By Madiha Riaz
September 11, 2001. New York City.
New York lives and breathes in this book, is the conclusion one comes to after completing H.M. Naqvi’s debut; a breath of fresh air in the young Pakistani literary scene. Readers are swept onto the streets of New York through the eyes of its protagonist, Chuck—a young, twenty-something who, like the city he inhabits—is rapidly changing guises (and perceptions). A grad student at NYU; an investment banker on Wall Street; a cabbie—he is a chameleon, flawlessly morphing at a moment’s notice.
Naqvi’s New York is so much more than the cardboard cutouts and whimsical watercolors Hollywood has imbued us with; more like a pop-out, life sized work of art. At its heart lies the tale of a life of transitions for Muslims, that, after the fateful events of 9/11 resonates vividly in 2010. Perhaps more than it did when it was first written.
Flanked by his newfound friends, his homeboys—A.C, a Pakistani-Punjabi rapper and teacher extraordinare and Jimbo, an Afghan-Pathan DJ—Chuck sets off exploring his adopted city. The exploration soon turns into a search for Muhammad “The Shahman” Shah, a friend who has mysteriously disappeared in the wake of 9/11. Things go steadily downhill from here, with the FBI knocking down their door, and escourting all three off into seedy dungeons. Arguably the best (and most heartbreaking) passages of Homeboy are those written about their imprisonment. Interrogation and confinement come alive, salting a wound that is still fresh for many South Asian Muslims; inextricably linked as they are to a crime they did not commit.
In most novels ancestry is transcendental, but not for the work of South Asians. Indeed, it’s in places where the author has nailed a feeling or a common cultural reference, that the book transcends its pages and becomes real. Secondary characters like Amo, Jimbo’s teenaged sister, with her hijab and shy ways, are believable. But if one is to truly applaud Homeboy’s storytelling, one need look no further than Dora or “Duck”; Jimbo’s flamboyant girlfriend as she emerges blonde-haired and blue eyed from the book.
As in novels written by other South Asian authors, there are plenty of food references (Nadeem Aslam’s mouth watering descriptions in Maps for Lost Lovers comes to mind) and Naqvi doesn’t stray from this apparent convention. Homeboy is rich with mentions of mutton biryani, seekh kebabs and gulab jamuns. Pakistanis know that to truly confer honor and love to anything, it is appropriate that an offer of food be made. Naqvi does that and more in his ode to New York.
The story ends in prayer and the recognition of a single truth: while we stray from our spiritual roots in everyday life, in our time of need, desperation and confusion, we claw our way back. We leave to the unknown what we can’t make sense of and we pray because, ultimately, we have nothing left to lose.