Playing the Desi Game: Goodbye Freddie Mercury by Nadia Akbar


Goodbye Freddie Mercury by Nadia Akbar is set in the city of Lahore, Pakistan and spans one long summer in the lives of a bunch of characters (mostly) in their early twenties.

It is told in two alternating voices—that of Nida, a twenty-one-year-old student desperate to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere of her conservative home; and that of Bugsy, a radio jockey and lover of rock music, who is severely disillusioned by State politics.

Nida says,

After twenty-one years of living in this city, I think I'd know if there was a cooler, alternative Lahore hiding behind some smelly chinar trees.

But the characters in Akbar's novel do occupy an alternative Lahore, a Lahore which is alternative to readers who have never lived in the city, a younger Lahore made of (as the blurb on the book suggests) "parties, drugs, mysteries, love triangles, political intrigue, and power struggles."

A Desi Fairytale* (*Terms and Conditions Apply)

In the early part of the novel, you enter a party at Iftikhar 'Ifti' Ali's grand mansion. Ifti is the right-hand man to the current Prime Minister of Pakistan (in the novel), Salim Chaudhry. At this party are gathered those who represent "the most influential and dishonoured families in Lahore."

In Akbar's novel, you're cruising the streets in expensive cars owned by the malai or, if you prefer the less desi version, the crème de la crème of Lahore, living their lifestyle, attending their parties, all the while aware that this version of the Pakistani fairytale is a "giant middle-finger to the impoverished masses. . . and, even worse, an open asshole to the feudal rich."

That's exactly what the political game is about. Everyone knows that "corruption is in our blood" and that "the masses vote for tangibles not ideas." The two opposing parties—led by Salim Chaudhry and Mian Tariq, respectively—do not offer any real choice.

The most important thing is the spectacle and, as anyone living in India today can tell you, spectacles have the power to inspire patriotism even in the most disillusioned of citizens. At Tariq's political rally, Bugsy says,

A simple symbol—a flag, cheap two-rupee fabric, a splintering piece of wood, and all the weight of a nation's history waving precariously in the wind.

The Limits of 'Sexy Writing'

The entire book is written in dry but observant humour, such that you might not laugh out loud reading the lines, but you do end up wondering why you never made that joke. Bugsy says,

The truth—I'm asking for trouble. Trouble is too damn interesting. Trouble is an integral part of the desi lifestyle. It's what we do. We see a sticky situation, sniff the danger and plunge headfirst with eyes open and thumbs up.

However, there are definitely idioms, phrases, and invective in the book that only desis might get and which may not have an exact translation in English. Phrases like 'khusar-phusar', 'paindu', 'jaali', 'dungars', and 'golmol' add a distinct desi flavour to the language in Akbar's novel.

That said, I don't like the fact that the blurb defines Akbar's writing style as "sexy writing"; it almost takes away from Akbar's sharp sarcasm and the effort that goes into writing the way she does, in my opinion.

"Not That Kind of a Girl"

While Bugsy's narrative is peppered with Akbar's wit, it is Nida who has some of the best lines in the novel. For instance, about shopping in Pakistan, she says,

In Pakistan we shop to survive. To survive miserable marriages, inconsiderate in-laws and ungrateful offspring. . . The Ultimate Survival Guide for the Desi Woman begins with kapra. We salivate over salwar-kameez like famished at a feast.

The masculine and feminine worlds in the novel are sharply divided and this divide is seamlessly embedded in desi culture.

If the feminine world is about Lollywood dramas and speaking the language of changing fashion, the masculine world is about military rankings and hierarchies, about ego battles and inside jokes. If you belong to the former 'club', as Nida tells you, you're worse off.

Desi boys—Omer and his friends, college boys, schoolboys—are merciless critics, dissecting every female that crosses their path with the ruthless precision of a forensic pathologist.

Despite Nida's feminist takes in the novel, it is disappointing that she is reduced to "not that kind of a girl", the stereotype becoming her personality, alienating her from the 'other girls' such that there is no possibility of a shared sisterhood. Bugsy says,

I appreciate that she doesn't pretend to be shocked or scandalized, something most desi girls feel obligated to do when they hear anything related to sex, balls, dick or pussy[. . .] She's nothing like the giggly annoying girls that are endemic to Omer's parties.

So, Why Freddie Mercury?

Nida must escape the conservative strains of her home where the loss of her brother—the only son in the family—is still mourned, but she must also equally escape this stereotype. That's where Freddie Mercury comes in.

Freddie Mercury is a metaphor for desi kids, each of whom wants to be a star, to somehow escape their desi roots and become someone else, something else—a "personal and historical reinvention".

It is this reinvention that Bugsy too hopes for in refusing to join the forces (unlike his father, who is a retired Brigadier) and becoming a radio jockey, but he is all too aware of the futility of his aspirations.

It's crazy, Farrokh [who later changed his name to Freddie Mercury], leaving behind a desi life, becoming something new, someone so wholly one-off and inimitable, and now heard by people  back in Pakistan dreaming the same dream but who can't share the same reality.

There is no escape from this reality, of course, and "Lahore has a way of wearing everything out." Not a far cry from what, many of us, think of our own cities; I definitely think this of Delhi quite often.

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Goodbye Freddie Mercury by Nadia Akbar, published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Random House, 2018.

* This book was sent to me for review by the publisher through a review program coordinated by Vivek Tejuja of The Hungry Reader. The views expressed, however, are entirely my own. 
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FEATURED IMAGE SOURCE: SAMYAARIF.COM 

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