Thursday, October 06, 2011

Identity crisis

Imagine this: A Pakistani-American woman is in the trenches of emotional downturn because her eight-year-old relationship has come to an end, at precisely the same moment she loses her job as a lower-rung-but-destined-for-bigger-things White House official, returns to her parents and is yet to get over her boyfriend. This sure sounds like run-of-the-mill chick lit for Pakistani diaspora and is, in fact, the crux of Welcome To Americastan. But Jabeen Akhtar’s debut is not a paint-by-numbers novel, nor is her central character Samira, whose dual nationality alludes to the portmanteau in the title: Pakistan and America.

Owing to an unfortunate sequence of events, Samira finds herself at her parents’ place in Cary, North Carolina. Her father, a Pakistani immigrant who made it from rags to riches, expects his children – Samira, her elder brother Khalid and younger sister Meena – to follow his path of rectitude. This being the age of Xboxes and indefatigable texting, the kids are obviously getting debauched. The book’s most silently imposing character is the mother, who has this Mrs Dalloway-ish obsession of getting her kids married.

Akhtar’s initial masterstroke has to be her choice of Cary. Most novels about Pakistani diaspora are set in big cities like New York or London and, truth be told, barring Mohsin Hamid’s fabulous Reluctant Fundamentalist, most of these books harp on the same issue: the all-pervasive xenophobia. No wonder that is a lightning rod, but Jabeen’s novel shows that the Pakistani-Americans actually live in harmony, if you go into the bowels of US. In Welcome To Americastan the Pakistanis do not get hostile looks from the white and blend seamlessly into the society. When I met Akhtar a few days ago, she mentioned Garrison Keillor among her literary influences. Cary is more or less similar to Keillor’s fictional town of Lake Wobegon: everyone is above average. So, don’t start playing Arcade Fire’s helplessly elegiac “The Suburbs” just because the novel is set in the suburbia.
This novel is not candyfloss either. None of the characters is shallow and all are well fleshed-out. Samira’s relationship with her siblings is heartfelt and their banter is lively. There’s an undercurrent of l’esprit d’escalier (“staircase wit”) throughout the novel that helps it veer away from the obvious, on most occasions. When Samira tells an American that she’s a Pakistani, she sums up an inadvertent momentary silence that follows as, “With trained patience, I waited for him to pass through the three stages typically experiences by someone coming face-to-face with a Pakistani: first, disbelief that someone from the world’s most notorious brown country located way on the other side of the planet somehow ended up in the same room as you; next, fear and a little excitement that this Pakistani could have illicit ties to recent national and international news events; and lastly, the formulation and subsequent airing of a bone-headed comment.”

The novel is worth your time for more such penetrating insights into the lives of Pakistanis (or those from the subcontinent for that matter) living abroad. There are a few sub-plots that involve the apprehension of getting married to a beloved, catfighting, infidelity, the entire rigmarole of hooking up with someone rank unknown and even global terrorism. The author deserves to be appreciated for her storytelling sleight-of-hand for enmeshing these many themes into a coherent narrative. Even the trickiest situation is rescued by the strangely ironic humour that Jabeen manages to infuse. “For Pakistanis, everyone in the population falls into two categories — kids and parents… If you’re nineteen years old and have a husband and kid, you belong with the grown-ups. If you’re twenty-seven like me and not married-with-children, you’re in the ‘kids’ category.”

A minor bump in this otherwise rollicking ride of a novel is the reams of pages dedicated to a hideously titled association, Pakistani American Council for Political Action Committee, headed by Samira’s father and other venerable males of the community. The novel gets stagnant whenever this committee starts discussing how to make the Pakistanis an active part of American society. Another tiny bit jarring aspect of the novel is the lack of social networking and smartphone culture. No one talks about a tweet or a Facebook update, hard to digest considering how the attention span of Americans is shrinking owing to the fire hose of mindless information that is peddled as gold on these sites. But then, the reader needs to recall what Warren Buffett once said, “Internet will not change the way we chew the gum.”

