‘Home Boy’ by H.M. Naqvi – A Review

Every New Yorker has a 9/11 story, and every New Yorker has a need to repeat it, to pathologically revisit the tragedy, until the tragedy becomes but a story.

Some months after 9/11, a cousin who was studying in San Francisco had to fly out to Houston. He had already boarded the flight when a couple of officious looking gents in suits came walking purposefully down the aisle and asked him to accompany them back to the ground. Needless to say he complied. He was led off the plane, up and down through endless corridors and into a cramped office where for the next two hours or so he was made to sit facing the wall while, he assumed, ‘they’ ran background checks on him and his entire known family tree. Presumably having found nothing more sinister on his record than the occasional pilfering of chooran from our childhood chanawala, he was finally allowed back on the plane which had been left to stew on the runway. Half-expecting to be lynched by his fellow passengers, said cousin slunk back to his seat with his gaze lowered in prescribed Islamic fashion. The middle-aged American woman sitting one seat over leaned in and tapped him on the shoulder. He braced himself.

“You hang in there young man,” she said.

In many ways, through the story of its protagonist Chuck (Shehzad), H.M. Naqvi’s stellar debut novel Home Boy is an exploration of just such bewildering, often maddening dualities that mark American society, the immigrant experience within it, and, one supposes, human nature itself. Ostensibly it is the tale of three young men of Pakistani origin – Chuck, the recent immigrant to the US and New York City, and his ABCD friends AC (Ali Chaudhry) and Jimbo (Jamshed) – and their run-in with the law in the wake of 9/11. But it is also an examination of split identities and dichotomous lives, which would seem to be the universal way of things. When Chuck terms the laughter and music emanating from a nightclub some weeks after 9/11 ‘at once vulgar and cathartic’, it is only once instance of how the book frames opposing virtues as almost inexplicably co-existing within the same context.

And so you have Jimbo the desi Rastafarian DJ who serves up ‘curried riddims’ and waxes eloquent about ‘lovas, preenas, and dreamas’ while surfing the ganja wave – ‘a bonafide American’, says Chuck. But he still chews cardamom pods after smoking so as not to challenge the sensibilities (or authority) of his father Old Man Khan. The third angle of the trio, AC is a smoker, doper, coker, rapper and self-appointed political analyst and resident expert on all matters contentious, whose bookshelf is home to Tom Sawyer, The Anarchist Cookbook, and The Baburnama side by side. He is, in effect, painted as the most American as well as the most un-American of them all, and it is this precarious straddling of his varied identities that lands the friends in a dangerous tête-a-tête with the FBI. ‘It was a pig-headed pose,’ notes Chuck at AC’s ill-considered stance of defiance, ‘a misguided, arguably American strategy.’ The three amigos are hauled away to a notorious detention centre where Chuck is asked why, as a ‘Moos-lem’ he still imbibes alcohol. He doesn’t think it’s important to ‘Al-la’ whether he drinks or not, but he is unable to apply the same reasoning to the eating of pork.

Making the logical leap from dualities to multiplicities, Naqvi also ponders New York’s reputation as that proverbial melting pot of peoples and cultures. Some of the methods are more obvious, like the checklist approach in marking off the various nationalities that pepper the cityscape: Kenyan, Congolese, Beninese, Albanian, Chinese, Taiwanese, Haitian, Brazilian, Moroccan, Cambodian, Greek, Puerto Rican, to name a few. And in a number of the accompanying episodes Naqvi demonstrates a wonderful ear for linguistic idiosyncracies. Abdul Karim a desi cab driver talks about hiring ‘sumbady, nat anybady’ to ply his cab for him. At the cabbie training school, when Chuck and his array of rainbow nation classmates are helpfully informed by their yank instructor that crackwhores in Bushwick still offer blowjobs for five bucks a pop, so to speak, they enquire earnestly, ‘But will it be on the exam please?’

