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Published On:26 January 2013
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

Memoir of a Muslim boy growing up in the West

What goes into making the perfect gentleman? The author of a delightful memoir on being a Muslim boy growing up in the West tells us.

By Sharmilla Ganesan

Meeting Imran Ahmad after reading his book The Perfect Gentleman is rather surreal; it feels like you know entirely too much about a person you’ve just met, thanks to his honest, endearing and witty memoir.

You know, for instance, that he secretly wore pyjama bottoms under formal trousers when he was young, because the material irritated his skin otherwise. You know he was secretly tempted to bash in the head of a racist school bully with his briefcase (and yes, he carried a briefcase to school). You know that he secretly imagined himself to be a cross between James Bond and Simon Templar. You even know that, as a teenager, he agonised over what he was supposed to do on his wedding night.

So open is Imran about his experiences, thoughts and emotions of being a Pakistani Muslim growing up in London that you forget you’re reading an autobiography and he begins to feel more like an absorbing fictional character – which can be rather odd when that character is sitting in front of you having a cup of coffee.

“Unless I was absolutely honest, there was no point in writing the book,” says Imran, who recently turned 50. “I wanted readers to understand my own internal, mental and spiritual development. You’ll notice once I slip into the story, I write in the present tense. It’s meant to be in the moment, there is no apology from the writer for 30 years ago.”

Currently based in Kuala Lumpur and working with an investment company, Imran was born in Pakistan and moved to Britain with his parents at the age of one. Having attended a prestigious boys’ grammar school, he went to university in Scotland where he studied chemistry, but eventually ended up working as a management consultant, in renowned corporates like Unilever and General Electric.

Originally written and self-published in 2005 as Unimagined, the book was picked up by British book retailer Waterstones in 2007. Imran, however, had his sights set on a US publisher, with dreams of getting that coveted Oprah Winfrey book endorsement. In 2012, his dream was achieved when US publisher Hachette republished the book and distributed it worldwide under its current title. The cherry on the cake? The book landed on O, the Oprah magazine, as a recommended book.

Imran’s efforts to reconcile his ethnic and religious identity with mainstream Western ideals form the basis of The Perfect Gentleman, as he grapples with questions on spirituality, culture and race.

Interwoven with these are the more personal aspects of his life: cars, books, movies, friendships, first love (and heartbreak), job interviews, and so on. Imran even bravely shares his experience of agreeing to an arranged marriage, and later, after 20 years, his divorce.

He sees it as a process of acceptance and taking responsibility for his decisions.

“How are we going to be happy and empowered without being honest about what we’ve been through? Ninety percent of what we all go through is part of the common human experience, everyone goes through these issues and feels these emotions. People don’t feel so alone when they discover that others have shared similar experiences to theirs.

A recurrent theme in The Perfect Gentleman is Imran’s ambivalence towards the idea of an arranged marriage, while being confronted with the idea of falling in love. Proudly dubbing himself a feminist, Imran adds that one of his missions with the book is to end the traditional arranged marriage practice, where potential spouses are matched based on race, religion, social standing, wealth and physical appearance.

“Growing up, I always wondered, why (Westerners) married for love, and we South Asians married for anything but love. When we keep to traditions like arranged marriages, we deny that we individuals have personalities, desires and dreams. We need to be allowed to stop repressing our emotions, and be free,” he says. “I never thought I would come to a place in my life where my ex-wife, my daughter and I would all be happy, and on excellent terms with each other, but it happened. That is the real miracle of my life.”

A large part of the book’s narrative also deals with Imran coming to terms with his spirituality. Often being the only Muslim in his social circle, he spent much of his life struggling with matters of faith – both his own and others’.

“For me, the book was always a spiritual journey. It takes a long time to break the bonds that we’ve been conditioned with, but when it comes to religion, the important thing is to let go of tribalism, and focus on our common humanity. My little contribution to the world, if I may say so, is to promote this. I want to re-humanise Muslims to the rest of the world.”

Despite the thought-provoking issues he raises, the book remains consistently light and readable, thanks to Imran’s inherently humorous writing style and ability to make his experiences relatable.

“I absolutely did not want to make it a miserable book!” he asserts. “My life wasn’t miserable; I mean, there were certain dark aspects, but I wanted to keep the book light and moving forward. I tend to take a philosophical attitude towards my negative experiences. After all, even the racist bully in school provided a necessary narrative and drama in my book.”

Imran is by no means done with sharing his life’s stories. He’s already got a sequel drafted out, with plans for a third book as well.

“I’ve always had a compulsion to write, I just didn’t know what to write about. Earlier, writing my personal story seemed too sensitive, but as I became older, I realised my book was already written in my head!” he says.

Currently single and having settled into his new life in KL (he’s been here for about two years now), Imran is looking forward to beginning life anew. He continues to look for his ideal woman, whom he says is “intelligent, elegant, successful, independent, vivacious, active, spiritually aware, and doesn’t actually need a man to look after her.

“She will challenge me, not bring me tea. And she definitely won’t iron my shirts; mine are all non-iron, in any case!

“Being in a completely new environment and free from baggage, I feel young and full of potential. I think we should all dare to dream and believe that we can have life, love and happiness. Why not?”

(Courtesy: The Star, Malaysia)

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Posted by Indian Muslim Observer on January 26, 2013. Filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

By Indian Muslim Observer on January 26, 2013. Filed under , , , , . Follow any responses to the RSS 2.0. Leave a response

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