Welcome To Americastan is definitely not the zeitgeist-defining novel for the American diaspora and it never intends to be so. At most, it’s chick lit for those who hate chick lit, which, make no mistake, is an achievement. And neither is the author a Jonthan Franzen-lite (the most obscure cultural reference in the novel is to Roger Waters’ personal life). Having said that, Jabeen Akhtar is one of those rare and gifted people who seem biologically incapable of doing anything that isn’t incredibly funny.

Jabeen Akhtar
268 pages; Rs 499

'In the US, Pakistan is hot'

For almost two years Jabeen Akhtar, a Pakistani-American novelist, led a Jekyll And Hyde existence to flesh out her canter of a debut novel, Welcome to Americastan. “After my day job writing and publishing federal regulations for the US Environmental Protection Agency, I would come home and write during the evening and night. I didn’t tell anyone that I was writing this novel. I just did it,” she tells me one splendid sunny morning at the café of Mumbai’s Hotel Astoria. Eventually, she left her cushy job and gave herself a year to write a novel about a young woman in the sleepy town of Cary, North Carolina.

Why Cary? Why not Washington, DC, where she did her undergraduate and master’s degrees (at George Mason University) and worked for seven years? “There have been a lot of books talking about the immigrants living in big cities like New York and the constant ethnic tension that they live through. I wanted to write about the thousands and thousands of middle-class Pakistanis living comfortably in the suburban US,” says the 37-year-old.
Her book revolves around one such family. DC-based 27-year-old Samira returns to her parents’ home in Cary due to a series of dramatic events. What transpires over the next four months is what keeps the reader on tenterhooks. With the range of themes involved in the novel — including infidelity, defiance of parents, casual sex, homosexuality, a tinge of Muslim terrorism, catfights, hopeless romance, xenophobia, racism — it’s a mindbending task to shoehorn Welcome To Americastan into any definite genre. “How about The Reluctant Fundamentalist for Candace Bushnell fans?” I hasten to ask her. She laughs and says, “It is just a comedy. I’ll be glad if I have accurately portrayed the Pakistani lifestyle in the suburbs. I was very clear at the outset that my novel is not going to change the world.”

This novel may not be “revolutionary”, but some of its aspects may be a revelation for readers unfamiliar with its milieu. At a time when many fathers in Pakistan resort to abominations like honour killings, Samira’s parents are extremely liberal with her and her two siblings Khalid and Meena. Samira is never pushed to get married and her father, a self-made man, always asks her to concentrate on a career instead of settling for the banalities of conjugal life.

This prompted me to ask Jabeen if Samira’s trajectory is somehow inspired from her own: a job in DC, super supportive parents. “The novel is certainly inspired by people I know from close quarters, and every author’s first novel is largely autobiographical,” is her safe answer.

There’s a scene in the novel in which Samira is subjected to racism in a retail store. For a minor mistake of hers an American customer tells her, “Welcome to Americastan,” obviously ignorant of the fact that Samira is as American as she is. What is the typical American perception of a Pakistani? “Pakistan is a hot topic in the US for all the wrong reasons,” she says. “But Americans don’t know who Pakistanis are. The moment you say you are a Pakistani, you are looked at as a celebrity,” she says.

Looking at the way Pakistani youngsters have been portrayed in the novel, as more American than the Americans, I ask Akhtar whether the ABCD (American-Born Confused Desi) syndrome is on the wane. “Definitely,” she says. “The Pak Gen X is no longer confused. Owing to the Internet, the second-generation children have a firmer footing in the country now. Technology allows you to talk to anyone in any part of the world and that has gone a long way in bridging the gap between American and Pakistani youth.”

More than anything, Akhtar is chuffed to bits over the fact that she stuck to her stand instead of pandering to the American publishing industry’s stereotypes about the country. “Since [the book] was about Pakistan I was asked to make my tale ‘tragic and exotic’ and bring out the ‘ugly truths’.” As a reader, I am happy too that she didn’t let anyone mangle with a guilty pleasure that never made me feel guilty.

