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If you read nothing else this year, discover this book.—New York Journal of Books
"...irresistible-- a charming, laugh-out-loud-funny memoir of a Pakistani Muslim boy growing up in the western world. Full of suprises, hard to put down."—John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
"...beautifully written, funny and endearing, and in its own quiet way, important."—Sue Townsend, author of the Adrian Mole books
"I could not put the book down. I laughed at Imran's memories of his childhood. I marveled at his ability to look at his stumbles with such fearless honesty and I shared his gentle, wry irritation at the unfairness of the world.
The greatness of this book is easy to understand. Read it and you will come to know Imran Ahmad as though you have spent a lifetime growing up with him. You will warm to his wonderfully self-deprecating humor and, almost incidentally, you will learn a lot about yourself and a vast amount about the complex multicultural confusion of growing up as an immigrant Pakistani Muslim in England. This is a wise and witty book about the new cultural reality of globalization."—Bruce Elder, Sydney Morning Herald
'Hurrah for a memoir that isn't miserable! Hurray for Imran Ahmad's terrific sense of humor ... an entertaining, moving and thoroughly thought-provoking tale of our times.' —The Daily Mail
'A compelling quest for belonging ...' —Guardian
"... very clearly and vividly written, it's funny and perceptive about schools and neighbors and friends and girls and especially about the narrator himself, with his continuing puzzlement about religion, his smartly pressed clothes, and his apparently naïve fixation with cars."—Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass series
"... humour makes a powerful tool when socially relevant ... successful in striking that balance, by presenting a thought-provoking debate even as it makes you laugh out loud."—The Hindu
MY MOTHER’S FAMILY and my father’s family were from the same village in India, but, in the chaos and insanity of Partition, they headed in different directions. I could describe those events and years of separation in heartrending, excruciating, six-hundred-page detail, but this is not that kind of book. (This story will proceed mercifully briskly and you will not be tortured along the way.) Suffice it to say that, eventually, both families ended up in Karachi, the capital of West Pakistan.
My father and mother were students together at Karachi University. My father took a liking to my mother and became fixated on the idea of marrying her. Of course, any form of romance was out of the question, so he took to visiting my mother’s house, as a “family friend,” virtually every day for about five years. He could never seem to be there for the explicit purpose of seeing my mother, so he would busy himself with my mother’s younger brother, who was a teenager. My father had a scooter and he would take my future uncle on rides around Karachi, perhaps to visit the beach; or to eat hot, fresh samosas; or to buy mangoes when they were in season. He had numerous traffic accidents in the process. Eventually, he was allowed to marry my mother and he moved into the house of my mother’s family. My father was a civil servant and my mother was an elementary school teacher.
I didn’t find out about any of this until my uncle told me, when he came to London from Texas, for my father’s funeral.
I WAS BORN DURING a particularly heavy and prolonged rainstorm, this being the last big splash of the monsoon season. The streets were flooded.
I was already two weeks late when my father, tired of waiting, had decided to go out for the evening. My mother went into labor and my grandfather had to run out in the heavy downpour to find a taxi to take my mother to the maternity clinic. My father returned home that night to find no one there except the servant.
Meanwhile, I took my time in arriving (a trait I still exhibit sometimes) and I emerged in the early hours of September 13, 1962, after an extremely difficult labor.
It is possibly a divine blessing that my father was not at home when my mother went into labor. Had he been faced with the seemingly impossible task of finding a taxi in the middle of the deluge, it is possible that my father, in a state of panic and desperation, might have decided that the scooter was the only option.
I CAME SECOND IN the Karachi “Bonnie Baby” contest. I was wearing a black suit, white shirt, and dark tie. Smartly dressed, suave, and handsome, I looked like James Bond, although I was too young to have seen either of his movies. I was also somewhat unsteady on my feet. People were particularly impressed by my light skin.
First prize went to the child of the organizer. The judges were her friends. This is absolutely typical of third world, banana republic unfairness. In the West, the organizer’s child would not be allowed to enter the contest. I was denied the title of “Karachi’s Bonniest Baby” by blatant nepotism. I began my lifelong struggle against corruption and injustice.
Life in Karachi was stable, but unpromising. The British government was encouraging Commonwealth migration to postwar Britain, due to acute labor shortages. Many people were going and my mother thought it was a good idea: an adventure with great promise that would break the stagnation of life. She persuaded my reluctant father, who enjoyed life in Karachi, that we should move to England.
If you knew someone who knew someone in England, then that person in England would be your first contact on arriving. My parents knew of someone in Manchester, so that was their first destination. Fortunately for me (as events would later reveal), they soon decided to move to London.
There was a nasty shock on arrival in England. The kinds of jobs that my parents had access to were not what they had expected. In England, they were not considered to be educated professionals. They were expected to be lower-class manual workers. Only if they accepted this could they get jobs. Accommodation was another problem as well.
When my parents first arrived in Manchester, they met a woman who offered to rent to them her unfurnished town house. They moved in and spent much of their precious money on furnishing the place. They breathed a sigh of relief that they had been able to settle down in England relatively painlessly. Three weeks later, a lawyer’s letter arrived, advising them that they were not authorized to occupy the house. Their apparent landlady was really the tenant who had sublet the house to them; the true owner had discovered that Pakistanis now occupied the house and wanted them out. My parents had to leave the house and abandon the furniture they had bought.
