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Book review of Home Boy: A Novel

Home Boy: A Novel
Author: by H.M. Naqvi

“We’d become Japs, Jews, Niggers. We weren’t before. We fancied ourselves boulevardiers, raconteurs, renaissance men…We were mostly self-invented and self-made…”

There are a few key events in human history that dwell in collective memory. The burden of these hangs heavily on all of us; Hiroshima, Vietnam, the Holocaust; we all have mourned for the atrocities committed. Some events such as the mutiny of 1857 remain localised, but nothing is lodged in the universal memory in the same way 9/11 is. This was the landmark atrocity to end all atrocities. It has been both a unifier and a divider; transforming the world we live in. Since then, artists, writers, musicians, pundits have been trying to make sense of the whole shebang. Some have been accused of capitalising on the tragedy by instantly producing some response to it. There are two sides: Us and Them. For us Pakistanis, the whole thing has been rife with contradiction, paradox and uncertainty. Some such as Mohsin Hamid’s protagonist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist admitted guiltily to a feeling that America was finally getting its own; the big bully was getting bullied after a history of violence that could put Changez Khan to shame.

Now, for many, borders have closed, boundaries more clearly demarcated, and the colour of our skin and hair has become an alarm signal. Pakistanis, in particular, have gone from being tolerated moderately in the US to becoming one of the most targetted nations in the world. Indians seem to fare no better, forget about APJ Abdul Kalam (Former Indian president) being frisked before boarding a flight to the US… Shahrukh Khan was detained at a US airport! Most stories, either in the form of cinema or fiction, have taken the angle of the Pakistani/Muslim man unwittingly led into a madrassah, turned into a fundo; Kamila Shamsie did it, Mohsin Hamid did it. The question on Western lips for the longest time has been how do these men become like this and why? Many have rushed to answer it.

However, what about the rest of us? Just the average lapsed or not-so-lapsed Muslim trying to create a completely new life in the Land of the Brave and Free. The Western world had a dose of the fundos and all hell broke loose. Try living in a country with them. Many Pakistanis want the chance to make their own life choices, to live without the heavy hand of religion waiting to slap them across the face. Home Boy is about three such individuals. Ali Chaudry known only as AC, Jimbo – a Pashtun DJ from Jersey City, and Chuck – a boy from Karachi trying to make it in the big city, “Call us Metrostanis, chum. Cheers! Skål! Adab!”

H.M. Naqvi has given us a fast-paced tale embedded in a patiently inscribed framework of sophisticated language and reference. The island of Manhattan and its outerlying boroughs become tangible; these boys are equally New York as Karachi. From the very onset, the novel is charged by the force of language and dialogue. The use of catchy and memorable names, and a landscape brimming with references to American, Pakistani and European culture makes the fiction jump out of the book, painting an image of contemporary Pakistanis as Internationalists more than anything else. To most 30-somethings on the hip end of the tracks, the immortal words of Ice Cube, “F*** the police coming straight from the underground / Young nigga got it bad ‘cos I’m brown” make one feel right at home in the novel whilst also subtly underlining the contentious Black/Asian relationship in the UK & the US. The title of the novel hints at this. Chuck asks himself the question, “Am I a homeboy?” when heckled in the street in his early days in America. There is no answer to that question, but gangsta rap lyrics in the mouths of our “metrostani” protagonists become more poignant in the post 9/11 drama that unfolds in the novel.

The story is told through the eyes of Chuck, and is seamlessly rendered with flashbacks to his life in Pakistan with his mother, a widow. These transitions breathe energy into the story, while the voice is lively, inviting the reader to go anywhere with it. Chuck is 100% believable as are AC and Jimbo a.k.a DJ Jumbolaya who “distilled the post-disco-proto-house-neo-soul canon in his compositions,” if not moderately caricaturised. The novel has a truth-being-stranger-than-fiction ring to it; it is not however, grim – far from it – the strongest point is the sustained humour nestling in every nook and cranny lending the work buoyancy whilst tackling serious contemporary subjects.

Poetry and lyricism also have a place here; Chuck’s childhood recollections with his single mother are tinged with nostalgia. The kind only an ex-pat can feel; nostalgia tinged with sorrow, regret and a desire to re-visit the past. Without being heavy-handed, H.M. Naqvi creates a corporeal portrait of the migrant experience.
Equally skilful is his handling of the actual 9/11 event. It makes its appearance in the novel without fanfare, and the manner in which the atmosphere of the story slowly but surely gets tinged with fear, terror, suspicion and paranoia is a refreshing change from other 9/11 tomes. We witness the effects on the characters first-hand, “Those bastards,” AC declares referring to the perpetrators of 9/11, “they’ve f****d up my city! THEY’VE F****D UP EVERYTHING!” This may not seem particularly eloquent but it doesn’t need to be; it is heartfelt and as true as it gets. This then, is a novel about Paradise Found and Paradise Lost.

An incident at their friend’s flat that they have frequented for years is a turning point. They are called “A-rabs” and the genuinely confused emotions are evident in all three characters:

“We’re not the same,” Jimbo protested.
“Moslems, Mohicans, whatever,” Brawler No. 2 snapped.
“I’m from Jersey dude!”
“I don’t care chief!”

Their Garden of Eden – the streets, clubs, bars, homes of New York City – has been contaminated with the seed of ill-will and intolerance, and they are being forced out. The superficial layer of the novel is the fast pace, flash and glam, but at the heart of it there is an innocence to the characters in the same way that in the “real world” myriad Pakistanis, Indians, Arabs et al are innocent and yet have found themselves at the epicentre of a vicious and permanent conflict, disrupting every segment of their lives.

The entire novel is actually driven by AC’s obsession with finding their friend ‘The Shaman’, who he believes has disappeared all too suspiciously. The guy is a nefarious character as it goes. If he had gone missing at any other time, his friends would not have batted an eyelid, but in the heightened state of post-9/11 paranoia this obsession seems symptomatic of what they are all feeling; propelling them ultimately to their rather unpleasant fate at the hands of the American secret service.

Jimbo, AC & Chuck, party-hardys, creatives and intellectuals find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The scenes that are written of Chuck’s experience when incarcerated do seem ever so slightly derivative. The fact is that, by now, we have seen a lot, heard a lot and read a lot of 9/11 literature. However, H.M. Naqvi is by no means trying to exploit the issue, which is why even this crucial event in the novel is handled deftly. There is no agonising over long and painful accounts of the torture and terrible treatment of the lads at the hands of the Americans. H.M. knows how to balance a novel with finesse. The Americans do let Chuck go. This is not entirely unrealistic. There would have been no achievement for H.M. in beating the same drum. Yes, we have heard the stories of people we know mysteriously picked up and held indefinitely, and of course, there is Guantanamo Bay, but more often than not the people we know have been let off. As for the other two, let’s just say that in true desi fashion, they are eventually let off not because of who they are, but who they know…
What emerges from this novel is the story of families and strong connections; which reminds us that what really keeps the Pakistani and Indian culture and society going are these ties that bind – not religion.

With language fresh, H.M. Naqvi has sculpted a novel that indicates new avenues for South Asian Literature in English. Taking a subject that is weighty with a hand that is light, he has presented us with the 9/11 book that we have all been waiting for – not a second too late.

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