Boys in the hood

In its searing editorial the New Statesman magazine described the recent riots in Britain thus: “The looting was, on one level, pure nihilism; on another, it was a crude attempt by rioters to mimic the conspicuous consumption exercised by the affluent and credit-rich.”

To understand the unholy chaos that rages within the hearts of urban poor youth and how they have been disenfranchised by globalisation you can do far worse than picking up Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat.

Knight, a journalist, brings to life (and how!) his two-year experience of being embedded with police units in inner-city London, Manchester and Glasgow. He handpicked a phalanx of characters whom he encountered and documented their lives, albeit with fictional names. In Manchester, Anders Svensson, a silver-tongued detective, has taken it upon himself to rid the city of drug baron Merlin and his lieutenant Flow. The reader is witness to the harrowing and pointless life of a detective. Svensson gets his high from arrests but it dissipates soon enough when the peddler is back on the streets after successfully evading the rightful course of law.
In London, Knight’s focus shifts towards Pilgrim, a Jamaican, who immigrated to London and is well on his way to becoming the poster child of gang violence. After Pilgrim is shoved into a jail for six years, 14-year-old Troll, a Somali, takes over and his gang of miscreants continues Pilgrim’s macabre job. Then Pilgrim finishes his sentence and finds himself back in the mix. That’s when he has an epiphany — that a gangster’s sell-by date is very short. In this story, the inner-city drug abuse and the vagaries of wasted childhoods are seen at their brutal best. The Punjabi junkies in Southall represent the book’s most miserable lot. This is something Bollywood should bring to light rather than churning out trash like I- Proud To Be An Indian and Patiala House.

The third part of Knight’s sprawling triptych takes place in Glasgow, where detective chief superintendent Karyn McCluskey has lot of sweeping changes in her mind to rid the city of its embarrassing statistic: the highest murder rate in Europe. Square-eyed readers might find parallels for Merlin and flow in the characters of Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell in the brilliant HBO series The Wire — there are too many coincidences to ignore. Merlin is brash like Avon while Flow has just the kind of brains that Stringer does. What McCluskey sets out to do is uncannily similar to what Major Colvin does to the kids in Baltimore. The British ghetto lingo is more or less similar to what is shown in Baltimore (the setting of The Wire). But then, be it Bradford or Baltimore, the cokeheads and druglords tend to be the same in the Western world.

Not the cops, though. It was a huge rebuke to the Metropolitan Police when British Prime Minister David Cameron asked the American supercop Bill Bratton to help overhaul a demoralised police force and to cut crime. The adage that “the police are the public and the public are the police” is seemingly forgotten these days and Hood Rat is a timely reminder. The way McCluskey tries to instill sense into the kids and stop them from taking the road to cocaine is a harbinger of hope in these desperate times. Svensson’s indefatigable attempts at handholding gangsters to a better future show that all is not lost, yet.

Hood Rat has nothing particularly new to offer to readers who are acquainted with Sudhir Venkatesh’s masterly Gang Leader for a Day and movies like This Is England and, of course, The Wire. What, however, sets Hood Rat apart is Knight’s direct and stop-you-in-your-tracks kind of writing. “These girls have bought into the image of gang life that rappers like 50 Cent or Akon present, where women are treated like princesses, driven in Aston Martinis and Playboy cigarette speedboats and bought expensive presents. But the reality isn’t like that. The reality is being chased by the police, ten men from the Tactical Support Group in visors and helmets charging in the front door of your council house at 5 a m. Being beaten, being left alone for days,” Svensson says about the vagaries of ghetto life.