ENGLAND AT THAT TIME had a very defined class system. I think that it could be analyzed in great detail, worthy of a doctoral thesis, but a broad representation would be as follows:
White working class
In this society, my parents, who were from the educated middle class in Karachi, found themselves in a very hostile environment, at the mercy of uneducated, uncouth people in terms of jobs and accommodation. The latter, in the earliest days, was a series of bed-sits.
A bed-sit, for the benefit of my American readers, is a part of a house that is rented out, consisting of a bedroom and living room (which may be the same room) and use of a bathroom and a kitchen (which may be shared with other bed-sits). The term “apartment” is therefore too grand for this accommodation. If the bed-sit consisted of two proper rooms, then Pakistanis invariably ended up subletting one of the rooms to other Pakistanis.
This wasn’t always due entirely just to lack of money. Accommodation was hard to come by for Pakistanis. Although many people in London were renting out rooms, some had signs that read No Irish or Coloureds. The more liberal-minded ones had signs that read No Coloureds.
Even without the signs, some would make excuses to my parents such as “We don’t allow babies.” So, it was a very difficult time and it was in one such bed-sit, where my parents had rented a room from another family, that I formed my first permanent memory.
… My mother is standing precariously on top of a stool, facing a window in the kitchen. Something has happened to the old window—some part of it has dropped on my mother’s hands, trapping them in the wooden frame. She is caught in a very awkward position on the stool, her hands stuck in the window frame, looking back down at me and trying to give me instructions. My father is out at work, I am two years old and my brother, Rehan, is a baby. Fortunately, the woman we sublet the room from returns eventually and calls the fire department. I watch the fireman in his uniform, working on the window to free my mother…
Our first bed-sit of our own in London was offered to my parents by a woman who was also a tenant in that house; she managed the place and collected the rent on behalf of the landlord. However, there was a condition. She told them that they must “go to the park” every Friday morning, when the landlord came to get the rent from her, because he did not approve of children in his rental properties. It later emerged that there was a different reason why we had to be out whenever he came. The woman had not informed the landlord that this particular bed-sit was now occupied; she was pocketing the rent for herself. When, as was inevitable, the landlord eventually discovered the truth, this ended in acrimony for all parties and we had to leave the house.
WE HAVE OUR OWN BED-SIT, at the top of a three-story town house in Perham Road, Fulham (not far from downtown London). We have one big room and one small room. My father, mother, brother, and I live in the big room. The small room is rented out to some other Pakistani man.
My parents buy me a tricycle. It is kept in the room and my father has to carry it downstairs for me when I want to ride it. I am allowed to ride it up and down the sidewalk outside the house, with my father watching. The street is quiet, with only a few parked cars, and many children play here. The whitewashed houses are narrow and tall, each with two grand columns at the entrance. My father tells me that I can ride my tricycle to the end of the street, but then I must come back. I must not go around the corner; that is forbidden.
As I approach the end of the street, I imagine how much fun it would be to go around the corner, ride around the whole block and then surprise my father (who is chatting with a neighbor) by appearing from the other end of the street. This seems unbearably funny to me.
I reach the corner and suddenly launch into my scheme of playful disobedience; I lunge around the corner and pedal as fast as I can. The next corner is very close. (The block is very thin, being only the thickness of two back-to-back town houses with very small backyards.) I conquer this side in no time and pedal furiously around the next corner. A shock awaits me; the block stretches as far as the eye can see. What have I got myself into?
I have no choice. I push on, pedaling the tricycle as fast as I can. It seems to take forever; the other end of the block comes closer excruciatingly slowly. I pedal and pedal, with a mounting sense of panic: I am alone and far away from home. I ignore the people that I pass, and they seem to ignore me. My legs are aching, but I dare not stop. Eventually, the corner comes and I turn around it. Now, I have just a short side of the block to overcome. I keep pushing the pedals and thankfully soon turn this corner.
The home side of the block stretches in front of me. There, in the distance, I can see my father; he seems a long way away. I pedal as fast as my weary legs can manage, and he comes closer, slowly closer.
When I reach my father, he does not seem to think my joke is funny. He is not angry, but he is disappointed. He tries to tell me that what I have done is foolish and bad in some way, but I don’t really understand how.
MY PARENTS MANAGE TO BUY A HOUSE. This is through extreme hard work, careful saving, and a first-time buyer’s mortgage from the Greater London Council (city council).
It is a two-story town house on Weiss Road, Putney (about five miles from the center of London). It appears very narrow from the outside, but is quite deep. The front door is very close to the sidewalk; there is no driveway or private parking, which does not matter too much as we do not have a car. There is a very small concrete backyard (not really a garden), which is rarely used.
For years, one or two of the rooms are rented out to a succession of other immigrants: Pakistanis, Chinese, Nigerians, Iranians. My parents, who for so long had lived at the whim of landlords, are now landlords themselves. But this is not about making lots of money; it is about trying to make ends meet.
In reality, I barely notice these other occupants. They keep to their own rooms except when using the kitchen or bathroom. Our own parts of the house seem more than adequate, compared to the bed-sits in which we have been living.
There is a nice old lady named Mrs. Rose who lives next door; she is a widow. She is very kind and friendly, never showing any resentment toward all these foreigners who’ve moved in. She has two budgies and she drinks a lot of tea; the brand is Brooke Bond tea to be precise. The boxes of this tea periodically contain different series of collector’s “tea cards,” which are about different subjects: flags of the world, British costumes, history of the motorcar, famous people, the saga of ships. There are always fifty in a full set. Mrs. Rose collects these, and then she gives them to me. Once in a while, she puts the latest collection in an envelope through our letter box. It’s always a nice surprise.
