Review: The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack by HM Naqvi
Alongside cryptic epigraphs from F Scott Fitzgerald and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the only-partially-reformed slam poet HM Naqvi began his debut novel Home Boy with a couplet from that most writerly act of old-school rap, Eric B & Rakim.
“This is how it should be done/ This style is identical to none” applied impeccably to that 2010 best-seller with its vivid, cascading prose recalling exactly what it felt like to be desi in the New York City environs before, during and immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that turned our times topsy-turvy. Naqvi deservedly won the inaugural DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for it. But those lines from I Know You Got Soul remain perfectly apt for the 44-year-old author’s hugely enjoyable follow-up The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack. Part-farce, part-lament, at turns scholarly and satirical, nothing quite like this novel has emerged from the subcontinent since Salman Rushdie set about demolishing the colonialist façade of Indo-Anglian writing nearly 40 years ago.
Idiosyncrasies abound in what Akhil Sharma blurbs on the front cover of the Indian edition as “a fun, fantastic thing.” In the back, there’s an absurdist “Sociocultural Genealogical Table” with its family tree leading directly from Lord Ram and Prophet Abraham to five Pakistani brothers, including the ostensible diarist who gives the novel its name. Following that is an engagingly eccentric “Glossary Of Terms For Those English-Speaking Peoples Who Are Unfamiliar With Our Idioms.” Sample entry: “PBUH An acronym that connotes the awkwardly phrased benediction, Peace Be Upon Him. I understand some Christian evangelicals employ the even stranger ‘Angel Upon You,’ or AUY. One wouldn’t want angels swarming about oneself; one passes gas when one is upset.”
Laced all the way through (precisely 182 times in 257 pages) there are digressive footnotes, ranging from long to encyclopedic. On the very first page there are two, comprising many more words than what is supposedly the novel’s actual text. Some are studded with trivia, like the undeniably interesting useless fact the “Fifth Beatle” Pete Best was born in Madras. Others editorialize gratuitously - “Instead of sitting on their sore, sallow rumps pontificating, the Great Greeks should have put scalpel to cadaver to learn the functioning of the circulatory system. It would have changed the trajectory of scientific enquiry. It wasn’t until the advent of Islam that anybody did any hands-on work. Bad air! Four humours! Ha! And imagine: doctors the world over today actually take the Hippocratic Oath. Hippocrappus!” A couple are entertainingly inexplicable, such as an elaborate recipe for orange pulao featuring 20 ingredients and as many separate instructions.
It is true this is a lot of fireworks one after the other but, happily for the reader, underlying the quirky high-energy Naqvi is an assured story-teller in the classical mould. He reveals Abdullah (halfway through, we learn he earned his sobriquet by out-drinking a visiting Soviet delegation) as flatulent, flailing and more than faintly ridiculous but also immensely likeable, unexpectedly gutsy and an old-fashioned romantic with his priorities dead straight. “I am not a bad man but not good for much any more,” says our protagonist, “I am not the same man I was yesterday.” But then “the damnedest development” erupts into his life on his 70th birthday, and we’re off adventuring full-speed into “Currachee” both past and present (Footnote #1 reads “This orthographic tic can be attributed to my affinity for the sonorous, indeed alliterative quality of the colonial appellation for the city – after all, I came of age during the Raj – but the long and short of it is that it’s my city and I’ll call it what I want.”).
Abdullah’s obduracy isn’t only lexical. He’s hopelessly stuck in the first stage of grief, in deep-seated denial about the decline of his hometown after its cosmopolitan heyday. “Jazz came to Currachee in ‘53” he recalls, “Whilst the Anglos congregated at the Burt Institute, and the gentry waltzed across the floors of the Gymkhana and Scinde Clubs, the Goans were doing the Lindy hop or cha-cha-cha…And of course, everyone would bring liquor – Murree, caju feni or Goan hooch and, if they could afford it, the foreign sauce: Dimple, Black & White, Vat 69. Before long, the legendary Eddie Carapiet began hosting the weekly radio show ‘The Hits Parade’, injecting jazzy riffs into the bloodstream of the city. And one fine day Dizzie Gillespie rolled into town.” But “then the Prime Minister had imposed prohibition in a gutless attempt to gain currency with the excitable religious rabble. The clubs, bars and cabarets were shut down soon after…It was the end of an age.” He mourns, “I remember it all as if it were yesterday. But yesterday is no more.”
The Cossack is clearly out of sync in 21st century Pakistan, which makes it rather interesting to note the same seems true for his creator. Like his main character in Home Boy at the end of that novel, Naqvi left the United States to return to Pakistan in 2007. A few years later, the Bombay-based journalist Naresh Fernandes visited him, and reported, “Naqvi lives his life upside down, sleeping through the day and emerging late in the afternoon to work through the night. When he gets tired or feels the need for inspiration, he takes long drives through the dark city, stopping occasionally for a snack of halwa-puri at a roadside stall or to wolf down a chapli kabab at one of the establishments in Boat Basin…During my visit, he made the effort to do things more conventionally, taking a sleeping pill at night so that he’d be awake during the day.” Roots | The Goan theory of relativity
There are twists and mysteries aplenty in The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack, but this review will issue no spoilers. Still, you should know the novel is often courageous. When his bank teller says “Allah-Hafiz”, the Cossack rebukes her, “Khuda-hafiz. The correct usage is Khuda-hafiz. ‘But Khuda could be any god’, she chirps…I snap: ‘And I could hail from any faith. I could worship Ram, Zarathustra, Taus Melak. As a Musalman, you should be doubly, no triply intent on accommodating others.” Elsewhere, when accosted by “a lupine lad” who demands “Tum musalman ho?” the Cossack explodes, “This is Currachee! This is my city! I could be Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, Hindoo, Amil, Parsee. I could be Shia, Sunni, Ismaili, Bohra, Barelvi, Sufi, Chisty, Naqshbandy, Suhrawady, Wajoodi, Malamati, Dehria, anything, everything. If you want to ask such questions then go back to Kabul!”
Read more: Review: Ink of Dissent by Damodar Mauzo
This is straightforward pluralism, the endangered civilizational bedrock of the subcontinent. Naqvi is an evident connoisseur, lovingly tabulating all kinds of minutiae: the Lahore-born Baghdadi Jewish architect Moses Somake, Karachi’s “dark horse candidate for Pope” Cardinal Joseph Cordeiro, any number of Goan and Parsi luminaries, and the Indian-Jewish-Pakistani-Muslim painter Simon Fyzee Rahamin, who studied at London’s Royal Academy under John Singer Sargent at the turn of the 20th century. Here is fiction as an act of retrieval, as world view, and every now and then the slam poetry shows up too, “It is a gorgeous evening, the sort that reminds you why one resides in Currachee: the stars are spilled sugar across the sky, and the breeze is cool and salty like lassi.”
Vivek Menezes is a curator, photographer, writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival