When Did Babylon Fall?


HM Naqvi shoots cocaine, smart patois and energy into the tired 9/11 novel, says Nisha Susan

NY chronicler Young Pakistani writer HM Naqvi
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

ONE OF the annoying things about contemporary South Asian writing is the lack of memorable characters. Where are the people who leap off the page and lodge themselves under your skin? Where are the characters whose names you remember? Part of the problem is the locating of narrative within a thin shell of geopolitical significance. Post 9/11, much of our literature has suffered from the ‘Angst in the Time of’ syndrome. Young Pakistani writer HM Naqvi breathes life and urgency into the tiresome subgenre with his energetic, rich turn of phrase and a memorable trio of young men in New York around 9/11.

Neither cynicism nor affectation taints his description of the loss of innocence suffered by AC, Jimbo and our hero Chuck — all Pakistanis — first generation, second generation and expatriate respectively. From the first page Naqvi plunges you into the clubs, the happy pursuit of dope, sex and glorious hangover food. Naqvi is skilled at capturing the sensory states of very young men: the ravenous hunger and enjoyment of food, the complicated lives within cliques, the still larger-thanlife presence of parents. He has a gift for painting the ‘scene’, understood in the ordinary literary sense or in the sense of revelry. With the air of a banquet he presents clubs, dinners at AC’s sister’s home as well as hospital lobbies. Largely, these spectacles grow out of his wonderful descriptions of faces and bodies.

Home Boy
HM Naqvi
216 pp; Rs 399

Two minor annoyances must be tabled here. One, the insistent and not always successful glossing of food which brings painful flashbacks of Indian novels that used to come with full-length glossaries. Two, Naqvi adores the multicultural, multi-racial city that Chuck claims as his own. Occasionally, the cynical reader is bound to purse her lips because the sprinkling of ethnic groups for colour creates a not entirely pleasant Benetton ad-like effect.

All was well, the towers fall and then all is not. This realisation has no time to dawn slowly because the boys are all arrested, suspected of terrorism. Chuck who had already lost his investment banking job now has to get out of jail and maintain his respectable cover to his adored mother back home. Zadie Smith once said that the international language of youth is Jamaican and it is this near parody party-patois that Chuck’s world speaks. This or the high-flown prose that the super educated AC adopts — Anglo-Saxon lounge-lizard retro spiel. Notjihad of any variety. But how is the tender Chuck to translate this to the newly paranoid America?

Through their continuing troubles Home Boy’s lead trio and supporting cast displays minimal angst, lots of practicality and chutzpah which makes the denouement a little unconvincing. Why does Chuck do what he does especially when he has successfully employed all his ingenuity to survive?

Not tremendously ambitious, Home Boy is a swift and intriguing read and the reader has to be perverse to not urge the boys to success out of their various scrapes. Occasionally, the plot (especially the suggestions of romance between Chuck and Jimbo’s sister Amo) veers in directions that seem vaguely familiar from Hollywood. The after-taste is of a book smiling shyly at cinematic adaptation.

Come, Let Us Adore Him

Fan-girl fiction? No, it’s a Paulo Coelho biography, says Arul Mani

CALL ME uncharitable if you will; when I found in Chapter Two of this biography that the infant Paulo very nearly died because he had managed to swallow his own shit while still in the womb, my immediate response was to pause for several hoots of inappropriate laughter. I make no apology. The iron had entered my soul after Chapter I, the title of which (Paulo Today—Budapest—Prague— Hamburg—Cairo) is inadequate warning for an unwholesome combination of itinerary-flogging, fan-girl adoration and inconsequential detail that eventually begins to buzz around one’s head like a calamity of locusts.

A Warrior’s Life
Fernando Morais
496 pp; Rs 599

Paulo Coelho’s successes as a writer are both undeniable and unassailable — at least until somebody finds another way of being either a newly rampant Lobsang or a freshly castanetted Carlos Castaneda. Fernando Morais chooses to place this achievement within a framework that seems inspired by the saintnarratives of yore — youthful excess, dramatic turnaround, and resulting afterglow. We are thus given a comprehensive walking tour of the writer’s chequered career; academic failure, suburban dropout, dabbler in black magic, his subsequent admission to a quasi-Catholic secret society that practices white magic, and his meeting with his personal Magus. From what I was able to gather, the Magus thing is about behaving like a dominatrix without having to wear the uniform.

Fernando Morais achieves two interesting bits of writing out of the complete access that he was given into Coelho’s past — an account of the youthful restlessness that was mistakenly labelled mental illness, resulting in electroshock therapy and much avoidable trauma; a later section that reveals how the writer’s genius for self-promotion turned him into a publishing hit. The rest is characterised by a relentless piling of detail that bludgeons the reader into quiet exhaustion.

Morais treats Coelho with unnecessary reverence, and that is the primary failure of this book. The art of biography demands a relentless asking of questions, a fidelity to itself rather than fidelity to the person you are writing about. The book fails to even raise the important questions: Why do the opinions of literary critics matter so much to a man who has sold 10 million copies? Why do people read somebody like Coelho when critics agree that he brings nothing new either to the Portuguese language or to the craft of fiction? For an answer, one must return to Francis Wheen’s rant, How Mumbo- Jumbo Conquered the World.


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