The Reluctant Immigrant

10/11/2011 14:13 GMT | Updated 08/01/2012 10:12 GMT

Rarely does a book fill you with trepidation, as you attempt to review it, because you feel so strong a duty to do it justice. I came across Home Boy in a bookshop in Lahore's Liberty Market on a visit to Pakistan and picked it up and some pre-conceptions into the bargain, on the basis of the funky cover. My impressions weren't helped much, when on the same trip, I heard an interview with the author on an FM channel in Islamabad; maybe it was the inept interviewer who failed to ask the right questions and draw out the seemingly laconic author.

A year later, as I stumbled on the programme of the second annual DSC South Asian Literature Festival - a commendable platform for South Asian writing, visual and performing arts - at a book reading in London's East End, I noticed H. M. Naqvi's book had been awarded the prestigious - and substantial - festival prize for 2011 at Jaipur. It also transpired that he was due to read from his work on the penultimate day of the festival. I instantly obtained a reviewer's copy from the publishers and put it aside for perusal closer to the event. A day before the reading, I picked up the novel and cast a look over the opening paragraph. I was hooked.

The event was overbearingly stage-managed, I felt, and Naqvi's performance was a little flamboyant, shall we say, by British standards. He chose to read in a slightly affected, sonorous staccato which made him seem smug - but there was a palpable nervousness under the latest South Asian hotshot author-find veneer. I gleaned from the little that I had read of the book and from the fielding of the questions at the end of the reading that there were "heavy" words he had a predilection for: "dialectic", "discourse" and "denizen", not to mention "megalopolis". The author presented a quandary.

On the next day, at the gala dinner at Shakespeare's Globe, marking the end of the festival, I noticed Naqvi outside the entrance looking dapper in a grey suit but was somewhat bemused by the rather fetching hat or should I say, headgear, he sported. That evening he read again in the same bizarre, deadpan style. I wanted to speak to him but knew I wouldn't get a word in edgewise given the number of cooing sari-clad ladies he was surrounded by. One thing was settled: he was far too interesting a personality - and author - to pass up. A review was in order.

Having just completed the book, I can say in no uncertain terms that not since Sara Suleri's Meatless Days have I been so stirred and moved by a Pakistani writer writing in English. There are numerous similarities: both employ a first-person narrative which blurs the boundary between narrator and author; both straddle cultures and write of the Pakistani immigrant experience stateside; both grapple with "the enigma of arrival": "It's strange, very strange ... because it's so familiar ... but it isn't at all"; through both their works runs an elegiac streak, a sense of leave-taking - in Suleri's case from Pakistan, in Naqvi's from the US; like Suleri's, Naqvi's pen is a precision instrument: his words are just right, his sentences judiciously weighted; both have wistful, resonant titles which speak of place - of displacement, of a lack, of loss; in the percipience and erudition they bring to their prose they share another salient attribute. However, there is a dissimilarity I hope for: Suleri's book is a classic of the postcolonial canon but this is privy to those in the know - it never quite received the wider recognition it deserved; I hope Naqvi's work gets better exposure.

Home Boy is a paean to the city of five boroughs and fifteen bridges we have all come to know and love through the printed word and the visual image; it is a warts-and-all love song to New York: it takes in the steaming potholes, the fire escapes, the yellow cabs, the Brownstones, the familiar landmarks and the gridlock which he likens to "playing chess with the devil". Naqvi has a strong, unerring feel for the place which, among other means, is conveyed through sharp, streetsmart dialogue. The book has the pace, the buzz and the irrepressible energy of New York: "The streets were helter-skelter, cars weaving in, swerving out, cutting each other off, caravans of buses lurching past like rampaging elephants. Drivers honked, cussed, raised fists and fingers, and there were cops everywhere: in patrol cars, on horseback, and in twos and threes on the street. It was as if everybody were escaping some epic catastrophe: tidal wave, airborne toxic event, Godzilla". It also has its verve and style.

I would go so far as to contend that his central protagonist and narrative are as evocative of New York as Capote's Holly Golightly and Breakfast at Tiffanys. It is a darker romance though. The shadow of 9/11 looms large over this book - "Many outrageous stories would circulate that day. Fiction would collide against fact. Preachers would pound the pulpit, promulgating acts of God." - as the story weaves in and out of the intertwined lives of three friends. Chuck (aspiring immigrant), AC (thwarted academic) and Jimbo (demon DJ) are all monikers for Muslim names: Shehzad, Ali Chaudhry and Jamshed Khan. They are all of Pakistani extraction and their lives unravel in the aftermath of 9/11.

Chuck is the focaliser whose eyes we see things through. When we meet him he has fallen on hard times: been relieved of his lucrative job in the financial sector, forced to "clear his cubicle into a shoebox" and, egregiously, is working as a cabbie. Naqvi imbues him with a wide-eyed freshness and charm using his predicament to sensitively and engagingly delineate the cabbie world, an integral part of New York City life. He reveals the astonishing ethnic and religious diversity of this fraternity in many ways and, at a point, rather inventively by referring to their shared sense of superstition: "Every cabbie believes that he (and the odd she) is protected from the whimsical vicissitudes of city streets by God or gods, by some system or talisman. The perceptive passenger would notice a rabbit's foot, a pair of hairy dice, a heavy Haitian amulet swinging from the rearview mirror to ward off the evil eye, or the hand of Fatima, a statuette of the Virgin fixed on the dashboard or the Grim Reaper of Santa Muerte, stickers of the Sikh prophet Guru Nanak or the Hindu monkey god Hanuman on the inside of a door". In fact, a lot hinges on cabs and their drivers in this wonderful book.

The book like its celebrated precursor, Mohsin Hamid's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist", cleaves to the unavoidability - when under siege - of a sense of solidarity on the basis of religion. In view of what comes to pass, Naqvi provides a distillation of his protagonist's thoughts on the precedence of religious collectivity thus: "Although I had always believed that I had more in common with somebody like Ari or Lawrence né Larry than the Moroccan, I was reminded that we shared the same rituals, doctrinal vocabulary, and eschatological infrastructure, even if we did not read the same books, listen to the same music, hang in the same watering holes...or subscribe to the same interpretation of history".

Shehzad, who goes by "the All-American sobriquet of Chuck"; Jimbo, "Incredible Hulk's mild-mannered doppelgänger" or in the delicious description of his father-in-law-to-be "not entirely oafish, inadequately exotic and definitely not his daughter's type" and AC, "charming and roguish, thoughtful and unhinged, a man of incongruous and incommensurable qualities" are memorable creations and we are led through "the wild and woolly story of their incarceration" extremely skilfully by a very special storyteller who combines gentle humour and tenderness with the elegance and precision of words. Naqvi's writing sweeps you along with its genial tone and orchestrated rhythms. It is luminous and lyrical: "During winter, the prewar radiator abruptly switched on, emitting noises that sounded like distant seagulls. As a result, I would often wake to the sensation of being adrift at sea". It is also charged and energetic.

Home Boy warrants reading and re-reading for its beautifully constructed sentences which are braided with finely observed detail. In its elegant ebb and flow, its effortless glide and dulcet cadence Naqvi's prose is reminiscent of Nabokov, the Russian émigré America claims as one of its greats.

Of late, it has been de rigueur for Pakistani writers writing in English to extol the virtues of Urdu literature - with sufficient reason - while maintaining a degree of strategic reticence on their own ilk. From the evidence furnished by Naqvi's book, such shyness is not necessary because Pakistani writing in English continues to be in a ruddy state of health.