Monday, 17 October 2011

IN A CAULDRON CALLED USA


IN A CAULDRON CALLED USA

Being an immigrant in a new country is one thing, and being the child of immigrants is quite different. While the first-generation of immigrants struggle hard to adjust to the new country, for the later generations of the immigrant family, life becomes much easier with their increased affinity to a culture and lifestyle that can be starkly different from their country of origin. As a result, the views and mindsets differ across the generations in such an immigrant community. “I never felt like a child of the immigrants. Rather, I grew up as an US citizen with western outlook,” says American writer Jabeen Akhtar whose debut novel, Welcome to Americastan, explores this aspect.

Samira, an American girl of Pakistani origin has been just dumped by her long-time boyfriend, Ethan, for her best friend Natasha. Samira is then accused of attempting to run over Ethan with her car and she is wrongly suspected as being a terrorist. She gets arrested and then released due to the intervention of her employer, a US Senator. But she loses her job because of the fiasco. Samira returns to her parents in North Carolina State where her sister Meena and brother Khalid too live. As the siblings carry on with their American lives, they often battle the Pakistani-Islamic values that are hurled at them. Several other characters across ethnicity show up as Samira narrates her story; they come in varied colours: understanding, friendly, curious, ignorant, hostile, hypocrite and funny. There is laughter, sadness, rivalry, sex, religion and food. Everything melts into a pot to become Welcome to Americastan.

“I started writing bits and pieces, drawing from what I saw while growing up as US citizen, and things that I heard from my friends and my siblings,” Akhtar says from Delhi taking time off from her “first India tour.” Being a person of Pakistani origin herself too helped Akhtar in grasping the nuances of the community. Gradually she realised that these writings can evolve into a full-fledged novel. “It took me two-years full-time writing, plus another year to complete this novel,” informs Akhtar who lives and works in Washington DC.

The novel's female protagonist, Samira, was not Akhtar's first choice. “I had initially thought of a male protagonist who faces the worst consequences for his actions. But then I thought of a female protagonist and let her narrate what happens. I thought the story would be funny from a female point of view,” the author explains. “Samira is a combination of lot of women I know, including myself. Her sister, Meena, is bit of my best friend friend, though her name is derived from my parents' cat,” she adds with a laugh. Similarly, other characters evolved from the people Akhtar came across.

The novel sees traces Washington DC, especially the Capitol Hill, the power centre of the USA. Behind the gloss of the Capitol Hill, there are the juicy gossips of sex scandals. “DC is a small place. It is a serious place, but then people love such gossips. And Capitol Hill is a small community where the gossips get around fast. What I've written, is based on what I know, though I never worked at the Capitol Hill,” Akhtar clarifies.

I ask her whether she was conscious of the readership that the novel may attract. “Initially, I had the White Americans in mind so that they get some idea about the Pakistani-origin Americans,” Akhtar informs. Later, her Japanese friend said that the “novel can actually appeal to a lot more people, being the story of children of immigrants.” And then she found that readers in India too will be interested to read such a novel. “I was happy to find that I was wrong about the novels prospect in India. The market here is very good,” Akhtar says.

Akhtar's novel is full of wit and humour to show the duplicity and misconceptions that prevail across the communities --- Pakistani migrants or otherwise --- in the USA. How reflective are they all of the Pakistani-origin Americans? “I grew up in a lively group of Pakistani-Americans who laugh at themselves. And I have pretty accurately depicted their hypocrisy in the novel,” Akhtar replies. “If you ask whether they can be offended by what I have written, I would say that some people may, but generally, that won't be the case,” she adds. So, we find the second-generation Pakistani-American Khalid referring to his cousins in Pakistan as 'Pakis', a term usually perceived as derogatory. “For the older generation 'Paki' is a painful word. But for the younger Pakistani-Americans, it is not. They use it left and right,” Akhtar informs. Our perceptions indeed change with time and place. “So, you will not see any animosity between Pakistani-origin and Indian-origin people in the USA. We don't carry it there,” she adds in this context. However, they are not completely disconnected with South Asia. “There is a sense of uneasiness in the Pakistani-American community about what's happening in Pakistan,” Akhtar adds.

I ask Akhtar about the hyphenated identity of 'Pakistani-American'. “For the non-ethnic people, such hyphenated identities help as a label, though it often leads to stereotyped perceptions about the Pakistanis,” she says. “And for many people of Pakistani origin living in the USA, such an identity gives a sense of security.” But for the younger Pakistani-Americans, the hyphen doesn't stand in their way when they assert themselves as Americans. “In my case, integrating with the country was not tough. I didn't face any rejection for my Pakistani roots and ways. But then, in small US town, the situation could have been tougher, unlike in the bigger cities, such as New York,” Akhtar explains. And this difference might have given the novel slightly different shade, if the setting would have been different. “But the plot would have remained the same.”

Akhtar is now working on her second novel. “I am carrying back a lot of wonderful memories about India where Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and the rest live together, and where life is vibrant, unlike the neat residential areas in the USA that are often quiet and can be jarring. I hope to put my India experience into a short story at least,” she says. We will wait, for sure.

Welcome to Americastan
By: Jabeen Akhtar
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 268
Price: Indian Rupees 495