The American Dream 0.0

Three books with three substantially different takes on post-9/11 New York

Home Boy HM Naqvi Harpercollins India 216 pages, `399
01 September, 2010

WHAT, EXACTLY—“right here, right now, today, in the twenty-first century US of A,” as the rap song goes in HM Naqvi’s Home Boy—is the American Dream?

Tania James offers us one version of it early in her novel—a display, for those deep in Kerala’s backwaters, of America’s desirability. Melvin Vallara, trying to explain to his daughter, Linno, why America is self-evidently good, remembers his friend Eastern Bobby who migrated to Normal, Illinois, and on a trip back home nailed a white mundu to a wall and projected a home video featuring the contents of his American fridge: “a giant jug of milk, a blue carton of twelve perfect eggs, a brick of yellow cheese, and a box with several sticks of butter. In the freezer: a slab of steak and a whole chicken, beheaded and plucked, sitting upright like the guest of honour.” This, in the minds of James’ characters, is America.

When the teenage Anju Melvin, Vallara’s other daughter, makes it to New York, she discovers that the dream is for real; on her first day in the city she licks a bar of kiwi soap because it smells good enough to eat:

None of it seems true ... That a castle so sprawling, so full of books, guarded by stone lions, can be entered—for free. That men and women stand on sidewalks and beseech passersby to take wedges of fancy soap, cups of raspberry sorbet, movie tickets, soft drinks, and iced coffee—for free

Land of the free indeed.

This is America as Third World fantasy, as marvellous novelty. In a globalising world, however, where Anju’s sister, Linno, can choose from 31 flavours of Baskin Robbins back in Ernakulam, one must contrive a bit to maintain this sense of novelty and awe.

HM Naqvi knows this. His homeboys have nothing in common with the Malayalis admiring, however grudgingly, the milk and cheese in an American fridge. Naqvi’s characters occupy America not out of a sense of material ambition or gratefulness but simply as ‘Metrostanis’—confident cosmopolitans, men of the world, people whose cool adaptability banishes distances because Chuck, AC and Jimbo, the novel’s three Pakistani-American heroes, are as much at home in a Karachi diner as they are in a bar in Tribeca.

If the American Dream starts to crumble in Tania James’ Atlas of Unknowns, if the allure of supermarkets the size of amusement parks and apartment buildings modelled on giant vanilla cakes eventually fades, this is because, however, much they want America, her characters misjudge it. They believe that in escaping to the land of the free they are escaping themselves, but these older selves, these homegrown instincts and buried secrets, are impossible to get rid of. Anju’s one-year trip to New York on a prestigious scholarship is a trip that comes to represent all of her family’s hopes of betterment. She is not merely going to study for a year in America. She is going to, on the strength of her good fortune, either literally bring all her relatives to America or, metaphorically, bring America to them.

Atlas of Unknowns Tania James Simon & Schuster UK 319 pages, £12.99

But Anju—brilliant scholar at home—finds herself at sea abroad. “Anju can hardly tell what is good or bad. She thinks only in terms of Pass or No Pass. Fish has told her that no one fails this class, but to write of feelings? To be given no other instruction?” This disjunction between home and abroad is central to James’ imagination in this novel. She consistently maintains the distinction between the native self and the foreign land, so crucial to creating a story about tragic misunderstandings and dashed hopes.

Home Boy’s author would consider that distinction passé. Naqvi’s narrative implies that the story of the Third Worlder making it good in the West, or trying to, has been wrung dry. The men that take on America in Home Boy are already, in some sense, American—they are homeboys on the strength of nothing but their self-belief. This, then, is version two of the American Dream, the Great Gatsby version—America as the land of the free in that it lets you decide exactly who you want to be.

