Trauma in still waters

Trauma in still waters

Trauma in still waters

Home boy
H M Naqvi
HarperCollins, 2009, pp 216,
Rs 399

More than halfway through Home Boy, I felt a sense of deja vu. There’d been an instant in the London tube when everyone’s attention had seemed rivetted on me. No one was actually looking, but that’s how it felt. It was a particularly tense time with the city reviewing and reliving the 9/11 fear after two and a half years, and Asians with beards looked invitingly suspicious.

Cut to the States. Naqvi’s Chuck is jailed for being Muslim at the wrong time. After his release, he rides in a train and undergoes an eerily similar experience. Earlier, he remembers what a friend had told him about being black in the US of A. “When a big white guy moves quickly, people laugh, but when a big black guy moves quickly, they take cover: mothers fear for their children, I’ve seen cops reach for their batons.”
Chuck, who’d imagined at the time that it was misunderstanding and “misplaced sensitivity,” realises the horrible truth of it after his own harassment and arrest. What’s true for the Black is magnified now for the Muslim in America, and there’s no misunderstanding.

There’s an easiness to the narrative that even 9/11 cannot shake, so mutedly is the incident introduced. It is only when the ramifications impinge on the lives of its characters that Home Boy reveals its true gravity.

Naqvi is a serious writer, and an effective one. In the rush of 9/11 literature, his is a singular voice that tells a story allowing a slow influence of political events, rather than foregrounding the terrorist attack and building a story around it. It is essentially a coming of age story, the saga of a trio of Pakistani youths coming up against unexpected reality the hard way. Chuck (Shehzad), Jimbo (Jamshed) and AC (Ali Chaudhry) weave in and out of each other’s lives — a confused cabbie recently laid-off from banking and our raconteur; a hefty Pathan DJ with a soft heart; and a rapper-academic with an embarrassing tongue and an affinity for narcotics — until their relationship is further cemented by the insidious effects of the terrorist attack.

Chuck (his name traceable to an amusing baby tale, and more onomatopoeic than American) gives us the story. He has a godmother in his mother’s old school-friend Minnie, who’s also AC’s sister; and he has an eye on Aamna, Jimbo’s attractive sister, who lives a train journey away with her father — the bombastic widower Old Man Khan whose ailing heart is still firmly lodged in the old world. Jimbo, a gentle giant, has this problem: that his father will never accept him getting married to Dora (the Duck), a “masculine woman with a belly” from “East Coast aristocracy.”

These are mild everyday problems and proclivities that keep them going. When the defining moment arrives, it does so as casually as everything else, so it’s with growing dread that we realise what we’ve come to.

They drive to Connecticut to investigate the disappearance of the Shaman (Mohammed Shah), “an American success story, a Pakistani Gatsby.” As they wait for him in his house, breaking in and helping themselves to his presumed hospitality, they are picked up by the FBI. Even this happens by accident. The officers, satisfied with their explanation, turn to leave, but an unfortunate twirl lands the trio in trouble.

Naqvi has a grip on words; his language grows and carries us through moods and nuances, guiding without ostentation. He builds his characters subtly, through a moment here, a description there, and before we know it, we know them. The patina of poetic objectivity remains until the end, but after the traumatic incident, the insides of his narration are exposed, offering us a range of emotions, heightened feelings of family, terror, despair, elation, relief and great humour.

He succeeds in creating an All-American scene, working out his milieu in detail. His main characters, all of Pakistani origin, blend into the American way of life while adhering to the rites and rituals of their roots.

And therein lay my grouse, that the story of a Pakistani boy come lately to New York should be told like any other American story using purely American markers and references, the Pakistani ethos being seen as though through the wrong end of a telescope. Just a niggling thought that the master débutante soon laid to rest. Naqvi (though this may be a personal reading) sets his tightly localised stage, places his ‘different’ characters, and then goes on to show the precariousness of that setting — a single devastating event can unhinge its stability. It’s more a message for America than its new settlers.

Without throwing up spoilers it isn’t easy to comment on how he works this through, but the ending is different from what we expect, and yet, come to think of it, nothing else could have worked in the even tenor of Naqvi’s narration. When two of the boys are released and things are getting better all the way, we feel an undercurrent of uneasiness. Surely we aren’t up for a fairy-tale ending! Naqvi doesn’t disappoint. Without uncharacteristic drama, he takes us safely home, his conclusion becoming resolution as well as comment.

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