March Issue 2010
Home and Away
H.M. Naqvi is a writer who knows how to introduce a twist to his tale. And his debut novel, Home Boy, is a book that is not to be taken lightly. “But is it as good as A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” I’ve heard people ask. Not surprising, given the fact that Mohammed Hanif’s own debut novel was not just brilliant but extremely well received.
However, to compare the two would be a case of comparing apples with oranges, if not mangoes. Naqvi is in some ways an academic writer, in others just someone with a wicked sense of humour, a poignant story and a great city to frame it in.
There are three young men in the story, all of Pakistani origin in one way or the other. The book doesn’t tell its tale at breakneck speed to begin with, and the eccentricities of the very young in the great playground that New York City represents to some make for entertaining reading.
The tensions and identity issues of the immigrant are touched upon in a not too obvious manner. Halfway through the book, however, the great American dream begins to turn into a nightmare, in the aftermath of the events of 9/11.
Of the trio, Shahzad, better known as Chuck in his American avatar, is the main protagonist and the person who’s come most lately to the American scene. The story is told through his ingenuous eyes. In New York City, Ali Chaudhry, who has been sponsored by his sister, becomes AC. Jamshed Khan, a second generation Pakistani-American known as Jimbo, who’s dipped deeper down into the melting pot, makes up the third person in the trio.
On one level, the book has shades of the travelogue as it visits the sights and sounds of the city. One another, it follows the peculiarities of the Pakistani-American community with a sociological eye. It is not sentimental, yet the heart lies at the centre of its discourse.
Naqvi’s diction is that of a poet, and his language distinctive. This is a person who’s well-read and not afraid to show it. The only problem there is that at times the author begins to peep through one of his own characters, in a novel that is not openly autobiographical. Not unlike the author himself, Chuck is an English Lit major who has succumbed to the pull of the market, working long hours in the finance district. However, what we hear of his background in Karachi — and there are some charming sketches of life on the other end of the spectrum — does not quite explain the, shall we say, intellectual tone of his ruminations.
But that may just be the thing that makes the book interesting reading. Naqvi is a man who is breaking the rules because he wants to make up some of his own. He does not hesitate to mix New York slang with complex words, some of which may even send one searching for the nearest dictionary.
He’s someone who has spent a fair amount of time on the streets of New York and has an infallible eye for its highs and lows, its frenetic pace and the strange characters who inhabit it. To anyone who’s ever known or loved the city, the book is a recipe for nostalgia as it goes about painting its fine vignettes.
The book revolves around a simple twist of fate that changes the course of life for Chuck, but it is also about the way a crisis can bring out hidden strengths in a person’s character, about the strange and unmentionable horrors that lurk just below the surface of ordinary lives.