One day, my mother goes away to Putney Hospital. My father goes there to visit and some family friends look after Rehan and me. When my mother returns, there are many people in the house and much excitement. She lays a baby down and I peer at him over the edge of the crib; he is my new brother, Rizwan.
We usually travel to places by bus. One evening we are hurrying toward a bus stop on Putney Bridge. A traditional red London double-decker, open at the back, is at the bus stop. I am in front, my father is right behind me carrying Rehan, and behind them is my mother with Rizwan in a pram. I will be the first of my family to board the stationary bus. My right foot is lifted and hovering above the edge of the deck when the bus suddenly lurches away. My foot comes down on empty space.
My parents are in no doubt as to why this happened. The conductor saw Pakistanis about to board the bus and hurriedly instructed the driver to pull away.
I START INFANT SCHOOL, at Hotham School in Putney. It is a big, redbrick Victorian school, with two concrete playgrounds. The ground floor is the infant school, the next floor is the junior school, and the top floor is mysterious. Inside, there is wooden parquet flooring and the classrooms are bright and colorful. My teacher is Mrs. Sikora, a slim, sprightly Scottish lady. The activities are fun; I am part of the crowd. I am unremarkable and my reading progress is average.
Every day we have assembly. Every day I hear a story about Jesus, who lived a long time ago. Jesus was a very good man and told everyone to be nice to people. That seems fair to me.
One day we hear the story of the Prodigal Son. I am sitting on the floor with the other children listening to this. We are told that the Prodigal Son left his father’s house to go to a faraway land because he thought that he could find a better life. Instead, he fell upon hard times, had to work as a swineherd, and was reduced to eating the same food as the pigs. I try to imagine what this must be like. But there’s one thing that I don’t understand. If he was herding pigs, why didn’t he just eat the food from the pigs? This, I know, is Spam, which we are fed at school. I know that eggs come from chickens and milk comes from cows, so I have logically deduced that slices of Spam emerge from live pigs in the same way.
It appears that I have little talent in the field of art. One day, I draw “some sticks falling from a tree.” This is what I tell my neighboring classmates when they ask me what on earth this picture is supposed to be. When she comes around to examine my work, Mrs. Sikora (who is normally very nice and kind) does not interpret the crisscross of brown crayon lines in quite the same way as I do; she is quite scathing about the quality of my masterpiece.
On another occasion, the ball that I have drawn in the middle of an otherwise empty page, painstakingly filling in the small circle with a black crayon, causes her such consternation that she holds it up to show the class and calls it “just a dirty black ball.”
I do have a growing awareness of being different: both foreign and not Christian. I learn a lot about Jesus in school, but I think that I’m not supposed to believe in him.
In the holidays and at weekends, I play in the street with the other children. They are of all ages and races. We wander around the neighborhood with impunity, although my parents prefer that I stay within the immediate vicinity of Weiss Road. There is a sweet shop (candy store) around the corner from our house. Whenever I get a halfpenny or two, I go immediately to the sweet shop to spend the money.
Our latest fashion is Tarzan cards. They come in packets: four cards with a stick of bubble gum. Each card shows a scene from a cartoon Tarzan story. I really don’t like bubble gum, but I like collecting the cards. I carry my thick wad of cards around with me in the street.
One day, two older boys whom I know by sight approach me. One is black and one is white. The white boy also has a stack of Tarzan cards. The black boy says that we can play a game in which we will win Tarzan cards from each other. He knows the rules and will show me how to play.
We squat on the sidewalk outside my house and play the game. The black boy is orchestrating the game; the white boy is the other contestant. I don’t really understand the game at all. Each time I pull one of the cards from my pile, the other boy also pulls a card from his pile. The black boy examines the two cards and then declares the winner. The white boy keeps winning and also gets to keep both of the cards each time. I don’t understand how this works, but I keep playing in the hope of winning my cards back.
In a very short space of time, I lose all of my precious Tarzan cards. This is a horrible, unbelievable thing that has happened. I am frantic and miserable as I realize that, because I have no more cards, I can’t play anymore, so there’s no chance to win my cards back. I notice that the black boy has a very cunning smile as the two of them walk away with all of my Tarzan cards.
I run inside to tell my mother. She is dressed like a cleaning woman: rubber gloves, apron, scarf over her hair. She seems always to be cleaning the house. Very upset, I tell her what happened, hoping that she can make it right. She looks very tired.
At the end of the school year, my mother takes my two brothers and me with her to Pakistan and we live at my grandparents’ big house for the entire summer vacation. My father continues to work in London; he has no choice. My mother is highly stressed by the misery, humiliation, and poverty of life in England (not to mention the cold and the rain), and is possibly having a nervous breakdown. She is seriously considering moving us back to Pakistan permanently.
My grandfather is a tall, distinguished man with a bald head. One day he takes me to work with him; he is the manager of the railway station. He wears a white short-sleeved shirt and dark trousers, and carries a leather satchel. We travel to the railway station in a motor rickshaw. His office has many open windows that look out on to the tracks and let in the blazing sunshine, and a fan blows across the room, oscillating steadily throughout the day, marking time like a clock. There are several essential paperweights on his desk: smooth, glass orbs with colorful trinkets embedded inside them. Many men come to see my grandfather, talking about important matters to do with trains, and he reads and signs endless papers. He introduces me as his grandson who lives in London; I try not to fidget too much.
