Ayad Akhtar’s debut novel, American Dervish, resembles a Sufi invocation, a Chopin nocturne or even the weight of silence experienced in a meditative trance. Yet more than these sensorial pleasures, the strongest image is of a consummate batsman driving a cricket ball beyond the boundaries of the field.
From start to finish, this thrilling novel incorporates the vital ingredients of fine storytelling. There is a powerful coming-of-age story, seven mesmerizing protagonists and a writing style that ranges from haiku-like interior monologues to the faultless mimicry of the spoken language of a community of Pakistani immigrants in American suburbia. Here, the skills of a playwright and screenwriter are recognizable. However, the two most provocative themes are the twinning of adolescent sexuality with spirituality, and the moral courage to expose spiritual hypocrisy and anti-Semitism practised by Muslims.
The novel is broken into four sections, chronologically assembled to span more than a decade. A short prologue hints at the grand opera that follows. This prologue acts as the match striking gasoline, although it appears to be narrating a seemingly innocuous event. A young Muslim university student, Hayat, attends a ballgame and willingly breaks a taboo, that of eating pork: “I felt at once brave and ridiculous. … I felt like I was complete.” From this opening, the book hurtles backward to the life of 10-year-old Hayat, living with his parents in Milwaukee’s suburbs.
A colour snapshot of a beautiful woman, Mina, clamped on a refrigerator door takes the boy on a startling voyage of self-discovery. The household gods who imprint the young boy’s universe are a philandering physician father, fleeing Pakistan to dodge stifling orthodoxy and to explore his skills in medical research, and a fierce stay-at-home mother who has abandoned her studies in psychology. Hayat’s childhood splinters between a mother who crusades for women’s rights, openly despairs over her husband’s infidelity and uses Freud’s theories as a parenting tool. The vignettes of this childhood are superbly rendered, engaging the reader through both universal poignancy and side-splitting comedy. And through all this, there is the magical Hayat, dodging the fusillades of his warring parents while remaining loyal to both.
In this lively broth, Mina becomes the added ingredient. Mina is the mother’s beloved childhood friend whose photograph on the refrigerator has always mesmerized young Hayat.
Equally powerful is the sway of Mina’s life history, punctuated by a rarefied intellect, a catastrophic marriage to an abusive man and the plan for escape to America, along with her young son. When the plan succeeds and Mina and her son arrive to become the new family members, Hayat’s exposure to the Koran begins. Each evening he visits Mina and is tutored in the pages of the Koran. Innocently unaware of his adolescent ardour for Mina, he falls in a love with the book because she interprets it for him. He memorizes verses of the Koran in English and tries to incorporate the injunctions to save the souls of his parents – with disastrous consequences.
When Mina is courted by his father’s best friend and Jewish colleague, Nathan, and a marriage is proposed, the teenaged Hayat, like a spurned suitor, unleashes his fury by creatively sabotaging the union. The romance falters and Hayat is exposed to anti-Semitism by the leader of a local mosque.
Carrying the burden of his guilt silently, Hayat witnesses the second abusive marriage of Mina, to a Pakistani-American ophthalmologist. Mina’s unwillingness to save herself from pain eventually radicalizes Hayat. Here the dervish connotations of a soul on fire seeking salvation through the pain life offers is questioned by Hayat.
After Salman Rushdie’s writings on the subject, this much-awaited and important novel heralds the emergence of a more visceral and au courant dialogue coursing through American fiction. It brings to mind a visit Hayat pays to Mina, who offers him consolation in the form of a quotation from a letter of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Nazneen Sheikh is the author of Moon over Marrakech, a memoir.
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