Sunday, January 10, 2010

Home Run

This appeared in yesterday's The Indian Express.


Voice. Often, it’s the attribute that sets the talented novelist apart from the merely competent: the ability to communicate in a style that's distinctive and wholly of a piece with the material. From the opening paragraph of debutant H.M. Naqvi's Home Boy, you know that this is an author who has it in spades. This is the story of Ali Chaudhry, Jamshed Khan and Shehzad – “AC, Jimbo and me” - three young men of Pakistani origin adrift in the United States after 9/11.

Shehzad, the narrator, known as Chuck, is an NYU literature student-turned-investment banker-turned rookie cab driver; Jimbo is a DJ; and AC is a PhD student on a sabbatical. The plot is set in motion when they set out in Chuck’s taxi from New York City to the Connecticut home of a missing associate, Mohammed Shah, a.k.a. the Shaman, described as “a Pakistani Gatsby” (the reference to Fitzgerald's hero is entirely intentional). This triggers off a chain of events that leads to the trio’s incarceration for “terrorist leanings”. Very quickly, the paranoid mood of New York City after that fateful September morning transforms them from “boulevardiers, raconteurs, renaissance men” into “Japs, Jews, Niggers”. Upon his release, Chuck -- all messed up with no place to go – is forced to re-evaluate his life in the United States and forge new relationships.

The word used by the three musketeers to describe themselves is “metrostani”, and this could well be used to describe Naqvi’s sentences, too. “Metrostani”: the word also echoes the title of another debut novel, Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani, with which Home Boy has more of an affinity than with that other 9/11 novel by another writer from Pakistan, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

This is prose with panache, culturally au courant and with an eye for the absurd - a cross between early Jay McInerney and Gary Shteyngart, with subcontinental seasoning. It incorporates underground music, fashion and intoxication-producing substances as well as an Agha Shahid Ali translation of lines by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and home-cooked dishes of seekh kabab and biryani. At times it’s mordantly witty (“Just as three Jews were a conspiracy, three Muslims were a sleeper cell”); at times it’s part-knowledgeable, part-ironic (“Attempting to hail a cab on Columbus at half past eight in the morning is like trying to get a reservation at that sushi joint in Tribeca at half past eight in the evening”).

None of this should be taken to mean that the book is without a disturbing poignancy. Shadows lengthen as the narrative progresses and Chuck experiences the underside of the immigrant dream: when societies feel threatened, outsiders in their midst are looked upon with exaggerated suspicion and even hostility.

Some of the book's vigour peters out in the second half, when the narrator loses touch with his two friends and is left to his own devices. Then again, every so often there's a touch of polemic that surfaces, sometimes during Chuck’s interrogation and sometimes during dinner discussions on liberty and equality.The craft, however, is sustained throughout: take, for instance, the reverse-flip last chapter written entirely in second person. Home Boy, then, scores a home run, not least for its narrative brio. Please welcome Mr Naqvi to the already-impressive roster of novelists from Pakistan writing in English.

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