Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Memoir enjoyable, if ultimately disappointing
Accountant, business consultant, chemist, lecturer -- the story of a Pakistani-born, London-raised writer succeeding in many disciplines should be fascinating.
Published in England in 2008 as Unimagined: A Muslim Boy Meets the West, Imran Ahmad's autobiography provides a lot of enjoyment before ultimately disappointing.
Each chapter flashes insights about one year's memories, from childhood to more mature, detailed chronicles of his school days and early adulthood.
The chapters grow longer, and his perspectives on his place in English culture more interesting, as he matures.
Coming in "second in the Karachi 'Bonnie Baby' contest" when he was one -- to the child of the contest's organizer -- Ahmad claims to have begun his "lifelong struggle against corruption and injustice."
Wry comments like this provide the story's humour. Ahmad's honesty about his inexperience and idealistic youth is refreshing and engaging. From the time he is three, the narration is in present tense.
At first, so are his observations about various religions, as he struggles to determine which one is true. Often precocious early on, these musings don't progress much as Ahmad gets older.
His scrupulous fairness in assessing the positive aspects of religions, his own and others', can be thought-provoking. It also foreshadows where his religious sensibilities will end up, an arrival that deserves a more detailed exposition than the sketchy, decades-long skips that suddenly end the book.
Ahmad's conflicted experience as an outsider who wants only to fit in, and succeeds in out-Englishing many of his English contemporaries, provides insights and enjoyable twists on the immigrant experience. He longed to be dashing like Simon Templar, but knew that he would "have to kiss women -- on the lips! -- and Pakistanis don't do that."
He presents a years-long university crush in excruciatingly enjoyable detail. His cluelessness as he longs for Janice is sometimes funny, but may hit too close to home for those who have carried similar torches.
Eventually, he is hired as a management trainee with Unilever. Now in his 20s, Ahmad struggles with his colleagues' seeming lack of integrity.
He is also struggling with the process of his family finding him a suitable Pakistani wife. Rather than drily humorous, these arrangements are more forlorn. And just as it seems that the marriage will come about, "It doesn't go quite as I expected."
Rather than re-publishing this book about meeting the West, he might have published the sequel to explain what happens.
Bill Rambo teaches at the Laureate Academy in St. Norbert.
The Perfect Gentleman
A Muslim Boy Meets the West
By Imran Ahmad
Centre Street, 338 pages, $28
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 J8
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