Book Review

A Book about a Child's Growing Social and Mental landscape The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets the West: Imran Ahmad

– Mita Bose

Publisher: Hachette
Genre: Memoir
Extent: 336 pages
Price: Rs 550.00

Imran Ahmad has written his autobiography in a completely objective, factual, detached and deadpan style, devoting a chapter to each year of his life starting from his birth in Karachi in 1963 to a successful career and impending marriage at age of twenty-five years in 1988-89, followed by a few brief footnotes like sections covering years 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2011.

The book closes with an Afterword that voices a saddened comment on the extreme polarization after 9/11 between the paranoid revenge-seeking white Christian First- World and the fanatic, fundamentalist, diehard Islamic Third World. Ahmad's reference to his attempts to introduce a modicum of sanity and "rehumanization" in the trying times through his collaboration with a group of Unitarian Universalist churches in the US sounds, unfortunately, rather unconvincing. The cover of the book depicting the picture of a one-year-old child fully suited and booted in an adult 'perfect gentleman' promises a light-hearted narrative, which is borne out at first by the sparse tongue-in-cheek style of a child's discovery of the ironic realities of his environment. However, the humour palls after a while because of the introduction of a class-conscious attitude of the writer bent on social advancement along with a constant sanctimonious justification of the righteousness of the Muslim way of life.

The main body of the book employs a present-tense narrative in a matter-of-fact tone where an almost clinical distinction is maintained between facts and interpretations and opinions. While this gives an immediacy and veracity to the events, and enables the reader to sympathetically identify with the action, it tends to cause a banality and tediousness in the overall effect. On the whole, the narrative produces a moving picture of a child's gradual discovery of a racially and communally divided world fraught with injustice. The author's practising Muslim family environment, with lifestyle including regular visits to the mosque, and celebration of religious festivals, clashes with the white Christian-school milieu marked by negative ignorant rejection, vilification, and outright attacks on everything different or 'other'. The child's extreme desire to fit in and excel in all activities is thwarted by overt and covert putdowns not only by his peer group, but by most of the teachers as well. Most heartrending is the child's acceptance of living with racial discrimination and 'second-class citizen' status as the normal state of being.

Ahmad's autobiographical account moves from experiences of elementary school, Hampton Grammar School, Stirling University in Scotland, all the way to his prized induction as employee of the prestigious Unilever multinational company. Alongside this narrative is given the author's family's connections in Pakistan and Canada, as also their gradual and arduous social and financial upward mobility in the foreign land of their choice. Discussions on three issues dominate the narrative. The first is theological debates on Christianity versus Islam, the second is the backdrop of the growing political problems in Islamic countries of the Middle East impinging on the First World, and the third is negotiation of social and cultural mores around relations with the opposite sex in matters of romance and marriage.

The author is constantly concerned from early age with questions of theology and morality, which become much more moot when all manner of fundamentalist fanatics try to convert him or woo him over to their side. What emerges is the valorisation and propagation of a rational, scientific, tolerant, universal and benevolent idea of religion. The aspect of political background is mentioned mainly as the handiwork of religious fanatics adding to the ultimate tragic impasse with the non-white Islamic world, but is not analyzed in depth. The third area comprises the bulk of the text, and deals with the author's bitter-sweet and imaginary forays in romantic relationships with 'beautiful' women who are all, curiously, white. Some of the most amusing passages in the book are the boy's concerted attempts to model himself on James Bond's persona, right down to an inventory of similarities. However, all the discussions of 'arranged marriage' versus 'romantic love marriage' smack too much of a Western, 'black skin white masks' attitude and outlook.

Despite the difference in genres, Ahmad's book stands as the obverse of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. While Ahmad shows an overall conformist attitude towards the ways of the white First World where only the excesses of racist behaviour and religious intolerance are condemned, Hamid's protagonist takes an extremely confrontational and aggressive stand towards the white West's highhandedness. The sins of the First world, particularly the US, in the form of neo-Imperialism, continuing exploitation, world militaristic domination, and excessive arrogance cannot be so easily corrected or forgiven in Hamid's worldview. Ahmad's stand evokes the expectations of the privileged westernized upper middle class non-white people who instinctively and ideologically acquiesce with the innate superiority of the erstwhile coloniser race. So, like Ngugi's nationalist bourgeoisie, they are enamoured of Western culture, blind to the strengths of their own grassroots' conventions, and are always unhappy when some of the overlord's discriminatory practices come their way. The solution to the kind of abuse and injustice depicted as faced by Ahmad and his family cannot be countered by change of heart in the white population. A stronger political measure has to be found.

It is not surprising that Imran Ahmad's book has received such positive reviews in the Western press, while Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist lost out to The White Tiger in the Booker Prize race of 2007. The Perfect Gentleman is a sweet book in depicting a child's growing social and mental landscape, but it is rather dull in its repetitiveness, and sounds like a lot of our own personal journals. The end pages are positively irritating in their sententious shallow moralistic sentiments about all good people of the world uniting to make it a better place. Moreover, the really problematic times and issues of 'Muslim boy meets the West' are disposed off sketchily in the last thirty pages with 9/11 being characterized as 'a horrible event, a day of rage and inhuman madness — but also of courage and compassion.'

The book has been labelled 'laugh-out-loud-funny' and 'hilarious' in the blurb, but unfortunately much of the amusing parts are snowed under the bulk of the banal unselected mass of trivial events. Imran Ahmad's book would improve with drastic editing.

Dr Mita Bose is associate professor in the department of English, and vice principal, at Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University. She received her PhD English from Kent State University, Ohio, USA. She has been teaching English Language and Literature at Delhi University since 1972. She has also participated in the ELPC programme held at the ILLL, DU.