Nadia Akbar on Goodbye Freddie Mercury, her novel about the world of Lahore's politics, elites

There’s a chapter in Nadia Akbar’s Goodbye Freddie Mercury that will find resonance with every South Asian woman. It’s about the humble “kapra” — Nida, one of the novel’s primary characters, has accompanied her mother and sister, who are shopping for fabric. “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,” writes Akbar, on how in Pakistan women shop to forget.

In the store, amidst swathes of chiffons, silks, organzas and khaddar, Nida’s mother shops to cope with the grief of losing her only son. She bargains relentlessly with the salesman, belittles what she can’t afford, and ultimately zeroes in on a dull grey fabric that will most likely join the other unused ones at the back of her closet. “Shopping is a giant part of desi women’s lives. In the West, women separate themselves with their careers, their education, their social services but in Pakistan, the way you look is instantly your personality,” says the author. “I also feel desi women don’t have an outlet. How do you express that grief and emotion other than just sitting and crying at home? Nida’s mother is not even buying stuff to wear, it’s just for that two seconds of comfort.”

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Nadia Akbar says that the characters in her book have no filter, much like people and their lives and social relationships in the real world

Goodbye Freddie Mercury, Akbar's debut novel, is a fascinating look at the uppermost echelons of Lahore society, where the homes are palatial, drugs flow freely at parties and the politics of power reigns supreme. It’s a narrative of the nation far removed and way fancier from the one readers globally have been exposed to – even if fictionalised. Akbar grew up in Lahore and the social class represented in the book is one she knew well, so writing about it was easy. “It’s a part of society not traditionally represented in fiction. I wanted to show the reader a world they hadn’t experienced before, or maybe weren’t even aware existed,” says Akbar, over a phone call from Bogota where she currently resides.

Through alternating chapters, the novel is narrated in the voices of Nida and Bugsy. While Nida is an economics student who comes from a fairly middle-class family, Bugsy is a disillusioned RJ, who’s brigadier father is disappointed that all his son wants to do is “get drunk and play music". Bugsy’s character is inspired by Akbar’s own youth – she was an RJ in Lahore with Pakistan’s first English music radio station. She, along with the other RJs, were cultural revolutionaries almost, introducing a Pakistan previously accustomed to mixed tapes and pirated CDs to rock n’ roll music and Hollywood gossip.

Those days form some of Akbar’s best memories, of music bringing together a bunch of diverse people. “In Pakistan, especially for women, there weren’t too many social opportunities like artist or writer groups where you could meet other people. And I went to the same school for 14 years, so it was the same class of kids. The best part of being an RJ was the other RJs at the station. We came from different parts of the country, from different social and economic classes, but we all loved rock n’ roll and really got along,” she recalls.

In Goodbye Freddie Mercury, we’re also introduced to Lahore’s corrupt political world through the young and obnoxious Omer, Bugsy’s best friend whose father is the Pakistani prime minister's right-hand man. Omer’s house has been nicknamed the Dodge Mahal with “its sprawling lawns, tacky water fountains and faux baroque furniture makes it look like Louis XIV took a giant gold-plated shit in the middle of Lahore.” In an intriguing chapter, Akbar takes us into a debauched mujra party at the prime minister’s mansion, where drunk, out-of-control men prance around on dance floors, tossing money at the women. As Bugsy observes, these are men who lead political debates, meet foreign diplomats and UN dignitaries, “men people take seriously during the day.”

For Akbar, this was an attempt at depicting what happens behind closed doors. “We all see the news and the front representation, but we never get to see what these people are really like. I also feel like it’s an important view because its reflective of those in power. And I've realised that even though this is a Pakistani novel with very Pakistani characters, this particular social class behaves similarly in all parts of the world.”

Given their starkly different backgrounds, when Nida and Omer get together early in the story, the pairing feels most unusual. Never is this more evident than in the part where they’re dining at a five-star hotel and a bomb explodes outside. Nida is shaking in shock and fear, while Omer is glued to the window, trying to capture a video on his phone. “I’ve known guys like that, whose lives are so jaded and dull that they need this outside excitement to feel alive, while someone like Nida understands reality and the repercussions of what it means,” says Akbar. She adds that while readers may find Omer deeply flawed and troubled, for Nida he’s a shiny boy who has so much – it’s their differences that bring them together.

Akbar says that her characters have no filter, much like people and their lives and social relationships in the real world. It’s why she chose to depict the story through Nida and Bugsy, rather than have a third person narrator who acts as a referee or supervisor, especially for foreign audiences. “I wanted to break away from that third person voice that’s not offensive, political or too explosive, and in the end, taints everything in this wonderful, warm, cosy Orientalised hue.”

In a recent interview, Akbar said that the novel’s fictional world, with its themes of corruption, class disparity and political unrest has been created as a form of social critique. As a woman and one from South Asia, she believes that her writing is seeped in politics. “How is not everything you say political? If you’re not standing up for something, whether it’s women’s rights or just the right to be desi, you’re not doing your job as an artist or writer. When I write, I want to push boundaries, be political and try to bring a change.”

The 37-year-old is currently working on a feminist graphic novel and is almost done with the screenplay for Goodbye Freddie Mercury. “It moves fast, it’s action packed and the characters are movie star-big. It’s naturally cinematic.” Akbar is also glad she has paid an ode to Lahore, a city that doesn’t get its due, through the book. “The West always wants the same view of Asia that makes them feel less guilty and in a way, better about themselves. Lahore is a city of beauty and romance but also chaos and creativity, so it was really great to share my version of it with the world.”

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Updated Date: Jul 15, 2018 13:46:01 IST

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