Unimagined is the growing-up story of Imran Ahmad, whose parents migrated from Pakistan to England in the early 1960s when Imran was a year old. The story, told in the first person in very simple and elegant English, consists of a series of anecdotes from Imran’s life, which get more and more mature as Imran gets older. Most of the early vignettes are set in Imran’s school, after which the cameos are taken from his college and later his work place.
Imran’s parents are shown as hardworking migrants who came to the UK with the hope of fitting into middle class England, only to find that they are at the lowest rung of society, just below the Irish. However, they work hard and slowly move up the social and economic ladder. Those were days where racism was rife in the UK and Imran experiences his share of it. Imran is academically bright and does well at school, even though a few teachers and students don’t like him on account of his background. Imran is one of the few coloured pupils in school and he knows he is very different from other students. For example, unlike other children, Imran’s parents take him to Pakistan for vacations. Imran tells us how once as he walked past a classroom full of senior boys, a few started shouting ‘Enoch, Enoch.’ The reference here is to Enoch Powell, a politician who sought the compulsory repatriation of all coloured people from the UK. A teacher saw what was happening and did nothing other than apologetically tell Imran, ‘Sorry about that.’ But in certain respects Imran’s school is not much different from schools in India. There’s an interesting description of a competition for credits between Imran and an ethnic Chinese classmate.
But Imran’s tale is never one-sided. There’s a story of how Imran’s father is angry with an Irish oil tanker driver who, having brought oil for their boiler, refuses to park the tanker as per Imran’s father’s directions. ‘Send me another tanker, not another Irishman,’ Imran’s father shouts into the phone as he calls up the supplier.
Imran gains admission to a good medical school, subject to the condition that he gets certain minimum grades for his A Levels. However, Imran takes his A Levels too lightly and does not get the necessary minimum grades. In a sense Imran is relieved. He never really liked the idea of studying medicine. Given a choice, he would have studied the classics and philosophy, but if he did that, how could his parents face the rest of the Pakistani community in London? Imran goes to Stirling University in Scotland where he studies Chemistry. I found it amazing that the pressure on Asian children to study medicine and engineering persists even when they are brought up in the affluent west.
As Imran grows older, his stories mainly involve girls and cars. In both these respects, Imran is not much different from other children. Imran doesn’t have much success with girls. This is partly because he is very different from others in his class and partly because he is very shy and introverted. Imran loves cars and is willing to work during holidays to save money for a car.
However, Imran is different from other youth in one respect. In addition to girls and cars, he is also interested in religion and theology. Imran is not particularly religious even though he slowly gets into the habit of praying five times a day. When Imran is sent to a ‘Sunday school for Islam,’ he hates the idea of memorising the Koran in Arabic, but he is very keen to understand Islam. Imran’s school has religious studies and Imran is constantly comparing Islam and Christianity. Which is the true religion? Imran wonders constantly. Is it Islam or Christianity? Imran is very much impressed by evangelical Christians. Their die-hard faith in their version of Christianity terrifies him. What if they are right and he is wrong? They warn him that people who get the opportunity to know about Christ and reject him will be condemned to eternal hell. Islam, he is told, is a conspiracy by Satan, to mislead people like him. Dinosaur bones are also apparently a part of Satan’s design to mislead people.
Imran’s interest in religion is carried over to college. He requests for a single room on the grounds of ‘religious privacy’, meaning he needs to pray. A single room is also convenient if he needs to meet girls. If you think Imran sounds like a person willing to use his religion for such purposes, you are right, but Imran does it in a genuine way that you will not find any fault with him. Imran’s interest in theology, especially whether Christianity or Islam is The True religion is also equally genuine. At Stirling Imran spends a lot of time with an evangelical Christian named Magnus who tries to convert him. One keeps wondering why Imran doesn’t ignore Magnus, but Imran just can’t bring himself to do that. He digs around in his quest to find the truth, even though his studies suffer badly and he does not get his honours degree.
Slowly, Imran builds up his case for Islam. It is the irrational fanaticism of evangelical Christians which finally convinces Imran that Islam is the true religion. Once again, I need to emphasise that Imran does not come across as a fanatic. For example, while discussing Hinduism, initially Imran talks of how Hindus have multiple Gods and Goddess, something unacceptable to monotheist Islam. Later he tells us that Hindus also believe in the oneness of God, even though there are thousands of manifestations of God. Imran never becomes too religious, though he doesn’t drink and prays regularly. He also starts fasting during Ramadan.
After Imran fails to get his honours degree, he finds himself a job selling advertisements. Initially he likes the job, but soon starts hating it since he is forced to act in a manner that he does not find to be very ethical. He goes back to college and gets his honours degree. He then enrols for a Ph.D in Chemistry. But his heart is in theology and not in Chemistry. He spends much more time researching theology, especially Sufism, rather than Chemistry. Finally, he decides to chuck his Ph.D and find himself a job. His application to Unilever is successful. He is hired as a trainee in the audit department.
Imran’s parents want his to marry a Muslim from Pakistan. The idea of an arranged marriage revolts Imran, though after he gets a job, he goes for various ‘viewings.’ Till the end of the book when Imran quits Unilever to join GE, there is no mention of a wedding.
Even at work, Imran stands out from his colleagues. He is not willing to drink. He does not enjoy vulgar jokes. He continues to be interested in comparative religion. And the novel ends on that note.
It is impossible not to compare Unimagined with the Islamist. There are many differences between Imran and Husain. Husain was brought up in relative comfort by middle-class parents. Imran’s parents on the other hand, struggle with finances during his early years. Imran talks of racism at school in detail. Husain does not mention any instance of racism directed at him by his teachers or classmates. After primary school, Husain goes to a boys only school dominated by migrants from Bangladesh. Imran on the other hand, always studied in schools where he was one of the few coloured pupils.
The main difference between Husain and Imran is that Husain became a fundamentalist. Imran never even considers violence against any other community. In fact, he is distinctly uncomfortable whenever he sees signs of creeping Wahhabism or fundamentalism. In one instance, when there is talk of a global Islamic state, Imran is shown to be hoping that it never materialises. He wants the West to remain as it is. It is very tempting to theorise and say that if Husain had been exposed to a diversity of people and views during his youth as Imran was, he would not have turned to fundamentalism. Maybe if Husain’s parents were less well off and Husain had a less economically secure childhood, he would have focussed on his secular studies and not turned out to be an Islamist.
However, in certain respects, Husain and Imran are similar. Both Husain and Imran hate doing jobs which they think involve unethical practices. Husain gives up his job with HSBC and Imran quits selling advertisements. Both of them have no answers to how Muslims can integrate into a society where alcohol is the fuel for most social interactions. Neither of them even suggests that it may not be unIslamic to drink socially, provided one does not get addicted to liquor. When Imran goes for Karate classes (while at college), he is uncomfortable with the bowing that is part of the Karate culture. Bowing is unIslamic, he feels, since Allah made all men equal. It is quite unfair for me, a non-Muslim, to judge the degree of compromise Imran and Husain are willing to make in order to integrate into British society and so, I shall say no more.
All in all, this is a very readable book, a lot lighter than the Islamist, which does not have much in the way of humour. I guarantee that Unimagined will make you laugh out aloud many times before you reach the end.