Published in Jul-Aug 2023
The World’s Smallest Autobiography is indeed that – it fits into the palm of your hand and measures two-thirds of the width of a Rubik’s cube. Frickin’ Short Life is an autobiography in 268 short paragraphs and Khawar Salim calls it “Sinfully Alluring”.
The narrative starts with a brief introduction about the author, a Fine Arts graduate who stumbled upon a career in advertising after a chance meeting with a concept writer. The intro mentions his stints at Prestige (Grey) and IAL Saatchi & Saatchi and the accounts he worked on before starting his own design agency, Creative Workshop. This is followed by over a dozen reccos by people he worked with over the years.
Khawar Salim for the uninitiated was a bit of a rock star of the ad world for a while, an unabashedly bohemian creative and ace designer. When I joined IAL Saatchi & Saatchi, his name was spoken in near reverential tones even though he had left well over a decade earlier. Much later, a former client at a multinational who had worked with Khawar related how the brand team would pamper him to the extent of sending hot soup to his home when he was off sick. Yes, dear readers, there was a time such as this.
The story starts with his debilitating stroke and the mind-numbing monotony that followed; the frustration of not being able to move and the painstaking attempts to tap on his iPad again. The 268 short musings that follow are the prose version of a Haiku poem. Surreal and in staccato, much like the author’s own physical condition. It is bittersweet and poetic and startlingly honest – and the honesty is a breath of fresh air, in a society where façades are carefully constructed and cultivated.
There are surreal notes on his birth and the magical gift of life. Of his insatiable curiosity as a child chasing fireflies and butterflies, wanting to catch rainbows and vanishing shooting stars – the latter described as the flames thrown by angels to drive away the devil – and it is abundantly clear this was a person destined for a future in the creative world. It’s a pre-technology childhood where beetles are chased and the world is filled with colour, be it yellow sunrises or multi-coloured candy bought by the roadside.
Khawar filled his time by reading books and painting, two activities which he embraced again in later years. The idyllic years of youthful discovery are juxtaposed by painful reminders of poverty, misery and hunger, the existence of which was exacerbated by his father being laid off and a young Khawar vowing to turn the tide.
He excelled in school but a lack of English skills in college led to stress, depression and ulcers at the age of 18. A fertile imagination and an unrelenting desire for betterment got him through the worst of times. And judging by the writing in the book, English was well and truly conquered.
This is an incredible story of resilience against all odds and of a man who has lived life on his own terms and without regret. And he really did live life to the fullest. The loss of his father at an early age, the loss of his sister to cancer and finally the loss of his mother are painful memories and the recollections in pithy prose are especially poignant, perhaps because of the paucity of words used.
There are digressions into flirtations with mathematics, sacred geometry and gadgetry and a fleeting reference to creating the first computer two years before Steve Jobs. To point out the dual inaccuracies seems pointless and petty. One must forgive a creative imagination many things.
Whiskey and women are spoken of frequently. And the many lost loves, starting with a kindergarten teacher. Barring the last, the many romantic encounters and love affairs did not end well. The description of the women in his office as ‘gorgeous Barbie dolls’ is cringe-worthy, as is the dismissal of women complaining about men following them as “discount signs that attract buyers”; but it’s also a look into a world that once was, and should be taken in that light. The hedonism of his life is in fact almost quaint.
We are informed in passing that his maternal grandfather once predicted on the basis of a birth chart that Khawar would never marry by way of an explanation why he never did. The references to love, what it means in all its forms, are referenced intermittently throughout the autobiography. His friends Amir and Anwar are perhaps the only constants in his life; their homes in faraway LA and Berlin distant interludes of comfort. When he refers to the ruthlessness of life and the salve of intoxication, that joy is a momentary partner but sadness and alcohol are trusted companions, there is a palpable loneliness, a sense of loss, and for the reader a sense of a life of promise that journeyed down a path of darkness.
Despite having spent the better part of his life in advertising, there is very little insight into his experiences in the ad world of the eighties and nineties. The section on advertising is labelled “the utmost fun” and he credits the business with moulding him, from how he approached creativity, to the way he used words, how he spoke, and even the way he dressed.
And yes, the deadline was always yesterday. Good to know some things haven’t changed.
At the tail end of the book, he claims that he hates advertising, referring to it at one point as both a demanding and tempting wife who preaches what is less important, and at another point as a paranoid girlfriend clinging on to him. His profession is clearly a love affair gone awry; did it abandon him, or the other way around, we will never know. What we do know is that his first love, painting, has happily reclaimed him once again.
What stands out in this tiny tome is primarily a love of life, even at the stage where he has to learn to write again and is struggling to regain his mobility – “A little hope can create maddening ecstasy in dreadful silence.”
After travelling with Khawar on his labyrinthian journey, readers may find themselves sympathetic and conflicted. Perhaps even a little frustrated with the dense wordage. But the author’s will to live is inspiring, and his ability to bare his soul, enviable. In a world where every aspect of our lives is documented online and yet nothing is truly revealed, the short bursts of authenticity in this book are welcome.
The title of the book may be Frickin’ Short Life but it will leave the reader rooting for this particular life to be extended. And may the rest of us be a little more fearless.
Frickin’ Short Life: Sinfully Alluring (The World’s Smallest Autobiography)
By Khawar Salim
Published by The Castle Press, Anaheim, CA
480 pp., $21.99
Rashna Abdi is CEO, Vitamin C. firstname.lastname@example.org