My mother explores the idea of us attending school in Pakistan, but eventually she decides to give England another try and we arrive back in London. I can see my father through the glass wall at Heathrow Airport, waiting for us. It is good to see him again.
I RETURN TO SCHOOL and enter the next class. Somehow, and I’m not sure how, I acquire a reputation with Miss Waterford for being disobedient and not paying attention, chattering too much to my classmates. Academically I am somewhat dull—nothing special.
One day at school lunch, I notice that my classmate Stephen MacNamara has an interesting way of eating Spam. He cuts the slice into precise little squares. I wish that I had done the same. I look forward to the next time that we eat Spam. (Due to the unhealthy nature and repetition of school meals, I do not have long to wait.) When I next eat Spam, I remember to cut it into little squares, which is fun.
I tell my parents about it in the evening. They confer together, then issue a commandment: “We don’t eat pork.”
I am disappointed, but I obey them. From then on, I don’t eat pork. I don’t know why, but I don’t do it.
We have an oil-fired central heating boiler installed in our house. There is an oil tank in the backyard, which must occasionally be refilled by a visit from a tank truck. Since we live in a narrow street of town houses, the tanker has to parallel park outside in front of the house.
One day, there is a relatively small space outside the house when the oil tanker comes. My father is giving the Irish driver parking directions, trying to guide him as he attempts to reverse into the space. Unfortunately, communication between them is not very good, and they disagree on whether there really is enough space for the tanker to park. There is a heated exchange, they both get angry, and the tanker drives away.
My father gets on the phone to the company immediately. He is furious. He tells them to send another tanker, and “not another Irishman.” I know that this is wrong. My father, who is basically a good man, decent and well-intentioned, has allowed himself to be influenced by the prevailing racism of our times, buying into it insofar as it is not directed against him. The irony of this is apparent to me, even at this age.
Doctor Who is a very important television program for all of my school friends and me. Some of my classmates say that they watch it “from behind the sofa,” because of the scary monsters. I can’t say the same because our television is kept in my parents’ bedroom, so there’s no sofa to watch it from behind.
Due to some Pakistani gathering one Saturday evening, to which my parents insist on taking us, I miss the Doctor Who episode in which the dark-haired Doctor changes into a new Doctor, a light-haired one. I am very upset with my parents; they have no idea about what is really important.
My friend Roger Maxwell explains to me what happened when we confer in the playground on Monday. It sounds very exciting. I’m upset that I missed it.
My parents receive Life magazine in the mail. In one edition there is an article entitled “One Week’s Dead.” I count eleven pages of small photos of American soldiers killed in a war that is happening somewhere. I never realized that so many Americans are black; I thought it was just a few. On American television programs, we just see the occasional black person here and there.
Several editions of Life show photos of men going to the moon. I stare at them, enthralled. The pictures are amazing. They show the men at every stage of the journey: preparing, blasting off in a huge rocket, landing on the moon, coming back, splashing into the sea. These men are all white, unlike the ones killed in the war.
I AM AN UNREMARKABLE SCHOOLCHILD. Miss Rigby does not think much of me. She tells my mother that I am average. My parents always make a point of coming into the school at least a couple of times a year and asking my teacher how I’m doing. I find it extremely embarrassing that they come to the classroom to speak with the teacher; no one else’s parents ever do such a thing.
There is some problem with one of the Apollo missions to the moon. My mother insists on watching the return to Earth instead of letting me watch The Flintstones on the other channel. We don’t often argue over which of the two channels to watch. There is a third channel, called BBC2, but hardly anyone watches it because the picture is very bad and you need a new kind of television and a special antenna installed on the roof of your house to receive it properly.
My father buys a car. Hooray! It is an old British one, a Morris. It is sitting outside the house when we come home from school one day. The next morning, my father is going to take us to school in it, which is exciting, although Hotham School is barely five minutes’ walk away. He turns the key, the car makes the starting noise, but it doesn’t start. He tries again. And again. And again. The car refuses to start. We sit here for what seems like forever, with my father repeatedly trying to start the car, which it stubbornly refuses to do.
We walk to school and when we return at the end of the day, the car is gone. We never see it again.
Miss Rigby has noticed that I squint a lot. She tells me to tell my mother that I must get my eyes tested. Dutifully, I do so. My mother conducts a rough-and-ready eye test, asking me if I can read the numbers on a calendar across the room. I can’t read any of them; they are a complete blur. But I’m afraid that my parents will be angry with me if I am found to be nearsighted and they have to pay for eyeglasses, so I lie and say that I can read them all. My mother never figures out the truth and the matter is not discussed again.
There is a television program about different religions and one day my mother makes me watch it because this episode is about Islam. Okay, so now I know that I’m a Muslim and we believe in someone called Muhammad. Well, I bet that Muhammad could beat up Jesus in a fight. Oh, but they wouldn’t fight; they would make peace, because that’s what they’re like. Darn.
How do we know Muhammad didn’t just make it all up? There are so many religions with different beliefs. Only one can be true. How do I know it’s this one? Anyone could just make up a religion. What happens to people who believe in one of the wrong religions? Hey, I’m only seven. I shouldn’t have to worry like this.
