grand notions of the world,” Khan said about how his goal relates to his personhood.

“He’s also a bit of a dreamer, and his aspirations could even be considered not that viable but impossible. He thinks he can bring a second wife into the house and it’ll be fine.” (Dear reader, it wasn’t fine.)

Akbar was already bound in holy matrimony to Jahanara when he decided to marry Meena.

Jahanara, unlike Meena, actively pursues beliefs and habits associated with the crown.

“She aspires towards a British lifestyle, a white lifestyle. She thinks that is the ultimate goal of life: to be a British person,” Khan said of the antithesis to Akbar’s second wife. ”

She knew she was born with the wrong skin colour. She’s also a contrast to Meena, and sometimes Akbar himself.

“She’s representative of the way many Indian people at the time were taught to think: that to be fair is the goal, to have English tendencies and English habits and ways of speaking is the best way. I feel sorry for her in a way, also.

“She’s so involved in that way of thinking. That’s her world and that’s her understanding of the world, and you cannot change that.”

Akbar’s error of judgement aside, Khan responds to my question about what Meena and Sana consider “Home”, that “Akbar becomes Home for Meena, eventually, or at least Home is a place where she can be free”.

“For Sana Home is acceptance of who she is,” Khan mused.

“She pictures herself as a very tragic character, with the loss of her mother, the guilt of her sister. By the end of it she starts to accept who she is and that is Home.”

And for Khan’s idea of “Home”?

“I’ve got an answer for that. My idea of what Home is is a place where I can feel free, most myself.”

I’m also curious as to whether Khan drew on her own family’s history when writing the novel?

“Definitely the journey aspect of the 1930s — of characters coming from India — was inspired by my grandfather, who came to South Africa in 1935,” she said, adding “he came on a ship and he always told us stories. Throughout his whole life he loved to tell his grandchildren stories.

“Towards the end of his life, I started interviewing him about his life, coming from India, coming to South Africa. So I have these detailed entries of the ship that he came on, the experience, how he felt when he first came to South Africa, and starting a life here.”

Khan also dedicated the novel to her grandfather, with “In memory of Abbajaan, our first storyteller” preceding the prologue. What significance does Khan attach to storytelling?

“I didn’t realise it then, but he was opening up our worlds to what was out there and the power of telling us stories because he took us out of his little room in Asherville, Durban and placed us in this other realm, anything could happen, where anything is possible. These strange characters coming out from the trees. He introduced me to the magic of storytelling and the beauty of that world.”

Another aspect of the otherworldly nature of The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil includes Sana’s perceiving of Signs, which manifest in many ways, with the concluding sentence of the novel reading:

Sana looks up at the sky; the clouds are gone, the sun is shining. She knows it is a Sign.

Has Khan ever received a Sign? 

Yes,” came the considered response.

“I didn’t know it at the time that it was a Sign, but I looked back at a lot of things. I think if you’re open to seeing Signs, you will see a Sign.

“Now I try to be open to see any Signs that come my way.”

The Lost Love of Akbar Manzil will be published in the US and UK as The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years