Saturday, 26 April 2014

When the Son Plays Boss: Hanif Kureishi’s ‘My Son The Fanatic’

It is not quite often that a short story is picked by a film director. It is hard to add flab and make a ten page story to a full length movie, just the way it is hard to compress a sprawling novel to make it fit in a two or three hour movie. It may be worth comparing the results of such attempts and see whether the likes of Le Miserables, Midnight’s Children and Life of Pi work better or Brokeback Mountain, The Japanese Wife and My Son the Fanatic do, as movie adaptations.
Hanif Kureishi’s short story ‘My Son the Fanatic’ is ideal material for a movie adaptation and the director Udayan Prasad must have known it at the first reading itself. He explored the flexible portions of the action packed story imaginatively, and the outcome is a brilliant, engaging movie that interprets the story in a very interesting manner. But a reader who approaches the story freshly may have a different interpretation which is equally, if not more, relevant. I had that privilege, but I enjoyed the movie version as well, when I saw it a couple of years later.
The story starts with a quick paced description of how Parvez, the father of Ali, notices that his son has become remarkably tidier, and weary of worldly possessions. The third person narrative flows unobtrusively to show how Ali, the young Pakistani man in England has stopped seeing his English girlfriend. His regular friends have stopped ringing too. Parvez is a taxi driver, and though he finds it difficult at first to share his worries about his son to his colleagues, he breaks his silence once. His friends assume that Ali is into drugs and is selling his possessions to pay for the drugs. Ali opens up to Bettina too, who works as a prostitute. She gives him some tips, on how to examine Ali’s habits and physical symptoms to see whether he is really a drug addict.
The relationship between Parvez and Bettina is presented in a unique way. They are really close – Parvez has known her for three years and they share almost all that happens in their lives. There is no hint that they are physically close, as the movie version suggests. But it is possible to interpret it in whatever way a reader likes, when the narrator says, “[O]nce he had rescued her from a violent client, and since then they had come to care for one another” (Kuresihi, Collected Stories 118). Parvez finds out that his son is not at all a drug addict, and that he was not selling his belongings but just throwing them out. And one day he realises that his son has started praying five times a day. Parvez had avoided all religions ever since he had some bad experiences related to religious education and expectations in his childhood in Lahore.
Parvez takes a reluctant Ali to a restaurant where he hopes to give the boy a piece of his mind. But Ali assumes power quickly to tell his father that he is breaking the rules of Koran when Parvez takes an alcoholic drink. And he accuses Parvez of eating pork pies and forcing his wife to cook pork sausages at home. He says that Parvez is “too implicated in Western civilization” (122). He starts praising some radical attitudes related to his religion and reveals his idea that “[T]he West was a sink of hypocrites, adulterers, homosexuals, drug takers and prostitutes” (122). He also talks about the persecution of Muslims and the imminent jihad if the situation doesn’t change. On their drive back home, Parvez tries to persuade the boy to believe that it makes sense to enjoy the English life. Ali does not come down from his moral high ground to take any advice by Parvez.
Bettina dissuades Parvez from throwing his son out of his home, as he confesses that he was planning to do it. Taking her advice, he even tries to pass on his philosophy of life to Ali, but in vain. One evening, while Bettina was sitting in Parvez’s car after visiting a client, they spot Ali on the street. Paying heed to Bettina’s request, he lets Ali in the car. But Ali uses harsh words against Bettina’s 'profession' and insults her. She gets out of the car even as it is moving. Parvez gets really angry after this incident, and he beats up Ali at home, while he was praying. The boy doesn’t cover himself or retaliate, but says “through his split lip: ‘So who’s the fanatic now?’ ” (127).
It can be said that Kureishi is not too harsh on any of his characters. He allows them the freedom to stick to their convictions. Parvez is not a Western man, but he tries to fit in there, despite the fact that he is a Pakistani immigrant. The movie version shows the father speaking English with a Pakistani accent, and the son speaking English like a native. Paradoxically, it is the father who is more at home with the Western culture while the son is brainwashed to such an extent that he hates the very concept of Western culture. The intolerance shown towards the West and his blinkered view of the world qualifies him to be a fanatic. Kureishi uses to good effect the response from Ali when he gets beaten up by Parvez. The ending of the story is ambiguous, and prior to watching the movie version, I was tempted to cook up my own extensions of the story. There is a hint that the blind advocacy of all things Western may also lead to some sort of fanaticism. 

As all good stories could, ‘My Son the Fanatic’ hints at a few sociocultural issues as well. It predicts the growth and spread of fanaticism in places like England. Kureishi had done a lot of research among the young Pakistani men/boys in England in order to present things that are factually correct. His playful and clever approach to the theme of the story and the powerful language he uses makes it a treat, to be savoured in leisure. One may even close her/his eyes for a while after reading it and start playing an individual movie version of the story, putting all the good bits together in the inner mind. That is what I did, and my movie version was very different from that of Udayan Prasad, but as I said earlier, I liked the latter version as well. I may even like ten other versions by discerning movie directors, or even more.
Kureishi, Hanif. Collected Stories. Print. London: Faber and Faber, 2010.

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