03 June 2013

The Perfect Gentleman

This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Imran Ahmad is born in Karachi in 1962 and moves with his family to England the following year. Instead of fine jobs and a comfortable existence, though, the Ahmad family faces systematic discrimination at every level in England at a time before affirmative action crept into business practices. Things slowly begin to look up as they find some semblance of economic stability in employment and in education. The Perfect Gentleman is a self-styled memoir that traces the first twenty-five years of Imran Ahmad’s journey (followed by a brief overview of his later years) from a callow boyhood in London to a somewhat self-indulgent youth in Scotland.

This is an articulately rendered book that records some version of the immigrant dream. Imran Ahmad as a young man desperately seeks cultural integration. His many encounters with prejudice and racial profiling and his often phlegmatic responses to them speak desperately of a desire to assimilate in the most unobtrusive way possible. The book chronicles his pursuit of an identity that connects him to Islam without disconnecting him from the perceived liberties of a Western upbringing.

What the pursuit comes down to, largely, is the longing for a beautiful girlfriend and a beautiful car: in essence, material success and cultural acceptance that’s delivered James Bond style (minus the vodka martinis). The Perfect Gentleman is engaging in parts, but quickly gets repetitive. Ahmad’s college years can be described thus: he buys a car, falls in love, sells the car, falls in love, buys another car, falls in love, has car trouble, fixes car trouble, falls in love, has more car trouble, fixes it again, falls in love, sells the car, buys a third car, falls in love. Women and cars appear like a cavalcade of idealistic aspiration throughout the book.

The unaffected earnestness with which the information is relayed is part of the book’s charm and profound, if slapdash, sense of honesty: “I have always found American girls in general to be very attractive and intriguing (although Charlie’s Angels may have set my expectations rather high). I am willing to accept their broad collection of accents as ‘exotic,’ whereas I struggle to be attracted by the wide range of regional accents on offer in Britain. The great thing about American girls is that they are strangers in a strange land; they don’t know anyone to begin with, so it is relatively easy to engage them in conversation and mention a forthcoming drive in the countryside. ‘Would you like to come?’”

The book does also deal, in some detail, with the author’s theological transactions. Ahmad makes an unapologetic case for Islam, even as he struggles to make religious sense of his own life. “This is all a lot of superstition and prejudice and stupidity that has wrapped itself around Islam like a cancer. I feel very uncomfortable sitting here, listening to this nonsense. In another sermon, he expounds that men and women should not mix socially, and he berates those present here today (and they know who they are!) who have been mixing with girls, having coffee with them, and so on. I feel very uncomfortable. I have coffee with girls all the time. In fact, I’d have more coffee with more girls if only more girls would agree to have coffee with me.”

The cloying naivety is a function of the self-deprecating style of humour that Ahmad employs throughout the book. The rhetorical device is amusing enough in parts, but not “laugh-out-loud funny” as the blurb promises. What’s tiresome, though, is that no matter how lightly one takes Ahmad’s generally frothy and listless approach to the large decisions that we as individuals find ourselves making in the complex climb into adulthood, the preoccupation with appearances simply never lets up. One longs to think of the author as a person with some depth, but when he casually decides to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry simply because he hopes that a girl that he is in love with will be at the same university, or when he chooses a career for himself because brochures from the company show men and women in posh suits, or, in the final leg of the book, decides upon marriage because his future father-in-law is wealthy and will buy him a car, it is difficult to feel much sympathy for him.

Less a memoir than a randomly assimilated series of mostly superficial memories, The Perfect Gentleman treads only ankle-deep in the issues it could so easily have waded into. Its great triumph, though, is in establishing that Imran Ahmad is an ordinary soul, that he, despite feeling so markedly different in his early years, is plagued by the same fears and doubts and insecurities as any young man. It’s a feel-good sort of tale that would make for a great audio book. It demands bouts of attention and carries on in the way of a good-hearted passenger seat occupant who has the inclination to wryly dissect a life not fully lived, but is still well worth living.

2 comments:

Shivani Singh said...

Hi Manasi,

Nice blog!

Hope you are doing well... I am sorry for writing directly here. I wanted to speak to you regarding your books. Request you to plz drop me an email on shivi100@gmail.com. Would wait fir your reply.

Thanks & regards,
Shivani

Anonymous said...

"Ahmad’s college years can be described thus: he buys a car, falls in love, sells the car, falls in love, buys another car, falls in love, has car trouble, fixes car trouble, falls in love, has more car trouble, fixes it again, falls in love, sells the car, buys a third car, falls in love."

Bravo, for this feels like truth. This book is banality itself. Did the review require much more exposition? (a glorious example of the tyranny of the 750-word standard)

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