My father buys another car, an old blue VW Beetle. It works fine. Finally, we are a mobile family. We visit other Pakistani families a lot.
We exist in a community that maintains its own, separate existence within the greater white English community. I lead a dual existence, belonging to English society (for the most part) at school, and being Pakistani outside school. My parents are friendly with the white neighbors, but it is no more than that. They have no white friends who come to visit our house.
I am a pirate in a class play, which is to be performed for the rest of the school. It is a speaking part: I have one line. The day of the performance will be on Eid, a key Muslim celebration. I tell Miss Rigby that I will not be in school in the morning because I have to go to the mosque with my family, as is the tradition, but I will be back for the afternoon when we are performing the play. She acknowledges that this is okay.
Eid goes as planned. My father, Rehan, and I assemble with our fellow Muslims in improvised marquees in the grounds of Woking Mosque for the somber and incomprehensible ritual. We are back home for lunch, but I am anxious to get to school on time for the afternoon session.
Back at school, Miss Rigby seems surprised to see me. Having completely forgotten what I had told her, she has assigned someone else (Anne) to my part. I am here now, so I will be in the play, but Anne (who has already been made up) will also be in the band of pirates. The crucial moment comes and I deliver my key line—and so does Anne. Miss Rigby had not thought to instruct one of us not to say that line.
There is a girl in my class called Patricia Bastin. I like her a lot. In fact, I am in love with her. This means that I must marry her someday. I hope that my being a foreigner won’t be an issue, but it does give me a sense of disadvantage, of inadequacy. I’m not sure how this process works, but I imagine that Patricia and I will get married one day.
My friend Andrew Baker senses my affection for Patricia. One day he tells me that he and Patricia have decided to get married, and have been discussing which church to get married in. I am heartbroken. How could I have been so stupid as to think that Patricia would marry me? I am different, a foreigner, and I don’t go to church.
We have a new headmaster, Mr. Campbell. He has a soft, dignified manner, a scholarly face, and horn-rimmed eyeglasses. He is very fond of classical music. Every morning in Assembly, he tells us some profoundly important moral story, often from the Bible, but not always so. I learn my basic morality from him: kindness, honesty, good deeds, helping others. Every morning he leads us in a prayer, and we pray to God to help us to be good and for nice things for everybody. I know that we Muslims believe in God, so although this prayer in Assembly is a different style from the one that we do in the mosque, I am not uncomfortable about it.
My father gets a new job. He now works for Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and is based at Heathrow Airport. (He never changes jobs again.) He looks so smart in his uniform and he’s really proud of it: It looks just like a pilot’s uniform, but with only one white stripe around the wrists, not four gold stripes like a captain. (Over the years to come, the stripes become more numerous and gradually transmute from white to gold.) The most significant aspect of this job, which shapes my life forever, is that we will get cheap tickets on PIA and partner airlines (but always have to travel standby). Also, I come to love airports and airplanes; the bustle, the noise, the anticipation of going somewhere, I relish these always.
Perhaps to celebrate his new job, my father trades in the Beetle for a VW Fastback, a coupé that always seems to be quite rare. We hardly ever see another one.
One night I have a dream. Jesus is in the playground, at the far end, and all the children are running excitedly to gather around him. Except for me. I’m hiding around a corner, taking a peek now and then at what’s going on, but I’m keeping away because I’m not supposed to be part of this. I feel awkward and afraid.
Being different is troublesome sometimes. Why couldn’t I just have been “normal” (i.e., white, English, Christian)? Then I would have just fitted in with everyone, and I wouldn’t have to be afraid of Jesus.
One day at school, fish and chips (everyone’s favorite!) is being served for lunch. The smell and the anticipation are delightful. Michael Swallow, who is from my class and seems a bit of a harmless rogue, decides to push into the queue in front of me when I am nearly at the counter. I am outraged, but—in a supreme moment of forgiveness, of which both Jesus and Mr. Campbell would approve—I decide to let him go ahead, to not worry about it. I calmly deduce that this will result in nothing more than me getting my fish and chips just a few seconds later. Michael Swallow reaches the front and has to specify his choice: fish and chips, or cheese and egg flan? It’s a mere formality.
I reach the counter and the hideous truth is revealed to me when my meal preference is not requested by the lunch lady. There are no more trays of fish and chips. Michael Swallow got the last fish and chips! Those should have been my fish and chips. He and I realize this at the same instant. He is just walking past me with his tray of ill-gotten gains when his eyes and mine lock together, and I can see a hint of guilty acknowledgment in his face. But then he averts his gaze and hurries away. I am angry, furious; I feel bitter and cheated.
I look sullenly at what is put on my plate. A square of cheese and egg quiche that looks like dry sick. A round mass of implausibly white mashed potato, which I know from experience is utterly tasteless. A blob of some green mush that used to be vegetables, all appetizing texture and goodness having been scrupulously boiled out of them. This is what kindness and forgiveness get you.
In the playground, Patricia asks me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I know the answer; I have thought about it a lot.
“I’d like to have my own television program.”
“What, you mean like The Imran Ahmad Show?”
“No, I mean like…” but my voice trails off. I can’t explain this; it will sound ridiculous.
