Thursday, October 06, 2011

'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.


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