Another high point of Hood Rat is its humour, which is as dry as striking two sticks to light a fire. “A twelve-year-old cannot wait to step up, shoot a general and get a reputation for himself. It’s like X Factor,” muses Svensson about the really young demographics of the criminals. This unflinching book gets so cinematic at times that you might wonder where your popcorn has gone. A few chases are so vividly described that the reader will inadvertently feel a part of the proceedings. On the flip side, the book doesn’t throw any new light on the problem of inner city crime, apart from a few terms that are limited to respective police organisations. It tends to drag at times as well. But then, it lives up to the Kafka golden rule: “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?” Do remember to play “Way Down In The Hole” by Tom Waits when you are peering through this eye-opening window into a world of absolutely no hope.

Gavin Knight
298 pages

Reading between the lines

Halfway through Noon, the sophomore novel by Aatish Taseer, I was almost tempted to call it a post-modern joke. Many questions were unanswered: is this the fiction equivalent of a mockumentary where the writer’s memoir masquerades as fiction? Is this novel a parlour game for the Indian and Pakistani gentry, who are supposed to read between the lines and guess who’s who in reality? Will Aatish Taseer continue to mine his own past to write fiction?

A golden rule about enjoying a work of fiction as laid down by D H Lawrence is to “trust the novel, not the novelist”. Fair enough. It’s common knowledge that at some level every writer generously pilfers from his or her personal experiences. But Noon is cut with a different cloth: Taseer talks about his parents through Rehan Tabassum, a love child of Udaya Singh and Sahil Tabassum. Taseer had a not-so-idyllic childhood because his father Salman Taseer, a Pakistani politician who was assassinated earlier this year, never displayed any fatherly affection towards him. Rehan, too, has to deal with his father’s absence after Sahil deserts Udaya in London in the mid-80s.

I could have ignored these obvious similarities with Taseer’s personal life if Noon had been fiendishly compelling, which it mostly isn’t. Instead of exploring themes in some depth, the novel provides fleeting glimpses into various stages of young Rehan’s life. Right from his childhood in Delhi where an adoring grandmother takes care of him to a stint at his stepfather’s farmhouse to a visit to Sahil’s place in Pakistan, Taseer’s sharp gaze never overstays its welcome. Noon could be called a daring piece of fiction in as much as the writer chooses to leave many loose ends.
The slim novel also packs in myriad side-characters with brief, walk-on parts of little consequence: a typical single mother who is overprotective about her son, a gay uncle and his toy boy, a step-brother who ascribes his transgressions to his father’s overbearing presence, a Rajamata steeped in colonial delusions of grandeur, a step-father who is desperate to gain entrance into the noble class, a servant desperate to prove his loyalty under trying circumstances. Taseer needs to be commended for his portrayal of human foibles. Every character is inherently self-righteous but it’s their mean side, which also happens to be more human, that shines through.

For instance, Rehan imagines what might happen if his servant Kalyan is convicted of theft, a thought that coincides with the arrival of Kalyan’s family at the farmhouse: “I had to stop myself from thinking of their (the family) disappointment and fear on that same Uttarakhand Roadways bus, heavy with the smell of diesel, coiling its way back through unlit mountain roads to the place from where it came… I thought, if India was the sort of country where college essays were written about such things, Kalyan’s son might grow up to write one about this visit to the capital… And where would I be in such an essay? A small player in the background, a figure of fun perhaps, denied even the dignity of a villain.”

I got my Jonathan Franzen rush when Rehan muses about his ambivalent relationship with Sahil: “We had blood and almost nothing else in common.” Taseer’s charming disdain for the schmooze fests is apparent, “And like this, the diplomatic circle closed around Mahapatra, bringing an atmosphere of great cheer and congeniality to the recently moribund gathering.” Rehan reflects Taseer’s sensitive side: “Servants didn’t have birthdays or zodiac signs; their age and the places they had lived and grown up in didn’t matter.”

Sadly, Taseer’s canvas is way too big and he crumbles under the weight of it. The journalist in him (he worked for Time and Prospect magazines) probably tempts him to weave many events into the narrative – the Kashmir earthquake, London bombings, Musharraf’s presidency – without really adding any value to it. His understanding of the new India is more or less generic. Here’s a description of his stepfather’s obsession with technology, “wireless Internet, a modern gym, flat screens and DVD players, Tata Sky and dark-brown plug points capable of taking the plugs of the world.” Taseer describes a loyal employee as “the most bendable unbending man I ever knew!”. There are more such vapid descriptions that help Noon’s abstract plot progress roughly at the same pace as a glacier.