What I really want is to be an actor who plays a character like Simon Templar in The Saint, a brave hero who helps good people and punches bad people and drives a sports car called a Volvo. But I know that this is a wild, impossible dream for two reasons. First, no one can imagine a television program with a Pakistani man as the hero—that will never happen. Second, as a television hero I would probably have to kiss women—on the lips!—and Pakistanis don’t do that. I cringe with embarrassment at what my parents would think if they saw me on the television, kissing women, like the Saint does.
In the summer vacation, my brothers and I visit Pakistan again with our mother. My father calls the PIA office and tells them to give us good seats (if we get seats, of course, being standby). The captain tells us when we land that the temperature outside is ninety-one degrees. When I step out of the aircraft onto the top of the staircase, into the overwhelming, oppressive brightness, I immediately gain an understanding of what ninety-one degrees feels like, one that I remember forever. I feel my clothes sticking to me suddenly from the instant perspiration.
My grandfather comes to meet us with an array of relatives, taxis, and a hired minibus. Karachi is as I remember it: hot, bright, colorful, frantic. My grandfather’s house is big by London standards. It is detached (stand-alone), with iron gates and a driveway. It actually has several entrances, as it is organized into four separate units; two of them are rented out at this time. There is also a big flat roof, which has a couple of rooms built on it (where we usually sleep) and a large open area with many clay plant pots. Every morning, when we wake up, my grandfather is watering the plants on the roof.
BACK IN ENGLAND, my new teacher, Mr. Ford, surprises me in class by calling me to the front and asking me to talk about my trip to Pakistan. This is quite a shock, as it is the first time that I have addressed an audience, but I have plenty of material to talk about and my enthusiasm carries me through. I start with the story of the journey on a Boeing 707, which is thrilling because most of my classmates have never flown.
There are questions throughout my talk and one person asks what they wear in Pakistan. “Rags,” mumbles Mario. Mr. Ford silences him with a severe look.
I answer from my fresh recollection. “The women wear saris or brightly colored loose trousers and matching shirts called shalwar kameez, and the men wear trousers and short-sleeved shirts.”
Every morning we have breakfast in the kitchen before going to school. The radio is always tuned to BBC Radio 4, for the Today program. One morning what we hear is particularly bleak.
“This is the BBC News. India and Pakistan have declared war.” My mother looks very upset. I know what happens in wars. I imagine Indian planes dropping bombs on my grandfather’s house. I am very worried. Life goes on as normal for us in England, but everyone is tuned into the news all the time.
On the television news one evening, we see that the reality is as horrible as we imagine. The BBC reporter shows how Indian planes bombed an orphanage in Pakistan. They bombed an orphanage! Most of the children were killed. There is a nearby railway line that was the intended target, apparently.
So now I have something to hate: India.
Hatred is a delicious feeling—it comes so easily and makes me feel good about myself… superior to someone else.
Many evenings, Pakistanis gather together at someone or other’s house, all talking about the war. (I imagine that Indians do the same.) This is a delight for armchair strategists. We children, who are invisible, play or sit and listen. “If we can just win Kashmir, then this will all be over.” I listen, think, and nod with agreement. It all seems very simple. If we can take control of Kashmir, then we will win the war. Apparently Kashmir should have been given to Pakistan at Partition because it is mostly Muslim, but India wants to keep it. How evil and unreasonable! Anyway, God will surely help Pakistan to win because God is Muslim.
There are other things happening. Horrible, horrible things. Words I don’t understand: “mass rape.” Words I do understand: “torture,” “massacres.” I see a Pakistani newspaper that shows a sequence of photographs. A man has been captured by soldiers and is tied up. They burn him with cigarettes. He pleads for mercy. Then they shoot him. I don’t understand who is doing this to whom. How can this be? Don’t these people worry about what God will think?
Not only does Pakistan fail to win the war, but also East Pakistan breaks away and declares its independence, as Bangladesh, with India’s help. This is incomprehensible. It is treachery. My parents have some East Pakistani friends, a couple and their two daughters, whom we used to meet with quite often. I remember going to Windsor Castle with them. My parents don’t phone them anymore and we never see them ever again.
We are doing a history project about the Romans at school. I have an encyclopedia of history, which I bring to school one day to consult for the project. Mr. Ford runs into me outside the school this morning and notices the book I am carrying. I tell him it is for the project.
At the end of the school day, as we file out of the classroom, Mr. Ford again notices the book I am carrying, now being taken home.
“Is that yours?” he demands.
“Yes,” I reply.
“Are you sure?” he asks incredulously.
He thinks that I am completely dim and couldn’t possibly own such a book. But he saw me bring it in the morning! I can’t understand how teachers can be so forgetful.
One day, Mr. Ford, for reasons best known to himself, decides to tell us about secondary (high) school. He says that we don’t appreciate how lucky we are in school right now. Secondary school is a horrible place. The teachers are mean and will make our lives miserable. They will be nasty and unfriendly and will give us lots of homework. If we put a foot wrong, the punishments will be severe.
There is silence in the room; we look at each other with fear in our eyes. We all know that one day we must go to secondary school, which is frightening now, but at least it is a long way in the future. The anticipation and fear that he has instilled in me remain.
There is a problem that I always have with Eid, which comes twice a year. It is nice to get some presents (although these are not as extravagant or numerous as the ones that my classmates get for Christmas), but Eid means having to go to the prayer gathering in smart (generally new) clothes and this for me means “rough” trousers. By “rough” I mean that the fabric of formal trousers sets my skin on fire; the itching and irritation are unbearable. To prevent this, my mother allows me to wear cotton pajama bottoms under my trousers, which keep the “rough” trousers from touching my skin. The bottoms of the pajamas are tucked into my socks.
