Memoirs Biographies

Around the world on a strange and wonderful journey

Nikita Ann Varghese | Updated on October 31, 2021

Single Muslim girl, Shubnum Khan takes the road less travelled and wittily introspects on life, culture, relationships and humanity

About the Book

How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo: And Other Strange and Wonderful Stories

Shubnum Khan

Pan Macmillan

237 pages; Rs 450

Check this book out on Amazon

Imagine waking up one, fine day and seeing your face plastered on billboards across the world. Sounds too good to be true? Not for Shubnum Khan.

In her book, How I Accidentally Became A Global Stock Photo, Khan tells the extraordinary tale of how she was abruptly catapulted into fame, without even realising it. But the story is a cautionary one - where Khan had signed a contract for a free photoshoot, allowing the photographer to sell her photos online, as stock images.

“I was in the news because I was the fool who had signed away my face for free. It’s not even like I was in cool adverts, my face was being used to sell eye-bag creams and acne products. The only thing I got out of this fiasco is a story to entertain Amal Clooney with, if I ever meet her,” she laments.

From billboards in the US and bus stops in London to McDonald’s adverts in China and South Korea, Khan’s face was everywhere.

Although the book title may speak of this noteworthy instance, it is just a small chapter of her remarkable life. Each one of her anecdotes is interlaced with quick wit and a running commentary of experiences that some of us could only dream of — teaching in a remote village in the Himalayas, becoming a bride on a rooftop in Shanghai, surviving an earthquake in Delhi, losing her heart in Istanbul, taking a secret trip to South Korea, and much more.

The book begins with her childhood in Durban, South Africa. Khan was the last born of four daughters. For an Indian family, this meant that she was widely considered a tragedy. “Well, at least for those who congratulated my mother with ‘I’m so sorry’, or, ‘Better luck next time’, or who whispered things like it was a shame that it was a girl, again. Now, I don’t have kids, so I’m not sure what it’s like, but can you imagine carrying a human being inside you for the better part of a year, and going through blood, sweat and tears to get it out only to hear, ‘Better luck next time!’,” Khan writes.

Needless to say, being a single, Muslim woman in today’s world isn’t a piece of cake. Khan often mulls over the orthodox hierarchy of the world, where Muslims are stereotyped into supporting an oppressive regime and women are cosseted to a point of suffocation.

Determined to break free of the shackles that bind, Khan sets off on a journey to Kashmir, where she volunteers to teach kids in a small village. During her stay, Khan remained unfazed by the giant spiders, furry mouses, beady-eyed bears and occasional leopard sightings. Although the experience was a far cry from her pampered lifestyle back in Durban, she considered herself lucky to have briefly experienced ‘a life without inhibitions’.

After her stint in the Himalayas, she finally returned to civilization. Her first stop was Delhi, and the first order of business was a nice, long pedicure. Lulled by the luxuries of city life, the last thing on her mind was surviving a natural disaster. But life had other plans in store for her.

A few hours before she was supposed to step on a flight back to South Africa, Khan found herself stuck in a strange apartment, with an earthquake on its way.

“A big earthquake was coming and this building was going to fall and I was going to die inside and everyone at home was going to say, See, this is why girls are not allowed to travel alone. They die in earthquakes in strangers’ apartments.”

The chapter definitely kept the pages turning, as Khan writes of her ordeal with a certain urgency which also comes across as vulnerable at the same time. This is where readers truly see the small girl from Durban evolve into a strong, independent woman, who can stand her own ground.

After her time in India, Khan travels to a host of other cities — New York, Spain, Istanbul, Shanghai, and New Mexico, among others. Each city unveils a new story and a new adventure. While regaling readers with her strange and wonderful anecdotes, she also introspects on life, culture, relationships and humanity, offering a fresh perspective on society’s varied shades.

Humans long for a life filled with adventure, connection and excitement, and the way Khan portrays this yearning in her book is quite soul-stirring. Not only do we see fragments of her glamorous life as a celebrity author, but we are also made privy to her raw moments of insecurity and doubt.

Taking the road less travelled is easier said than done. Survival instincts ask us to stick to familiarity and safety. In these times, it would do well to remember that the world is our oyster. With this book, Khan imparts some invaluable life lessons through the powerful story of a girl who came from humble beginnings — take risks, step off the edge and live life to the fullest, before it passes you by.

(Nikita Ann Varghese is a journalist with The Hindu BusinessLine)

Published on October 31, 2021

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