Naqvi’s theme draws strength from the marvellous confidence and fluency of his prose. He commands an array of characters—multi-ethnic, across classes, chasing different dreams—and through them lays claim to contemporary New York. Ali Chaudhury, or AC, personifies intellectual chic; he was once writing a dissertation on ‘the history of history,’ has Toynbee’s 12 volumes in his bathroom, and apparently endless reserves of charm and chutzpah: Naqvi depicts him jumping seven or eight feet down a fire escape, a can of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in hand, without spilling a single drop. There is Duck, Jimbo’s blue-blooded American girlfriend, consummate hostess who throws parties which segue into mornings when guests breakfast with rockstars, a girl who moves with the hipster crowd but is yet “contending with her own neuroses and anxieties... Someday soon she would find love again and find herself, take salsa classes, go bungee-jumping, move to Europe.” Then there is Old Man Khan: a proud Pathan, a foreman who during his 30 years in America has been involved in the building of several edifices on both sides of the Hudson River including the twin towers, someone who defines jihad as ‘struggling against oneself’ and who, watching the towers go down, says, “We should plant seeds in the mountains, grow flowers…trees everywhere and orchards, gardens…”

Quarantine Rahul Mehta Random House India 248 pages, `399

Other, minor characters streak through the narrative, impressive in their singularity—the Congolese tribesman ecstatic about becoming a bonafide New York City cabbie, the suave bartender who has been in the French Legion, the rich American wanderer who can tell you stories about trading vodka with the Chinese border guards at the Khunjerab Pass. Chuck—who has gone from being an English major to wearing a suit and going to work on Wall Street to driving a taxi—moves among the scenesters with ease, echoing the credo, “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.”

We know from the novel’s style that Naqvi believes this himself. What drives the narrative is not just the possibility of self-invention but also the excitement of being au courant. Apart from wielding brand names with artistic pleasure—the Wild Turkeys and Berry Bellinis and Milwaukee’s Best, the litany of American cigarette brands, the familiar references points of Subway and Duane Reade—Naqvi also lays claim to the music (DJ Jimbo’s ‘post-disco-proto-house-neo-soul’ compositions), to political positions (AC asserts his right to consider himself “a self-respecting Muslim atheist like any, ah, nonpracticing Christian, secular Jew, or carnivorous Hindu”) and, finally, to the very geography of New York:

The smart thing would have been to take Houston to West Broadway, pick up Jimbo, then take Ninth Avenue to AC’s because, as any cabbie can tell you, the lights on Ninth open up all the way through at thirty-four miles per hour, but Houston was backed up so I decided to cut through Alphabet City and fetch AC first because I figured Jimbo could wait and AC was already stewing like a pot of nihari.

Naqvi’s characters know the scene. Then come the events of 9/11 and the scene changes. If what gave them their tremendous drive was the certainty that nothing was impossible, they must now learn that a great deal, in fact, is. Chuck thinks of the time they had planned to go on a road trip with Duck to Las Vegas. “Who then could have anticipated that it would soon not be possible for three brown men to drive across America in a rented car, even with a blond in tow?”

Naqvi’s theme draws strength from the fluency of his prose. COURTESY OF TAPU JAVERI

THE ONLY THING THAT REMAINS when this version of the American Dream dies is a home to fall back on. In Atlas of Unknowns, home is the place whose material limitations you want to escape and whose web of memories and associations tugs you back. Despite having grown up in the States, Tania James writes of Kerala seemingly from the inside—building up the milieu detail by detail, describing older things like travelling theatre troupes performing Malayali versions of Ibsen in small towns, to newer developments like educated grocery store owners refusing to stock Pepsi in protest against American aggression in Iraq. James’ vision of the native place and its seductions is convincing because it is consistently specific. Her characters accept their fundamental incompatibility with the American Dream even if they might continue, more guardedly, to chase it.

Home Boy’s characters, however, are seemingly at home everywhere, or at least in New York’s global village version of everywhere. So when Chuck’s response to the changed New York is sudden nostalgia for Karachi and a phone call to his mother to say, “I want to come home, Ma,” we are not convinced. In a novel whose performative style draws on the buoyancy of its characters—men who seem to suffer none of the homesickness for the Third World that we are familiar with from other novels in this genre—the convenient possibility of a safe exit home comes across as a strangely lame idea. Naqvi’s heroes do not experience the contradictions of an American existence as does the hero of that other contemporary New York novel about love and disenchantment, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. When the increasingly tortured Changez in that novel talks of home we understand why it might be the only alternative left; when Naqvi’s dudes talk of home, it seems like a cop-out.

He is a smart enough writer to recognise this lapse; he redeems it by eventually portraying home not as an escape route out of a scene gone sour but as a deliberate choice made by characters who value their freedoms. So in the end it is, of necessity, a rosy not dark vision that America offers Chuck, which Chuck thoughtfully ponders: “…an SUV in the garage, assorted objets d’art in the drawing room, and a view of a manicured lawn.”

