Books

When a young man went west

By Alan Wong
January 17, 2013

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 17 ― I suspect that, post 9/11, memoirs of people from a certain demographic were pretty hot items. But one of those had been rejected ― not because the author wrote it himself, but it was not a “miserable” book.

“It’s not supposed to be miserable...!” the author said exasperatedly in an immaculate British accent when talking about it several years back.

Maybe it’s because the author turned out to be a perfect gentleman.

The last I’d heard of Imran Ahmad, he was an executive at General Electric. So I was surprised to learn that he’s now residing in KL, and he’s released a US/international edition of said “not miserable” memoir Unimagined and went on another book tour in America.

 This edition, The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets The West, has been updated with newer material and since it’s been ages since I’ve looked at the older UK edition, it still feels fresh.

Each chapter is made up of what I’d call episodes, many of which are paragraphs of 10 lines or less. All events are in chronological order, making it easy to follow his life’s journey. It feels as if one’s reading a Tumblr account. The pages zip by quickly.

Some of the new bits include a brief story about how his parents met, and the day he was born ― Day Zero, as he calls it. “...I took my time in arriving (a trait I still exhibit sometimes) and I emerged in the early hours of–” ... No. If you want to send him birthday greetings, read the book.

In spite of the racism he grew up with as a Pakistani immigrant in Britain, Imran recalls his past in a generally frank and upbeat manner. The narration, so English it almost tastes of Earl Grey, made the funny parts laugh-out-loud and the sad parts even more poignant.

It also conveys his thoughts of each past self as he makes sense of the world around him. When “blatant nepotism” robbed him of the title of Karachi’s Bonniest Baby, you can almost visualise one-year-old Imran, looking all dapper in his suit, thinking to himself that, yes, this was the beginning of “my lifelong struggle against corruption and injustice.”

What a struggle. Growing up in London, he faced the prejudices of the day because of his religion and nationality; to one’s dismay, things haven’t changed much since then.

Bullying, unrequited love, uppity schoolteachers, being unjustly scolded and feelings of validation when scoring top marks or appearing in the newspaper (I had no such luck) and the like... it all jogs your own memories even as Imran recounts his.

His resolve to fit in and battle the prejudices of his schoolmates by becoming “whiter than white” raises a pang of pity, because by right one shouldn’t have to, but I guess it’s an unfair world out there and the young, without the benefit of experience, tend to judge books by their covers.

What I suspect will be of interest is Imran’s ruminations over culture and religion ― that of others and his own. As a young man, he wondered where justice was when a presumably Muslim renter left his parents an “astronomical phone bill” (“Does not his heart tremble with fear at the thought of God’s judgment?”).

He draws parallels between aspects of his culture and that of Mr Spock’s (“Like Muslims and other Asians, Vulcans have arranged marriages, and are not given to displays of emotion in public.”).

Some of his observations are darkly hilarious in hindsight. The 1978 Black Friday incident in Iran, for one, was an awful time, and “confusing” for him because the Shah who instigated the event was installed by the CIA.

“The role of America in this is very disturbing, since America is one of the forces of good in the world. They probably didn’t know anything about the torture.” Am I the only one who cracks up at stuff like that?

If there was anything in the book I didn’t like, I didn’t notice. Some, however, will find it a bit long-winded (his life was eventful, maybe?), a little self-absorbed (it’s his life story), too preachy in parts (perhaps, but it’s still fun), and uses too many italics (what). The book, it seems, was banned in Qatar due to the religious and cultural bits (everybody’s a critic). Looks like it’s shaping up to be one of those “love it or hate it” kind of reads.

Still, I can’t help liking it. The wit, introspection and interrogation of his motives and those of others are fun to read (Former Waterstone’s bookbuyer turned publisher Scott Pack loved it and I tend to pay attention to his book recommendations, never mind what some have said about him. And, as shown previously, he’s quotable. If I extract any more I’d be infringing copyright big time.

The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets the West

Imran Ahmad

Center Street (2013)

352 pages

ISBN: 9781455528547

The KL launch of Imran Ahmad’s The Perfect Gentleman will be on Saturday, January 19 at MPH 1Utama, from 3pm to 4pm, and Tuesday, January 22 at Kinokuniya KLCC, from 6pm to 7pm.

* Alan Wong is an editor and book reviewer.