If the past is another country, it may look something like the block of 74th Street north of Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, New York. For the many thousands of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent who reside there, the surrounding neighbourhood, known as Jackson Heights, is where they can pick up Sosyo in glass bottles and snap the tips off bhindi (okra) to test its freshness. It is where memory is preserved like parathas in the freezer case.
It’s also where myths are being modified. The film Today’s Special, starring The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi and a rather bemused Naseeruddin Shah, told the tale of a failing restaurateur whose assimilated son picks up the family business and runs with it. Harder than leaving behind one’s home is allowing the next generation—born American—the freedom to return to their traditions of their own accord.
The Good Muslim of Jackson Heights: Penguin India and Ravi Dayal, 244 pages, Rs 275.
Try as they may to dissolve the bonds of communal identity in the shared immigrant experience, the characters who inhabit The Good Muslim of Jackson Heights find the past catching up with them. Jaysinh Birjépatil’s torturous, patience-testing novel follows a Muslim Indian immigrant as he weathers religious crises real and fictional. Real: the fatwa against The Satanic Verses, the demolition of Babri Masjid and, inevitably, 9/11. Fictional: his wife earning a law degree and becoming a crusader against domestic violence and forced marriage, airing the South Asian immigrant community’s dirty linen.
The erstwhile Nawab Sirajuddin of Inderpur (a fictionalized Raipur), Prof. Siri Amolini now resides in Queens and teaches English at the fictional Kingman College. Through him, we learn much about India’s descent into violence, through the journal of Amolini’s anthropologist colleague. We get an outsider’s view of a police-sponsored assault on nearby adivasis and the ensuing riots fomented by venal politicians. Not a political novel, The Good Muslim is, rather, concerned with the ways in which we can become unintelligible to one another, even to ourselves.
The Good Muslim lurches in time and perspective drag it towards a dramatic culmination—in an epilogue, far too late for satisfaction—but away from its emotional centre. The epistolary format permits Birjépatil rather too much leeway with his eclectic vocabulary. Every character, Indian or American, comes to sound exactly like Amolini—which is to say, like an overstuffed, pompous academic.
This character couldn’t have been much of a stretch for Birjépatil, who once sported his accent aigu around Marlboro College in Vermont. That the character is nominally Muslim is beside the point, for he is secular to the bone—not to mention an insufferable snob, fond of opera and arcane allusions. It is difficult to imagine what he talks about with his neighbours, mostly paan-chewing grocers.
All they share is the experience of having been tossed into the proverbial melting pot. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Christian, shopkeeper or webmaster, everybody finds commensal solace at the Peacock Diner, no doubt inspired by the real-life Jackson Diner. Birjépatil alludes fleetingly to the arepa con queso stalls and Irish pubs flanking Jackson Heights’ few Indian blocks. He stumbles frequently over details. The neighbourhood seems to interest him less as a real place than as a locus of immigrant memory.
The immigrant experience has now been fodder for a generation of graduates of American college writing programmes. This “well-crafted” but unreadable fiction came under fire in a recent essay by Elif Batuman in the London Review of Books. She attacks MFA fiction for privileging marginalized voices over literature’s duty to its readers, lamenting “the large-scale replacement of books I would want to read by rich, multifaceted explorations whose ‘amazing audacity’ I’m supposed to admire in order not to be some kind of jerk.”
If anybody could side with Batuman in this dispute, it is Amolini. Had Birjépatil heard Batuman’s call for fiction without “real or invented sociopolitical grievances”, he might have reined in his orotund narrator on matters such as the Rushdie fatwa and instead sifted more carefully through the wreckage of Siri’s salvageable marriage.
Making matters more difficult, Birjépatil (who we are told is a poet) cares too much for the sound of his words and not enough for their sense. He hurls similes like the dishes a battered wife finds in the kitchen cupboard to fend off a brutal husband. Even if a few volleys make stinging contact before crashing to the floor, the result is an empty cupboard. And the aftermath is painful for everybody.
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