Nineteen-year-old Nida studies economics at Lahore College. After the death of her army officer brother, their middle-class family has silently fallen apart – she is unable to process the grief or reimagine life after, and disinterested in fitting into the havens currently on offer: the dull space of the classroom or the stern grasp of religion. And so, Nida falls through the cracks of her old life and finds herself in the strange and exotic world of “Dodge Mahal”. It’s not a new life per se – maybe it’s a new kind of dying slowly.
A massive estate with “sprawling lawns, tacky water fountains and faux baroque furniture” that “makes it look like Louis XIV took a giant gold-plated shit in the middle of Lahore”, Dodge Mahal epitomises the life of Pakistan’s “super elite”. (Just to provide some perspective, the super-rich – the 18,000 who make up 0.001 per cent of the population – earn 180 times as much as the most impoverished 18 million in Pakistan.) The property of Iftikhar Ali, “right hand to current PM Salim Chaudhry...well known and admired for his public looting and rubbing of tax rupees against his balls,” it is home to and preferred party venue of his also-dodgy, coke-addict brat, Omer, who throws legendary soirees, underpinned by endless alcohol, drugs and sex.
When Nida appears, trailing her cousin Ali, Omer’s dealer, he takes to her immediately, impressed initially by her impeccable joint-rolling skills. And so, through the gaze of the outsider-Nida, we are introduced to complicated lives of Lahore’s rich-and-corrupt.
Bugsy, the other protagonist, scion of an old-money-meets-Army family – his father, the “Brig”, is a decorated war hero – who’s back in Lahore with a posh American degree, works in Pakistan’s only English radio channel. (The author, Nadia Akbar, was herself a pioneering RJ, and her experiences bring an authentic edge to theme of the book: rock-’n’-roll in the times of Qandeel Baloch).
RJ Bugsy, as the host of the cooler-than-cool radio show that rules the airwaves of Pakistan, provides a refreshing glimpse of that part of the country we last saw in Mohsin Hamid’s debut novel, Moth Smoke. (If Bugsy is a little obsessed about Farrokh Bulsara urf Freddie Mercury urf cult Queen artiste – “Classless, raceless, beyond culture or creed, beyond reproach or repeal...Brown and buck-toothed and beautiful. And he’s ours, yaar, he’s ours...” – his fans love him more for it.) Bugsy is a regular at Dodge Mahal – he and Omer have been pals of a sort since primary school – in the company of his best friend, Faisal, and “part-time-when-she-feels-like-it-rich-and-spoilt-girlfriend” Aliya.
And on one of these party nights he meets Nida. Sparks fly. Nothing happens.
(That is, until Nida gets too deep into Omer’s ugly world, and Bugsy decides to get involved, however tangentially, in the murk of politics.)
The summer of cool
Akbar’s refreshing debut novel, Goodbye Freddie Mercury, which unfolds over the course of a long, hot and typically Lahori summer, seems just the novel to read as election results come in from Pakistan. There is Mian Tariq (very loosely based on Imran Khan), who has captured the imagination of the youth with his slogan of no corruption and his spectacular rallies where the young pour in, in large numbers. Bugsy is dragged there by MT’s two fans, Faisal and Aliya, and soon he too gets caught up in the fervour of the moment, allowing his snarky narrator-self to suspend disbelief for a bit and give in to dreams of a naya Pakistan.
“Mian speaks to the semi-hushed masses, a few still hoot and holler. His voice comes out strong and smooth through the cheap Chinese microphone. There is no electric squeaking this time. His voice is hard, urgent, and it rises above us and circles like a storm. I can feel it physically pressing against me, the thickness of his emotions surrounding us with their message. He sermonises in Urdu, English and Punjabi – all spoken perfectly, blending so harmoniously, it’s as if he’s creating his own language...People go mad. Flags are thrown in the air and caught again, children are hoisted on shoulders, flashes of cameras wildly spark in the now-reddening sky of dusk. It’s definitely a rush.”
Meanwhile, the incumbent prime minister Salim Chaudhry, notorious for his corruption – by mounting this critique, Akbar continues in the tradition of post-colonial literatures from around the world – continues to organise soirees at his lavish farmhouse in Raiwind. (If you want to read the novel as a roman a clef, a quick Google search will tell you what Raiwind signifies in the current scheme of things):
“The scent of crushed roses and woody cologne linger at the front door. I hear the chun-chun of bangles and a classic Bollywood tune – the same type of sappy song The Brig listens to in his Land Cruiser on his way to the Punjab Club. Inside, music and a cacophony of slurred voices, the din of men cheering and clapping to a shuffling dhol beat. To my surprise, it’s a full-blown mujra happening at the farmhouse residence of our esteemed prime minister...A large fat man, who I instantly recognise as the head of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, giggles like a boy as a woman licks his ear. He bounces on his chair as he flings rupees towards the dancing circle...It’s ironic, especially because he’s no doubt spent his entire day censoring songs for radio and making sure there are no nipples on TV.”
Akbar’s eye for detail is exceptional. Whether it’s the streets and smells of the city (one of the most memorable scenes is where Nida, her mother and sister shop for kapra in the famous Old City), the speech and manners of Lahoris, or the soft glow of drug-induced drifting and despair, she recreates it with élan, so much so that the real character of the novel appears to be the atmospheric city of Lahore, over and beyond the ghost of the eponymous Freddie Mercury who haunts its pages, lamenting what once was. Buoyed by the sure-footed grasp of knowledge, not a single note in her descriptions fall flat. In fact, if one thought that the excesses were too excessive, the absurdities too absurd, one needs only to read Reham Khan’s recent tell-all memoirs for confirmation.
The desi patois
The other strength of Akbar’s novel is the robust bhasha she has invented, inflecting hipster English with a fine twist of desi, approximating the real language of the millennials as they lead their global lives underground, willing themselves, with cheap alcohol and hash, to forget the hundred hypocrisies that embed their lives in contemporary Pakistan:
“‘Economics is not dull,’ Omer interjects loudly. ‘It’s important to know how the market works.’
‘Oh please,’ Faisal teases. ‘You don’t know the bloody difference between Free Market and Liberty Market.’
‘Fuck off, I do know the difference.’
‘Really, what is it?’
‘It’s the difference between my massive balls and your kaalé chestnuts.’”
Jaunty, darkly funny and, in the final analysis, as heart-breaking as the state of the nation it’s set in sometimes appears to be (I wonder if Pakistani reviewers will be offended by how irretrievably dark Akbar’s Pakistan ends up as) Goodbye Freddie Mercury does make quite a dramatic intervention in the literary world it inhabits. Unfortunately, as the narrative structure bears the weight of what is the author’s true strength – description – we feel the plot slacken and character get overcrowded by setting.
We keep moving from cleverly observed set-piece to remarkably atmospheric setting. We see, see, see. We hear. But the action, as it progresses slowly, almost begins to congeal as the summer progresses, and Bugsy and Nida, ultimately, fail to move as much as Lahore or Freddie Mercury do, as the novel hurtles towards its sudden, not-very-unremarkable end.
A brave but ultimately flawed odyssey, Goodbye Freddie Mercury could well have been the Pakistani English August – but the author’s energetic despair with what Pakistan has become, ironically, ends up taking away something vital from the novel she may have set out to write. Such is the price of love, I suppose. I shall await her next novel eagerly.
Goodbye Freddie Mercury, Nadia Akbar, Penguin Books.