Every Friday afternoon in the junior department we have “Friday Concert,” which is like a special Assembly; children from the different classes showcase their work, read stories, perform short dramas, and so on. We all sit on the floor in a huge circle around the perimeter of the hall. One week, my class is to perform a short play and Mr. Ford chooses me for a leading role, the chief of the Blackfoot tribe. We rehearse the play a few times and perform it for Friday Concert. We are in our underwear and have some face paint on our cheeks to show that we are “Red Indians.”
Adam Smith, the chief of the Whitefoot tribe, gathers his people for a meeting, and, before them all, he snaps an arrow in two; this means war! He hands the broken arrow to a messenger, Michael Swallow, and orders him to take it to the chief of the Blackfoot tribe (that’s me). Michael Swallow brings me the broken arrow and I hold it up before all my people, telling them, “We are at war with the Whitefoot tribe!”
As for Michael Swallow, I order my men to “Throw him to the dogs!”
“No, no!” he pleads pathetically as he is dragged away.
Well, this serves him right for stealing my fish and chips, but I don’t really understand what the dogs will do to him—lick him to death?
We go to war against the other tribe; many on both sides are killed and wounded, it is unbearable, so eventually we decide to make peace, which is better than war. It makes good sense to me.
My friend Adam Smith invites me to his house after school for tea. Their house is semidetached (duplex) (there’s a “junk room”—a whole bedroom used just for storing old stuff, instead of being rented out) and has a big backyard, and his mother is quite posh.
She calls us inside to eat and puts a plate of sausages and beans in front of each of us.
“Are these pork sausages?” I ask in a serious, businesslike manner. When Adam’s mother confirms that they are, I respond automatically, and somewhat abruptly, in a voice indicating strong concern, “I don’t eat pork.”
Adam’s mother is the perfect hostess. “Oh, of course you don’t. How silly of me. I’ll do you some fried eggs instead.” She pulls the plate away immediately.
“Why doesn’t he eat pork, Mum?” queries Adam.
“Oh, it’s religion, dear,” responds Adam’s mother in a distracted way as she focuses on the frying of eggs.
Oh, so that’s why I don’t eat pork! It’s because of my religion.
There’s bad news about Jesus. Mr. Ford tells us that the Romans killed him by “crucifixion.” He explains what this is, but I’m not sure that I understand. Apparently, if you hang for too long, you become too tired to breathe and so you die. This seems hard to believe. How could you ever be so tired that you couldn’t manage another breath? Still, it sounds very horrible and we are all very subdued.
But there was also a cruel trick the Romans used, Mr. Ford tells us. They would put a little seat on the cross so that the poor person could rest on it for periods of time. This made them less tired, so that they could breathe for longer, but then it took them three days to die. Three days to die! How horrid.
My father tends to get time off on Fridays, and in the school holidays he takes us to a mosque in Wimbledon for Friday prayers. The mosque is really a town house, devoid of furniture, white sheets spread over all the floors. The entrance hall is piled with pairs of shoes. My father sends us upstairs, which seems to be designated for boys, while he prays downstairs with the men. We sit on the floor in a room with other Pakistani boys, who all seem to know each other.
The formal congregational prayer is not too difficult. My brothers and I merely go along with all the bowing and kneeling and prostrating, along with everyone else. The problem is that after the official Friday prayer ritual is over, there seems to be some form of optional prayers that everyone does, but they do them separately, in their own time, not in a coordinated way. Not having a clue what to do and not wanting to stand out from the crowd, I always select someone in my line of sight and copy his every move, pretending to be muttering the Arabic prayers under my breath.
One day I am rumbled. A youth in my row stares at me, then calls to his friend, “Hey, Wajid, he’s copying you.”
I carry on, pretending to be oblivious to this, as if I’m not really copying Wajid. He finishes and looks around at me. They both confront me.
“You don’t know how to pray?” Wajid asks me in a critical way. “Can you read Qur’an?” He is proud of the fact that he obviously can and I must be stupid. (He means “Can’t you read,” but his English is not sophisticated enough for him to articulate this.)
I shake my head miserably. I’m a foreigner in white, English society and I don’t seem to fit into Pakistani society either.
IN CLASS I sit next to a lovely honey-blonde girl named Kim and she tells me about a book called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I persuade my mother to buy it for me and I am instantly absorbed in it. It is un-put-down-able. I devour it and then all the other books of the Narnia series written by C. S. Lewis.
Each of these stories is a great read, but there is something that I’m very uncomfortable about. The enemies of Narnia are from a country called Calormen, and these people look unmistakably like Saracens, medieval Muslims; the Narnians themselves look like Crusaders. In wanting to identify with the characters, I am torn between a natural desire to be on the side of “good,” the white English children, and a feeling that I am condemned to be in the other camp, the Calormenes, the “darkies” from Calormen (colored men?) with their curved swords and spicy food and unmistakable Islamic cultural symbolism. These thoughts cause me discomfort, but I still enjoy the stories.
One specific example troubles me deeply. Whenever Muslims mention the prophet Muhammad, apparently they are supposed to proclaim “Peace be upon him!” as a sign of respect. Whenever the Calormenes mention their leader, they always proclaim “May he live forever!” in exactly the same tone. It seems to be a deliberate imitation of the Muslim custom.
