Monday, March 8, 2010
U.K.-based author Imran Ahmad talks to JAHNAVI ACHAREKAR on his debut novel Unimagined, which presents life in Britain as experienced by a Muslim boy.
Imran Ahmad: Presenting a universal experience of growing up.
“Imran Ahmad was lucky enough to attend Hampton Grammar School, but too lazy to get the grades he needed to get into medical school. Instead, he ended up at Stirling University in Scotland, learning about Chemistry, Islam and women. Ultimately he was quite successful in Chemistry and became quite knowledgeable about Islam as well…” reads U.K. author Imran Ahmad's bio on the blog about his book Unimagined: A Muslim Boy Meets the West (Aurum, 2008).
A book written at an opportune time, there's no denying that post 9/11 and 7/7, Unimagined unabashedly exploits the political climate to make itself heard. However, humour makes a powerful tool when socially relevant and you may find that Unimagined is successful in striking that balance, by presenting a thought-provoking debate even as it makes you laugh out loud. Excerpts from an interview with Imran Ahmad
Any reasons for choosing the memoir as a form? Why not fictionalise your life events?
I'm not very good at making up stories; I can't seem to formulate an interesting plot. But I can tell stories which have already happened. My life seemed to have plenty of material to relate, so there was no need for fictionalisation. In any case, if it was fiction, much of it would be rejected by publishers as implausible.
What I wanted to do was to demonstrate the development of an individual – in terms of thought processes, beliefs, attitudes and prejudices. The memoir was perfect for this, and as a vehicle for reflection on religion, philosophy, world events and so on.
Tell us about your writing process.
In the U.K., the school year begins in September, and my birthday is September 13. Coincidentally, I also went to a university where the academic year begins in September.So that was how I decided to structure the book: one chapter for every year of my life, corresponding to an academic year.
The book came together in mosaic fashion. I just wrote about whatever event I felt like focusing on at any particular time and inserted it into the right part of the document.
And about getting published.
Getting published was the hardest part of the process. No-one was interested in a book about a Muslim boy who didn't become a terrorist. I couldn't get an agent or a publisher, so I self-published it. The Head Buyer of Waterstone's read it, liked the content, but said it needed a proper publisher and sent it to a literary agent. The agent sent the manuscript to all the major UK publishers. They all rejected it. We sent it to smaller publishers, and this time we had a choice of offers. Once the book was published, the acclaim was amazing.
The book is as much about religious angst (and the urge to clear misconceptions about Islam) as it is about growing up angst, the question of British identity and about belonging. Did you intentionally set out to broach a serious, timely subject in a lighter vein?
The current climate just made it extremely relevant. I set out to tell my story, fully aware that it had some current pertinence. But I had no wish for this to be a dark, serious narrative.
Many people have said that, despite being from very different backgrounds (religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender), the book really resonated with them. Unimagined seems to have captured a universal experience of growing up and worrying about various issues, such as the veracity of imposed religious belief.
The fact that this is the story of a Muslim boy growing up in Britain gives the narrative a certain flavour, but it does not overwhelm the universal elements of the experience.
You make peace with all religions at the end. What are your beliefs today?
There has been a regrettable tendency — certainly due in part to India-Pakistan tensions — to misrepresent Hindu belief as the arbitrary worship of multiple false idols. I reflect this misconception in the book, and then my confusion when I learn about the true nature of Hinduism. In reality, Hindu philosophy and Sufi philosophy are not much different. Both rejoice in our Oneness with each other and with God.
Whether you choose to structure your life according to Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism or whatever really isn't as important as what your attitude is and how you relate to all other people and to all of Creation.
We hear there will soon be a sequel and a screen version.
A sequel has been drafted, and will be released in due course. A production company has optioned the screen rights and is developing the story for television.
We are currently arguing over who should play me; I want Pierce Brosnan but nobody else holds this opinion.
Unimagined presents life in Britain of the 1960s and 1970s as experienced by its Pakistani-origin author during his growing up years. It traces a journey, from the struggling migrant years of his parents through his childhood as a brown boy in an elite white boys' school. We are secret-keepers through his awkward teenage years riddled with unrequited love, passion for cars, academic successes and failures at Stirling University. We are privy to his efforts towards clearing his own religious confusion that arises from the exposure to extremist forms of Islam (and Christianity) after a traditional but moderate upbringing. It ends with his success in the corporate world after an unsuccessful attempt at a career in the sciences. Ahmad employs, successfully, humour as a device to bring out racist undertones in the society that he lives in and as a means to deal with his own feelings of alienation. At first glance, the author-protagonist reminds one of Adrian Mole. The wry humour, the memoir as a genre, the awkward narrator with his growing pains and joys, are all reminiscent of Townsend's cult series. The difference lies in the fact that Ahmad's self-deprecating humour alternates with an attempt to dispel the ignorance around Islam in the Western world (and the other way round - the Muslim's misinterpretation of Islam, other religions and the Western world). This works in most parts but at times, the serious religious treatise with its educational intent comes across as burdened and at odds with the light, picaresque humour of the narrative.