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


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