V S Naipaul hailed Taseer as “a young writer to watch”. That endorsement should have come from anyone but Sir Vidia. After all, early in his career he rejected Trinidad as a viable creative place and decided to “withdraw completely from nationality and loyalties except to persons”. His corpulent work has a girth that extends from Gabon to India. It might not merit a comparison here but both Taseer’s novels (The Temple-Goers was set in Delhi) are set more or less in his comfort zone — England, India and Pakistan. While that’s no crime, Taseer should withdraw from his narcissistic navel-gazing self and attempt something different.

It’s said that everyone has one book in him or her, and if that’s true Taseer has done that. Let’s hope that from now on he puts wonderful writing talent to better use.

Aatish Taseer
Fourth Estate
238 pages

Lethal moves

It’s a fool’s task to try to make sense of Bobby Fischer, the man who juxtaposed weird and wondrous like no one else. He was and remains the youngest ever US chess champion, and in 1972 he did what was thought impossible: he ended the Soviet Union’s 24-year stranglehold on the World Chess Championship. After that, he descended into what appears to have been a bottomless pit of anti-Semitism and mindless fulmination against the world. A biography by Frank Brady, Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall, and an HBO documentary, Bobby Fischer Against the World, flesh out this enigmatic figure.

With his credentials — he was founding editor of Chess Life magazine and deeply involved with the Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan, where Fischer hung out as a youngster — Brady is au fait with every cobble along Fischer’s path as he went, to quote the second half of the book’s subtitle, “From America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness”.

Fischer was born in Chicago in 1943 to Regina (Jewish) and Hans-Gerhardt Fischer (non-Jewish). His penchant for chess became apparent at age six: he would analyse chess games and try to replicate them in his own game. With constant self-training, Fischer scaled peak after new peak and grew increasingly unbeatable. An early triumph of Brady’s biography is a beautifully written description of the 13-year-old Fischer’s game against Donald Byrne, a former US champion, at an invitational tournament.

In describing this game, dubbed “the game of the century”, Brady's prose so effectively rises to the occasion that one begins to imagine a cross between Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway. These four pages will gain a death grip on the reader.

But this nearly flawless book has one dark spot: the Cold War-era Boris Spassky-versus-Bobby Fischer duel in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972. Brady gives it plenty of colour but does not offer a fly-on-the-wall account of the game. That void is filled by the HBO documentary, which gives a blow-by-blow account of the game, with insight into all the machinations and diplomatic wrangling, and Fischer’s clever brinkmanship. Just before the match was to begin, Fischer made many complaints, about everything from the location to the prize money.

* * * * *

For a better understanding of Fischer, one needs to know that when it came to money, Fischer could make Ebenezer Scrooge look open-handed. At one point it looked as if the Spassky-Fischer duel would never see the light of the day, thanks to Fischer’s incredibly petty financial objections. What put it back on track was an intervention from Henry Kissinger, no less.

Bobby Fischer Against the World, the documentary film, uses talking heads throughout rather than a running voiceover. Its portrayal of the Spassky-Fischer match is a cinematic tour-de-force. Director Liz Garbus’s use of archival footage will put cinéma vérité techniques to shame.

In his biography, Brady revels in describing the aftermath of that iconic duel. What has up to this point read like a hagiography suddenly shows signs of turning into a hatchet job. Here, as the book tells it, was a shy, unassuming, reclusive, well-mannered young man who suddenly morphed into a colossal egotist — eccentric, inconsiderate and intransigent.

