The Perfect Gentleman | Imran Ahmad
Hurrah for a memoir that isn’t miserable,” said UK tabloid The Daily Mail, reviewing Imran Ahmad’s account of his life as a Pakistani boy growing up in south-west London in the 1960s and 1970s, an era in Britain’s history not celebrated for the tolerance or compassion shown to its immigrant communities.
The quotation was reprinted on the back of the international edition, and it sums up one of the problems of writing about the immigrant experience for many South Asians, who responded to Britain’s call for migration from the Commonwealth countries due to acute labour shortages and faced the gloomy reality of low-paid manual labour and signs that read “no Irish or Coloureds”.
Ahmad’s memoir documents this casual racism as well as the tragedy of Partition, and the problematic military involvement of the UK and US in the Cold War, and later in Afghanistan and Palestine. “I could describe those events (after Partition) in a heart-rending, excruciating six-hundred page detail, but this is not that kind of book,” says Ahmad in his first paragraph, to the evident relief of the Mail, a paper that still preoccupies itself with the issue of whether Britain has too many immigrants.
Instead, Ahmad’s narrative uses these events and other political milestones as markers to chart the more intimate story of a little boy driven by a longing to assimilate a foreign culture, at once his own and not his own. His central preoccupation, throughout childhood and his university days, is an internal battle between the seductive certainty of charismatic evangelical Christianity (a series of ambassadors for which are continually trying to convert him) and the colder, more scientific logic of Islam. Seen through a child’s eyes, this journey is not just illuminating, it’s funny…very funny. “Every day we have an assembly,” says five-year-old Imran. “Every day I hear a story about Jesus, who lived a long time ago. Jesus was a good man who told everyone to be nice to people. That seems fair to me…but I think I am not supposed to believe in him.”
It’s the first and the most lasting of the philosophical battles that permeate the novel. There’s the quest for the perfect car (the Jaguar XJS), and the tribulations of its various predecessors—the Renault 5, the Honda Accord, the Alfa Romeo. The mostly-unarticulated snobbery of a firmly middle-class boy scrambling up a rigid social hierarchy. The battle to find true love in a family where arranged marriage is one of the few certainties. All these preoccupations drive the young Imran on his journey to becoming the perfect English gentleman.
Imran is a lovable boy, scrupulously fair-minded, honest and often scandalized by the irrational and inexplicable defects of character that other people exhibit—especially the ones who ought to know better. His parents’ Muslim tenant wrecks their house and Imran is flabbergasted: “Isn’t he afraid God will be angry with him?” His first experience of injustice, however, happens in Pakistan when he loses the top spot in the Karachi bonniest baby contest to the child of the organizer: “blatant nepotism: I began my lifelong struggle against corruption and injustice.”
But he is also hopelessly narrow-minded and literal in his observations about the world. When he is 8, the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war breaks out: “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.”
The structure of the narrative, one year per chapter, used to similar effect by David Nicholls in his novel One Day, helps to drive the story. But the narrative voice, which stays in the continuous present and slides smoothly from the cadence of a small boy, a teenager, to a young man, is always informed by the wry wisdom of the adult Ahmad. We learn about religion and society in gasping revelations, the way Imran does—often too late. “I NEVER KNEW THAT!” is a frequent punctuating phrase.
The women in Imran’s life, who appear as a procession of avatars of his first fully formed conception of true love, Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, James Bond’s wife, are iterations of Imran himself. They are aloof, snobbish, cruel and ignorant in turns, with the exception of the mysterious “soul mate?” who appears in the final, most lyrical chapter. Here, an older, wiser Imran knows everything that his youthful self didn’t, sees shades of grey and understands the ambiguity of faith. But, along the way, he has lost much of his youthful idealism—perhaps the most honest admission of regret in a book filled with comic revelations.