Elsewhere, that pot yields moments of gleeful headiness (‘I wanted to lick her shaved armpits, taste her immaculate toes; I wanted her, I wanted every woman, Swede, Oriental alike’), as well as those of contemplative observation, as when Chuck witnesses an impromptu street party at Washington Square Park where people from seemingly every nation on earth suddenly descend to blend into one writhing, jiving mass. ‘It became a free for all’ Chuck muses; as has America itself, one supposes, though it’s probably safe to assume that that is not what the forefathers had in mind when they dubbed it the land of the free. And winding back to that element of duality, though the home of the brave has its huddled masses who can celebrate the similarities between ‘salam’ and ‘shalom’ (and, indeed, salami), Chuck also comes to the (inevitable) realization, in one of the book’s most moving passages, that ‘You were a squatter all this time, not an original settler.’

In the latter half of 2001, my dreams had turned to shit. I suppose everybody’s had.

So to the question of assimilation which is the other major theme at work, not that it’s obvious at first; Naqvi makes it an issue by not making an issue out of it. As one character puts it, ‘It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.’ Indeed, right from Chuck, none of the coterie of cohorts initially use their ‘real’ names that would place them ethnically – AC, Jimbo, Mini Auntie, the Duck, the Shaman – they could’ve escaped from Blyton-verse via Middle Earth. Chuck is even asked at one point why he has an American name when he is Pakistani (funnily enough reminding one of the scores of desis here at home who insist on sporting faux American accents they’ve picked up watching those relentless cable reruns of Friends). From one perspective, this is a problem; though it is refreshing to have a Pakistani character who does not wear his Pakistani-ness on his sleeve (apart from the phone calls to Ma, the affinity for chili chips, the habit of hoarding old toothbrushes, and the occasional exclamation of ‘Jesus H. Christ Alaiy Salam!’), one also doesn’t get a sense of Chuck’s outsider status. Like his American-born-and-bred pals, Chuck seems to blend right in, wrinkle-free. At times his confidently blasé tone as a Big Apple boy who knows his milieu like the back of his hand, can be jarring (‘Attempting to hail a cab on Columbus at eight-thirty in the morning is like trying to get a reservation at that sushi joint in Tribeca at eight-thrity in the evening’). So it is almost implausible when the Feds put the screws in on this personable, somewhat bland young man. It certainly doesn’t seem plausible to Chuck. But perhaps that is the point: no matter how assimilated/American you might imagine yourself to be, it is probably never quite enough. ‘We’re from the FBI’ one agent says to Chuck, and perhaps feeling the need to clarify, adds ‘The Federal Bureau of Investigation’. It is a rude awakening from the American Dream.

But lest one surmise from the above that Home Boy is some sort of dreary door-stopper with a bloated sense of self-importance, it should be pointed out that, for the most part, it sidesteps the pitfalls of over-earnestness and sentimentality that are the hallmarks of a lot of new South Asian literature. In fact, one of the book’s strongest suits is its deft employment of humour, from Chuck observing ‘a real American turkey dinner, complete with stuffing, cranberry sauce and a drunken uncle swinging elbows, knocking down bottles and chairs’, to illustrating his description of the hijab with a circular hand motion ‘that might have suggested a halo, or insanity.’ But Naqvi’s comic stylings are at their sharpest in the scenes following the trio’s arrest when he goes from the screamingly absurdist vomit-on-demand scenario of Chuck’s car ride with the Feds (‘Do it here! Barf, buddy, barf!’), to the more darkly comic scene of his interrogation. ‘You’re not American!’ he’s told, ‘You got no fucking rights.’ ‘The logic was strangely unassailable’ concurs Chuck. So when later he contemplates a handful of anti-depressants that warn of fatal side-effects in case of an overdose – ‘the label might as well have read EAT ME – the allusion to Alice’s bizarro adventures in Wonderland is all manner of pertinent.

Naqvi’s writing style has an endearingly messy, ‘easy-like-Sunday-morning’ quality, with little of that ‘I have a big fat degree in creative writing’ tone that plagues many of Pakistani writers working in English. So it is somewhat annoying when the book hits little pockets of unnecessary turbulence where the author gets carried away on tangents of description, particularly when sketching locations and settings – just how many passages of quirky décor can one be expected to endure? Similarly, the parts where characters suddenly become mouthpieces for heavy-handed socio-political commentary, can get tiresome; one can appreciate the necessity but the method is a let-down.

But ultimately these complaints amount to little more than quibbling. When the title of the novel morphs from an-ever-so-slightly bastardized slang term at the beginning into a gentle, poignant urging of an inner voice at the end, the author has done his job.

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