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Tragedy of being a Pakistani - Arkesh Ajay - The Sunday Indian
 
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Book Review: Home Boy

Tragedy of being a Pakistani

 

ARKESH AJAY | New Delhi, June 6, 2011 12:23
Tags : Tragedy | pakistani | home boy | book review | united states | |
 

Author: H M Naqvi
Publisher: Harper Collins
Language: English
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 288
ISBN-10: 0307409102
ISBN-13: 978-0307409102

One of the most prominent questions which would visit the reader while reading this author is a question reverberating across the literary universe – whay are so many Pakistanis producing so much good work in English literature with such consistent regularity. The answer may be simplified to – it’s a country in political and social gyre. Or may be attempted to be found through the two hundred and sixteen pages of “Home Boy”.

It’s a tale of three electric Pakistani men in America at the most critical juncture of the latter’s modern history; but it’s much more than just that. It is also an investigation into the socio-cultural shift that this country, so proud of its “liberty”, faced in a post 9-11 world. It is also a Huckleberry Finn to Chuck, its narrator, a bildungsroman whereby he matures to realize what and how his world is, and where “home” truly is. It is a lot more than even these, as the reader would surely find out, but most significantly it is a chronicle of the changed Muslim identity in a changed America, and how inhumane it all is.

Shehzad, or the aforementioned Chuck, is an immigrant into America (education-job routine, except that his life surely is not that- routine), leaving behind a widowed mother in Karachi. He begins by taking us through the free-living, coke-snorting, carousing, and most importantly doing it all like an American, way of living that he and his two friends AC (Ali Chaudry) and Jimbo (Jamshed) are ensconced in. All three men – characters of immense warmth, created with definitely some degree of biography into them – are true New Yorkers, at ease with the city, its geography, its entire being. The way Chuck visits his city in words is how one can only visit a lover’s body in one’s most private thoughts; and every time the reader comes across him talking about it, it is all too apparent that this is where his “home” is, where he believes he belongs to.

AC, a maverick academic who sometimes works on his doctorate and sometimes teaches at Bronx to get by, is a polymath. A certain roguishness to his character lends further to his unhinged charm, and he is quite a hit with everybody, especially the women. Jimbo, a Pushtun deejay, is a bona fide American, born in New Jersey, where his father the “old man Khan” still lives with his sister, the pretty “Amo”. He speaks the Americana, has a proper American girlfriend, and is quite the part as the free-floating American youth. Our narrator too has, over the few years by the calendar that he has spent in America, become a true blue New Yorker, with all its paraphernalia. And then one fine morning, two planes ram into a couple of buildings that were quite the symbols of America’s free market economy that makes it what it is, and everything changes.

It begins as much a tragedy to them as to other Americans. It was a criminal act, by some Saudi terrorists, and our three protagonists suffered it seemingly from the outside, except for the fact that Chuck’s previous office, from where he was fired during recession, was in one of the towers that went down. But then as American paranoia settled in, and prejudice took centre-stage, all things brown and Muslim were painted by the same brush. And suddenly, they found themselves across the fence, on the other side as America, branded terrorists even before an investigation, and as Chuck put it, “no matter what I did, I couldn’t change the way I was perceived”, they really couldn’t do anything but suffer the spectacle of their tragedy.

Suddenly they were the outsiders, our “homeboys”, a discovery Chuck makes through a local news channel’s reportage about a Pakistani man being deported, an eventuality created by the virtue of his being “at the wrong place, at the wrong time”. Eventually, we’d realize that so are these three men, when they seek out to Connecticut in search of their disappeared compatriot ‘the Shaman’. What takes-off from there is a tour through the police cars and Metropolitan Detention Centre, a tour which visits the cruelties – both physical and mental –  inflicted by an insecure and angry administration, ironically even on its own citizens, merely because they shared the same skin colour and religion as the loonies who blew up the trade towers. All this is brilliantly pitched against the back-drop of a proclamation by the American president that “this will be an age of liberty”. And this tour ends at different destinations for each of our protagonists.

Places, where a few days before it all happened, they would have never thought they would end up in. Tragedies have a unique way of transporting you back to other tragedies you may have suffered, and we find that in his thoughts and dreams, Chuck keeps going back to his father’s death, probably the deep sense of loss connecting the two incidents. We also catch a glimpse of his life back in Karachi, and get introduced to his mother, a quietly graceful and yet so strong woman. And as we travel through Karachi’s streets, the South Asian reader will surely smile more than once, at familiar incidents such as the accident when Chuck was being given driving lessons by his mother. The author sketches a very poignant and emotionally alive story of Chuck’s growing up days, and it surely is one of the high points of this novel.

All of the above is, in any case, a heart-breaking story, and from any other author would still be a compelling read. It may even have been dealt in more political depth by Naqvi’s other compatriots. But what makes this work shine through the otherwise brilliant constellation of recent Pakistani prose, is the author’s narration. Or in other words, his language. Forgive me for saying it, but if Faiz would have ever recited at a slam poets’ club, this is how it would have read. It is absolute word-wizardry, a gazal written in slang, rap, hip-hop street lingo. Naqvi has a tremendous visual quality to his writing, and when you read this novel, you would often see it at the same time. And he has humour, a sharp, often dark way of making you laugh, and a wit which assures of the fact that this is one author you are sure to return to, as and when he decides to return to the bookshelves. Though this novel is a drive up the Webster-Google alley, so keep the internet handy. His style not only gives his literature its honesty and originality, but also a sense of immediacy and contemporariness. He always conveys a sense of tragedy or an impending one, throughout the pages, and you can really feel the fear and despair of the people in this story – he also manages to lend his characters a life, and you’d often feel either like them or knowing someone like them.

While the reader is busy enchanted by his magical weavings, chances are that he’d not even notice when Naqvi breaks a few ignorant stereotypes of Pakistani Muslims for us. While in old man Khan, we have a clear feminist; in Amo we have a woman who chooses the hijab as a sartorial weapon against the hypocrisy of sexual politics teenagers face. And while through Chuck’s getting “weirded out” by the same hijab, we realize that not all Muslims men are soldiering on for what we from the outside consider the ‘norm’, through AC’s words the author brings home the truth, that often even history attempts to cover, that Islam is a “violent and bastard religion”, as much as, say, “Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism”, and that men have “been killing and maiming in the name of God since the dawn of time”, even the ones who are quick to brand others’ religions as primitive and sinister. The author also points out that there are Muslim men, whose “Jihad” is to create “heaven on earth”, often by activities as benign as tending to flowers.

But for me the pinnacle of the entire argument lies wrapped in a neat paragraph tucked in the latter half of the book. While answering a question from his interviewer, an American gentleman, as to “how are things over there” in Pakistan, Chuck sums up what it has been ‘over there’ for the people who have been living there all these years of continuous strife of one kind or the other – “there’s a war on our border, again. There’ll be an exodus of refugees and fighters, again, an influx of drugs and arms. We’ve had a war on our border, on and off, for the last thirty years. We live in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the world: we’re bordered by Afghanistan on the north, a collection of warring fiefdoms, then there’s nuclear aspirant and fundamentalist Iran to the west, and on the east there’s India, a country with a million-man standing army. The United States is lucky that way. You’ve got Canada, Mexico and the sea.” Most of the world is lucky that way. As Pakistan becomes just a cog in the wheels of other more powerful nations’ political ambitions, it is her people who suffer at the hands of an unsympathetic world. If you don’t feel for Pakistan this way, begin to. If you still can’t, read “Home Boy”, it will make you to.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017