Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy
Oct 2012: Thanks Imran Ahmad for the kind email & Mr. Asif Noorani for recommending this book.
First Published in Daily Times / Saturday 1 Sep 2012 under the title: The Ballad of East & West
Imran Ahmad, who recently concluded his 50-State speaking tour of the mainland United States, had occasional run-ins with the representatives of this fear-driven society that love to herd his entire ilk under a single scary looking banner. A Pakistani, growing up in London of the 1960s and 1970s, he must be familiar with the scrutiny that comes with being different. This first person narrative that dusts off 48 years of wisdom builds upon a young boy’s quirky (and chronologically arranged) view of the world to bridge the divide.
As a young Muslim, Ahmad aspires to be the perfect gentleman (sans the Eliza Doolittle/Professor Higgins dance) who will find himself constantly pitted against the current. As an immigrant’s son, he observes the best and worst of both worlds from his lonely perch. Seen through the haze of childhood, bigotry abruptly looms into view. Ahmad is two and accommodation is scarce for Pakistanis, “although many people in London were renting out rooms.” Those ‘No Irish or Coloured’ signs are a common sight in his Britain apparently. “The more liberal-minded ones had signs that read ‘No Coloreds’”, he observes wryly.
Whisked away from Karachi at an early age, he writes of those days with remarkable restraint, patiently examining numerous ugly looking fences built around visitors to the fair land. Racism manifests itself at every turn. Ignorance abounds. Identity undergoes regular facelifts. And the hunt for a perfect partner comes up against a familiar looking stone wall. “We are so boring, we make the Amish look like swingers.” ‘A foreigner in white English society’ who realises that ‘he doesn’t seem to fit into Pakistani society either’, Ahmad’s quest for a perfect foothold takes time, and a fair amount of ingenuity. His close encounters with racism and the religious divide prompt a visceral reaction; blending optimism with pathos gives evanescent memories a nice glossy finish.
He moves through the London of the 1960s initially baffled by the strangeness of it all. An American magazine’s coverage of war casualties captures Ahmad’s attention. “I never realized so many Americans are black.” Life’s coverage of the moon expedition prompts a different reaction. “These men are all white,” he wonders aloud, “unlike the ones killed in the war.”
This memoir records landmark events in the life of a young boy who idolises Spock and dreams of emulating Bond, and is smart enough to read between the lines of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. His Eastern orientation in a western culture serves as ballast; the long struggle with identity leads him to uncover aspects of Christianity and Islam that puts the ongoing religious debate in some context. While sub-currents of darkness course through the veins of his adopted culture, the casual tone adopted from the outset enables readers to navigate these murky waters without blanching.
The writer’s spiritual awakening and the struggle to reconcile the two halves to form a perfect whole is illuminating. His introduction to the concept of ‘rapture’ and evading attempts to be converted will be a recurring theme. Religion seeps into the most mundane of tasks. The ‘good Muslim side’ hastens to express reservations about bowing to the Master during a Karate session. Warnings of a hardline post-grad student on the ‘sinfulness of usury’ hover in the air as Ahmad applies for a car loan. But he is realistic, casually observing that “by these criteria, I should not have a savings account.”
Ahmad’s adolescent years spent circumnavigating cultural barriers and mapping vast ideological chasms remain significant. Faint echoes of memories carefully encased in amber continue to resonate in a paranoid world. The rest of the stage stays open, allowing the elusive Janice and other bit players a chance to bring some colour to the stark scenery.
While this book plays with the religious angle, it also makes several jarring pit stops at racist point. Moments of triumph or tragedy are relayed in short bursts. Ahmad will fail to secure that car loan by the way. “I can’t believe that after all these years with the Bank of Scotland, and with a very prestigious job offer, that he would not loan me £ 1,600 for a car to drive to work. Surely, it can’t be racism? After all these years,” he exclaims, “surely not?”
Imran Ahmad’s debut novel happily scrolls down a long list of minor dilemmas to try to resolve major conflicts in his life. Its subtle imagery leaves a lasting imprint. The book already has a devoted following. It first appeared under the title of Unimagined — a Muslim boy meets the West and was later published in the United States as The Perfect Gentleman. O, the Oprah magazine rates it as number one in ‘10 Titles to pick up now’; The Guardian, The Independent and Sydney Morning Herald categorised it as one of the ‘Best Books of the Year’. It is available at all major bookstores.