In Rahul Mehta’s stories of young gay men in America, however, there is no home in the background to escape to, whether in defeat or pride. In a curious inversion of home and abroad, the Indian-origin American narrator on holiday in Rajasthan in the story ‘Floating,’ is a foreigner in his ‘native’ land, dutifully eating his malaria pills and trying to dodge pushy touts. Early in the story he has made a promise to himself: he will not shop, he will not bring back trinkets and amusing stories to accompany how he got them. The narrator does not quite know what he wants to bring back from this trip to India but we understand that perhaps it is experience.

He is cheated on the trip in the archetypal way of the foreign tourist who imagines himself heeding all warnings about being taken for a ride  but is, nevertheless, taken for one because of that supposedly innate core of Western ingenuousness to which the warnings have not penetrated. This reinforces the ‘foreignness’ of Mehta’s character, which is further reinforced by what he does with the fact of being cheated, the manner in which he memorialises it.

This way of turning what is negligible, even banal, into carefully documented experience runs through all of Mehta’s stories and it is what constitutes their appeal. The Indian-origin narrators in Quarantine often work at odd jobs, have no overriding ambitions, and are in relationships without guaranteed futures. The future is disturbingly blank and the past, because of the characters’ severance from India, comes only in fragments—an unhappy grandparent either left back home or ripped out of his native context, or a fragmented memory of visiting a family home. The experiences of the moment take on an unusual intensity, therefore. In fact, there seems to be no easy way of talking about anything but the present. In the story, ‘The Better Person,’ the narrator, Deepu, intends to talk to his boyfriend Frank about their future together:

I want to ask him about the apartment, what we’re going to do about our future and living together. That’s what I mean to say when I open my mouth. That’s what I’m thinking in my head. But instead it comes out, ‘Do you think we should have affairs?’

‘What?’ Frank says.

Mehta’s stories are often about love but rarely about romance. The intensity of longing is balanced by the pitfalls of vulnerability. There is an inescapable harshness in the honesty of his characters as well as a harshness in the New York where they find themselves adrift.

This is in contrast to Naqvi’s New York which is the celebrated epitome of the New World; his “You could…spend ten years in Britain and not feel British, but after spending ten months in New York, you were a New Yorker” echoes Changez in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, who says, “In four years I was never an American but immediately a New Yorker.” Anju Melvin’s relationship with New York forms a further counterpoint: sitting in Central Park (which Naqvi, with a native’s affection, calls ‘The Great Lawn’ and whose delights he describes with customary gusto), she sees everything and feels part of nothing. “From Anju’s vantage point, the meadow is so broad, so subtle in its changes of velvety green that the land seems to curve with the earth. There is a beauty here of which she will never be part…”

Despite growing up in the US, James writes of Kerala from the inside. COURTESY OF JOANNE CHAN

In Quarantine, one does not need to ‘become’ a New Yorker. One already is by virtue of being there, but this guarantees nothing. New York may be desirable but it is also the place you can barely afford, the city in which you have an apartment full of cockroaches that you name after conservative politicians (“I caught Rudy Giuliani skittering under the dresser”), or where you settle for a studio “in Brooklyn Heights with a loft-style bed so close to the ceiling that I can’t sit up and read, and a bathroom so small that I’ll have to squeeze in sideways.”  This is the city that you are, as a starving artist, forced to leave and move upstate to Troy, or the city you so much want to be part of that you make up lies for your friends back home about interning at Vogue and chatting with Anna Wintour in the elevator, as Sanj does in the story ‘A Better Life.’ Sanj actually has a far less glamorous job; soon he leaves that too and ends up just walking the streets of New York, wondering, “Why am I here?”

Mehta turns what is negligible into carefully documented experience. COURTESY OF RANDOM HOUSE

This takes us back to the question Linno asks her father at the beginning of Atlas of Unknowns. Why is America the better place? Why is the American Dream the better life?

Naqvi attempts to answer that question with the greatest élan. His style is the most accomplished: for flair and wit and sheer authorial cool there is nothing like Home Boy in contemporary subcontinental fiction. James’ novel is impressive for, despite the occasional contrivance, its painstaking recreation of a local world. And yet it is Rahul Mehta’s understated, open-ended stories that move the most. Perhaps this is because in his, the third and final version of the American Dream, there doesn’t seem to be one.