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FICTION: QUEEN OF GULBERG

August 19, 2018

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It’s a crazy world of drugs, sex, rock’n’roll and politics — a side of urban Pakistani youth culture that shocks and awes
It’s a crazy world of drugs, sex, rock’n’roll and politics — a side of urban Pakistani youth culture that shocks and awes

This book helped me survive the 28-hour wait between the final casting of the votes and the announcement of the result of the recently held elections. Once I started reading it, it was hard to stop. In fact, it was physically painful tearing oneself away to check on the progress of the elections.

The book reaches out and grabs you not only through the different voices that speak in the novel, but with wit, humour and suspense as the story moves forward. In Goodbye Freddie Mercury, the youth in Lahore is disillusioned and high — very drunk and very high — and most of all, the offspring of the privileged class. There are echoes of a new-generation version of Moth Smoke — the novel by Mohsin Hamid which came out 18 years ago! — when it comes to the subject matter, but only this is much better.

The group of individuals on whom the story centres is immune to the problems suffered by the many: water issues, excessive load shedding, terrorism and corruption. The country’s gone to the dogs, but no one cares — least of all those that are in power. Hope comes in the form of a messiah, Mian Tariq, who runs a political campaign on the promise of eradicating corruption (sound familiar?).

Nadia Akbar’s debut novel is an explosively racy one, with witty and unapologetic observations about desi culture and life among the privileged in Lahore

In walks Nida, a regular middle-class college girl with a rebellious streak who yearns to be rescued from her ennui. And she manages to shake things up a bit in her new crowd of upscale friends. To the men in her new, privileged company, she’s fresh and exotic and they seem quite taken by her. As the novel moves forward you begin to believe — as perhaps she does — that she’s managed to cut through barriers and is now a part of this fascinating new world where people don’t live like her.

Until she can’t.

Goodbye Freddie Mercury is Nadia Akbar’s debut novel. And what a debut it is. There’s everything on offer: drugs, sex, rock’n’roll and politics. The class struggle here is between the middle and the uber privileged. The main voices are of two characters, Nida and Bugsy; he is a radio jockey at a local FM station and spends much of his time pining for Nida. But there’s a small complication: she’s dating his childhood friend who, for lack of a better word, leads a hedonistic lifestyle and is rarely sober. He is also the son of the local ‘kingmaker’. Bugsy is perhaps also the only person in Nida’s world who sees her — really sees her — for who she is.

The writer’s witty and unapologetic observations about desi culture and life in Lahore cut like a knife through the carefully constructed facade put up by a society living in desperate denial and doing everything they can to convince themselves that “everything’s okay.” That itself provides for a shock-and-awe quality — where you’re stunned and amused at the same time — while reading it.

Akbar has chosen an interesting style of writing where the perspective/thought process of each character is distinctively different. You aren’t shown the same scene from two different points of view; rather, the narrative jumps from one perspective to the other, leaving lots of room for some mystery. There is much that is left unspoken, perhaps intentionally. What each character is in their own head is not how they come across to the other and this makes the reader wonder which part of them is ‘real’. This dichotomy is executed almost effortlessly.

In Pakistan we shop to survive. To survive miserable marriages, inconsiderate in-laws and ungrateful offspring; to survive a husband’s sexual indiscretions, monetary hardship and death; to survive the regret, the shame, the blasphemy. The Ultimate Survival Guide for the Desi Woman begins with kapra. We salivate over shalwar kameez like famished at a feast. Last year it was the skin-tight shalwar and ultra-short kameez, this summer it looks like long shalwars are back, paired with a ridiculous billowy parachute. The long dupatta-short dupatta controversy rages on seasonally like a virus. ... At the start of this summer, sanctimonious punches were exchanged by seemingly respectable society women over a shortage in designer printed lawn. Fashion is passion. Fashion is why we have holidays, weddings, dinners, get-togethers. Fashion is the queen’s currency in a kingdom where a woman’s scorn comes cloaked in submission and pink chiffon paisleys. — Excerpt from the book

Another major aspect that stands out stylistically is that there is a distinct difference in the voices of the male and female characters. Their thoughts and inner dialogues are completely uncensored and presented more as a verbal conversation rather than a written one. So stark and uncensored is it, in fact, that the language had me going ‘haw, haw’ internally at quite a few places. But, as one young lady I bumped into at a café recently said about the book, “This is how we talk.”

The one critique I have for the novel is that the ending comes across as rushed — almost as if the writer didn’t know what to do with the characters or how to end the story. It is not at the same pace as the rest of the book and also rather disjointed. The mystery behind the title is revealed in due course, but the reveal itself is underwhelming and fails to make much of an impact because of the lack of resolution of the characters and the hurried completion of the narrative arc.

Despite its one glaring pitfall, however, Goodbye Freddie Mercury is an explosive new book in the realm of Pakistani fiction. It is an incredible book to have as a debut. Akbar could very well be the voice of a whole new generation of Pakistani fiction writers and one looks forward to what she has to offer next.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Goodbye Freddie Mercury
By Nadia Akbar
Penguin, India
ISBN: 978-0670090365
320pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 19th, 2018