The brown man’s burden in post-9/11 America

Sunday, 21 February 2010 - 1:38am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Chuck will learn in prison “that just like three black men were gangbangers, and three Jews a conspiracy, three Muslims had become a sleeper cell”.

Home Boy
HM Naqvi
216 pages

HM Naqvi takes your breath away. First, it’s because you’re running to keep up with his three Pakistani amigos who seem like vaguely comic stereotypes of young punks in New York. They are a carousel on speed as they spin through the hooch alleys and subterranean dens of New York. They are where it’s ‘at’, where the “socialites, arrivistes, homosexuals, metrosexuals, and a smattering of has-been and wannabe models” hang out. 

This is a catalogue of good times, the sex and the city adventures of three young men, brown and broke, but benignly admitted to the beau monde set. Naqvi’s prose keeps pace: exuberant and liberally hyphenated, cramming the impressions of three homeboys experiencing their own renaissance in turn-of-the-century New York.

There’s the “gentle, moon-faced, man-mountain” Jamshed Khan aka Jimbo who’s likely to charge first and ask questions later. Living with his dominating Pathan father and burqa-clad firecracker little sister Amo, DJ Jumboloaya’s credo is that of any Jersey-born American: “Is All Good.”

There’s the eclectic AC or Ali Chaudhry, “an intellectual dandy” complete with a “signature pencil-thin mustache, one-button velour smoking jacket, and ankle high rattlesnake-skins” whose on-and-off doctorate and Green Card is funded by his pediatrician elder sister. And then there’s Shehzad or Chuck, a Johnny-come-lately to the scene, a literature student who starts up at Wall Street, but ends up driving a cab there, all the while sending money home to Karachi, to his mother.

With no inhibitions in a city that knows how to party hard, the trio seems set to have a tripping good time. And they do, but only until the planes come out of the heavens and demolish the world trade centre towers. After 9/11 there’s no going back to the “renaissance” days. The city has changed, a poison has seeped in and proves near-fatal for the ex-boulevardiers.

Naqvi is not the first Pakistani writer to feelingly document the moment when it all turned bad for brown men, but he is amongst the sharpest. With Home Boys, he captures the cataclysmic experience of life in New York post 9/11 through the eyes of Chuck. He swings his cab towards Ninth Avenue, “the streets were helter-skelter… drivers honked, cussed, there were cops everywhere: in patrol cars, on horseback… it was as if everyone were escaping some epic catastrophe: tidal wave, airborne toxic event, Godzilla.” 
It’s the end of an era.

The three homeboys go from the open arms of the lesbian party promoters Blond and Blonder to the less welcoming Metropolitan Detention Centre, also known as “America’s Own Abu Ghraib”. The fall from grace hits Chuck hard. But Naqvi keeps him on his toes, struggling so hard to get a foothold in the American Dream that it seems inconceivable that Chuck will wake up and see the dream has soured. Yet he does, as does Changez in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and perhaps there is no other course of action for the rejected, but to reject the system that brands them as evil. Chuck will learn in prison “that just like three black men were gangbangers, and three Jews a conspiracy, three Muslims had become a sleeper cell.”

Home Boy gets darker as you read it. The fun and fantasies fade with the dawn of a new consciousness, and you find yourself mourning the end of innocence. But Naqvi manages to take your breath away all over again and not just because Chuck is racing against deportation, but because he manages to tap into an almost mythical sub-context, when he has his trio embark on a doomed journey to find the Shaman. A character reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, the Shaman’s enigmatic wealth, Arab connections and sudden disappearance in post 9/11 America can only mean that he, and every Muslim who knows him, is guilty by association. Naqvi’s debut novel is urbane and chic but in his portrayal of the brown-man’s burden he cuts close to the bone.

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