The Narnia paperbacks that I acquire are published by Puffin. At the back of each book is a page inviting the reader to join the Puffin Club, the children’s book club of Penguin Books, for an annual subscription of fifty pence (payable by check or money order). I do a sales pitch to my parents and I am able to procure the necessary financial instrument. I love being a member of the Puffin Club and look forward anxiously to the arrival of the Puffin Post magazine every three months. I always read it avidly from cover to cover. It is filled with information about endless numbers of exciting books to buy and read.
Every time I get any money from any relatives, I spend it on paperback books from the local WHSmith. If I don’t have any money, I try to persuade my mother to buy me a book whenever we go to Putney High Street together. (She usually goes there on Saturday morning to make the weekly payment for the new sofas at the furniture store.) I am now hooked on reading and always have my head in a book. I read fiction at home and mostly nonfiction books at school, including a set of American science textbooks that take me deep inside the Earth and around the solar system.
Also I discover a series of novels about an American boy named Danny Dunn. He knows a scientist (Professor Bullfinch) who is always inventing things, resulting in Danny Dunn and his friends having amazing adventures: time travel, space travel, being shrunk to the size of ants, traveling to the bottom of the sea, being trapped inside a fully automated house. (In one book, Danny Dunn and the Automatic House, a visitor mentions that he doesn’t drink tea because “it’s full of tannin—the stuff they use to tan leather. You can imagine what it does to the stomach.” I give up drinking tea immediately, switching to coffee as a healthier alternative.) America does seem like a good and exciting place; they have all the best inventions and adventures. (Only Americans get to go to the moon.)
My reading age finally shoots past my chronological age. Somehow, remarkably, I start to gain a reputation in class for being bright, especially in science.
On one of our many visits to the houses of other Pakistani families, my father is conversing with an old friend of his. In Urdu, he says something that translates roughly as “When one hears the name of God, one’s heart should tremble with fear.”
This is not unusual for a Pakistani conversation among the older generation. We are certainly a God-fearing people who talk about God a lot, punctuating nearly every statement with “insh’Allah” (“if God is willing”) and “ma’sh’Allah” (expressing thanks for the will of God).
I shudder to think of God. I have this deep-seated anxiety that I’m not going to make the grade and I’m worried about what happens to people who fail to please God.
Around Christmas, Miss Toyne is reading the Nativity story to us, going over it in some detail. The Romans were conducting a population census, and this required everyone “to return to their place of birth in order to be counted.”
I can’t get over the implications of this. What a hassle it must have been, to return to one’s place of birth, just to be counted.
There are a couple of middle-aged ladies who are employed solely to patrol the playgrounds at lunchtime. They carry toilet rolls, as toilet paper is not supplied to the outside toilets. They dispense this to any child who requests it; the number of sheets given is at their own discretion. They are also responsible for authorizing the movement of any child into the school building, for whatever reason. One of the ladies is very nice; the other is always miserable. Her face is implausibly white; it appears to be covered in talcum powder.
One lunchtime I begin to feel cold as I am not wearing my coat, I am not engaged in any exertion and an icy winter wind is now blowing. I would like to get my coat from the cloakroom, but I need the permission of the dinner lady to go inside the school (even though no one would notice me if I went inside just to the cloakroom).
Unfortunately, the miserable lady is patrolling my playground today. I approach her with absolute deference and respect.
“Please may I get my coat?”
She looks at me sternly, with undisguised disdain. I am standing in front of her, clearly shivering. She has complete and utter authority over me in this situation.
“Well, you seem to have managed without it this long. You don’t need it now.”
She decides that I shall not have my coat. Rather than giving me the necessary permission to get my coat from the cloakroom—which is a mere formality in any case since this process of getting the coat would not involve her at all—she decides that I should remain cold. This is how she uses her power over me.
Excerpted from The Perfect Gentleman by Ahmad, Imran Copyright © 2012 by Ahmad, Imran. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide 335
Posted March 29, 2012
This memoir had me laughing from the first chapter. Imran really pours his heart out in this book and it is easy to tell he is completely sincere. In The Perfect Gentleman Imran shares a little bit about each year of his life, from his birth up until his late teens, skipping through later adulthood at faster pace. It easy for the reader to immerse themselves into this story and follow Imran along as he attends school and later college in London.
At times it was sad to read about the bullying and racial discrimination Imran and his family endured while living in London. Although Imran did not grow up in Pakistan, he and his family went back regularly throughout his early life to visit his extended family still living there. During these moments in the book one gets suggestive moments of what life in Pakistan may have been like. Life for Imran is mostly in London although he does speak about a few short trips to the America as a child.
I went through many emotions while reading this book especially when Imran hit his later teens and he became more set in his ways. I found this memoir very compelling, at times informative other times irritating, yet overall thoughtful and surprising. In the end the little boy who started the conversation turned into a wise and wonderful man who left me enlightened along the way.
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Posted May 22, 2012
I have just read this for the SECOND time, having originally discovered the UK edition a number of years ago. Imran's style is incredibly fun to read and his stories provide some of the most thought-proviking and hilarious insight into the struggle to live a "normal" life in a society that seems it would prefer to judge you for what they think your religion and background is about rather than get to know you as a person. When you get to know Imran, you'll find that he's truly a great person, an objective thinker, and Perfect Gentleman... Enjoy!
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Posted October 13, 2012
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