After the Reykjavik match, Fischer spent two decades — widely known as the Wilderness Years — immured in a room not much larger than a chessboard, in Pasadena, California. He devoured anti-Semitic literature and made venomous statements about Jews. The floodgates really opened when Fischer defied a US embargo on Yugoslavia in 1992, imposed because of the ethnic war there, to participate in a rematch of the 1972 classic. What’s more, he spat on the official US letter that informed him about the conditions of the embargo. Ultimately he had to give up his American citizenship. What followed was a quixotic, peripatetic lifestyle.

Ever more convinced of (non-existent) Israeli and Russian conspiracies, Fischer turned into a paranoiac. He developed outlandish, even deranged fears: he suspected the Soviets could affect his mind by sending radio signals through the metal in his teeth; he feared a KGB assassination plot. He grew more unhinged with time. Just after 9/11, while America reeled from the most lethal terrorist attack in modern history, Fischer’s schadenfreude towards his former nation excited only repulsion: “Cry, you crybabies!” he said. “Whine, you bastards! Now your time is coming.”

The best thing about Brady’s book is that he realises that Fischer’s genius and his mental illness were closely connected. That is why Brady never expresses his opinion of Fischer, even though he is well acquainted with his subject. Brady also depicts Fischer’s final three years in Reykjavik well. From Fischer’s daily routine to his reading predilections, Brady gets the details and presentation right. If ever a course is taught on how to write warts-and-all biography, Brady’s unflinching book should be at the heart of the curriculum.

Why is Islamophobia okay?

Recently, fashion designer John Galliano and film-maker Lars von Trier faced a lot of opprobrium for their anti-Semitic rants. Galliano’s drunken remarks at a Parisian pub got him sacked from Christian Dior and Lars von Trier was banned from the Cannes Film Festival. In this age of social networking and reduced attention spans, is anti-Semitism really that important a stand? In his book The Freedom To Be Racist?, writer Erik Bleich says: “There are people who hold anti-Semitic views, but they generally don’t hold them intensely. They don’t fear that Jews are going to threaten their livelihood or culture or any of the things that people truly worry about.”

Still, anti-Semitism is somehow deemed equal to anti-humanity. That begs a question that why is Islamophobia allowed to thrive? Dutch politician Geert Wilders is furthering his political ambitions not by any brilliant reforms but through his unbridled hatred for Islam. So much so that he called Koran a “fascist book”, which should be banned in the Netherlands, like Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And Wilders got away with his rant because it didn’t deal with Jews.

Muslims are being oppressed in various ways. In her novel Welcome To Americastan, Jabeen Akhtar mentions how the FBI Terror Watch list contains “names of two-year-old kids. Names of dead people. People complaining about finding their names on the list and not knowing how they got on there”. That constant fear among Muslims is getting more and more visceral. We hear stories about Muslims shaving off their long beards and having cropped hair to assimilate with others and not raise any ‘suspicion’. The Western world is turning into a liberal Taliban if its constant raiding of madrasas and banning of burkhas is any indication. So ruthless is the stereotyping that the first image that strikes of any venerable looking man in long beard and skull cap is that maybe he spends half of his time in the Tora Bora caves. The recent tenth-anniversary of 9/11 was a huge slap on the extremists’ face, thanks to gunning down of Osama. However, the slap could have been tighter if only The Cordoba House project was okayed.

Last year, when a 13-floor Islamic center was proposed to be built three blocks away from Ground Zero, the 9/11 venue, there was an unprecedented hue and cry. In his piece for Financial Times, Basharat Peer wrote, “The Cordoba House project will be a venue for reconciliation between Islam and the west, delivering a powerful rebuttal to the al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked the trade towers; opponents call it an offence to the memory of those who died in 2001.” Finally, the project was scrapped.

Don’t think I’m being insensitive towards the Jews. It pains me to no end when someone compares a crowded Mumbai local train ride to a concentration camp. The sheer facetiousness makes me cringe. But then if you go to the same Parisian pub where Galliano was indicted and add any number of expletives preceding the word Muslim, you’ll still be fine. After all, those one per cent of Muslims who are mindless enough to blow themselves up subsume the other 99 per cent.