Image Credits: Samantha May
This year, human civilisation has found itself at a rather poignant yet significant juncture. The pandemic we’ve been grappling with has truly made it clear that intolerance and oppression are more widespread and deadly than the virus. Over the years, persecution on the basis of religion, race, caste or gender has only become more toxic. Existence has become more suffocating for so many, simply because they are seen as the ‘other’ as per one kind of extremist ideology. Change is absolute and a necessity, begging to be repeated as many times as possible. An aspect behind numerous successful revolutions over the years has been literature produced by the people who were responsible for bringing about a shift. Literature has, is and will always be a potent tool for change. ‘The Bad Muslim Discount’ by Syed M. Masood is a book that solidifies my claim.
An ingenious debut novel, Syed’s book employs humour to explore the reality of being Muslim immigrants in modern America. It is 1995 and Anvar Faris, a restless, rebellious and sharp- tongued boy is doing his best to grow up in Karachi, Pakistan. As fundamentalists in the government become increasingly strident and the zealots next door start roaming the streets in gangs to help make Islam great again, his family decides, not quite unanimously, to start life over in California. In juxtaposition, thousands of miles away, Safwa, a young girl suffocating in war-torn Baghdad with her conservative, grief-stricken father, finds a different and far more dangerous path to America. The narratives proceed to be intrinsically linked; the fates of two remarkably different people intertwine and ignite a series of events that rock their entire community.
Slated to release in February 2021, ‘The Bad Muslim Discount’ is a hilarious book that powerfully examines heavy themes like identity, faith, filial relationships and life in our politically turbulent times. My conversation with Syed about him and the book soon made me realise that it is certainly one of the most important new releases of the year.
How did your relationship with writing begin and how has that relationship been so far?
I’ve been writing pretty much since I can remember. It’s a part of who I am. It always has been. It was a hobby of mine, you know, the kind of thing ‘desi’ uncles and aunties think is cute at parties. Almost no one took it seriously, but...well, here we are. We’ll talk more about how and why I became an author later but that’s different. Being an author is a vocation, being a writer is a calling.
Can you tell us about the writers and books that have informed or influenced your work?
Let’s start with Fayyaz Hashmi, who was a poet born around Kolkata in the 1920s. People may not recognise the name, but they’ll recognise the work. He wrote the song Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo. Fardia Khanum went on Coke Studio and sang it again a few years ago and it was pure magic. It was a major inspiration behind ‘The Bad Muslim Discount’.
Aside from that, I’m a huge fan of Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote Remains of the Day. Mohsin Hamid is my hero. I once had ten dollars left to my name and I had to choose between picking up a copy of Moth Smoke or having dinner and I chose Moth Smoke. I don’t have any regrets now, though I have to admit that at the time, I did have second thoughts until I got paid the next day. Finally, I’m very quickly going to mention Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen, who are absolute masters, obviously.
What inspired the writing of ‘The Bad Muslim Discount’ and what is at its core?
It was my father, actually, who made me into an author. That’s really ironic because he didn’t like the fact that I decided to study English Literature in college. Anyway, one day we were listening to the radio on a road trip and there was a tragic news story. I don’t even remember what it was, but I recall something terrible had happened in a Muslim country. My father turned to me and very matter-of-factly said, “You should do something.”
I laughed. I mean, what am I going to do? I am a lawyer, not a politician or policy advisor. I was powerless. Anyway, years passed. My father passed as well. The news kept on being terrible. It kept getting worse and worse and I kept remembering what he’d said, that I should do something. So, I picked up a pen and started writing again, intending to be published for the first time. What I wrote became ‘The Bad Muslim Discount’. ‘The Bad Muslim Discount’ is an exploration of Muslim identity in the modern world, specifically modern Rome, that is to say the United States. It is wrapped in humour and romance, but ultimately it is a novel about the act of choosing what kind of person you want to be and what principles you will use to make those choices. It’s a novel about identity and the struggle we all face to get to choose our own.
How have your roots influenced this story?
I was born in Karachi, just like Anvar was, so the setting of the book at the beginning was definitely influenced by my childhood and teenage years in that city. I really wanted to show it some love. I feel like Lahore gets a lot of attention in literature and the arts but for me there is no place like Karachi.
To employ humour in a book that explores heavy thematic concerns like faith, identity, family, etcetera, is a difficult task that you’ve achieved masterfully. What was your creative process like behind writing the book?
Well, thank you. That’s very kind. It’s dif- ficult, honestly, blending humour with heavy themes, especially when it comes to faith and religion. Those are obviously sensitive topics and one has to be careful with them. In fact, they’re sensitive topics even when a writer or poet isn’t trying to be funny. When Allama Iqbal wrote his bril- liant Shikwa, there were people who were offended. My understanding is that some Muslim clerics called him an infidel. But Iqbal had it easy in comparison to us mere mortals writing these days for a couple of reasons. For one, none of us has anything close to the stunning talent or cache of Iqbal, of course. It is also that we aren’t in 1909 anymore, so we don’t get to wait for clerics to denounce us. The Internet will ensure that our condemnation is swifter and probably more virulent than anything Iqbal faced. And, in my particular case, there is the added challenge of writing what is, at its heart, a comedy. So, while I’m really glad you thought I handled the conflict between these heavy themes and humour well, we all know there will definitely be people who will be offended.
In this environment, my process is simple. My rule for writing comedy is that I try not to write something that will unintentionally give offense to a reasonable person. If I give offense, I intend to mean it. It helps to be a person of faith. It helps to write from a place of love. You just do the best you can within those parameters and...well, trust your readers after that, I guess.
Could you tell me how you found and built your characters, especially the two main protagonists, Anvar and Safwa?
My writing process is very messy. I just start writing, without outlines or plots and have faith (there’s that word again) that it’ll all make sense in the end. So I don’t really have any hard and fast rules or techniques that I use. I will say that the key to writing good characters, in my opinion, is to give them one great strength and at least one great weakness (preferably more) and if those two qualities have a relationship—if they are opposites, for example, then that’s even better. That’s usually a good starting point in character creation.
What kind of challenges did you face with this debut?
I imagine that for any debut author, the main thing is learning how to emotionally deal with the publishing industry. There is a lot of anxious waiting, rejection, criticism, hope and elation. It’s a skill. I’m learning it. To be honest, my thick skin is still a work in progress though.
Your book is immensely important today, especially in terms of the politically volatile times we are in. What do you hope the readers take away from the book?
Well, the first thing, always, is that you hope your readers had fun, right? I mean, as an artist, your primary job, in my opinion, is to entertain. After that, I’d hope the book highlights for readers the folly of being judgmental. You don’t know what trauma people have lived through, you don’t know what principles, what interpretations of religion or culture are guiding their actions and so when it comes to other human beings, you’re always operating in the dark a little. That isn’t to say that there are no moral absolutes, but rather that trying to understand people instead of condemning them for, let’s say, not being religious enough or not having the religion you prefer, will make for a more liveable world.
How have you been coping with the pandemic and what will be the new normal for you post it?
We’ve been very careful. Due to there being some high-risk individuals in my family, we’ve been very strict about quarantine. We’ll do that as long as we can. I haven’t really thought much about what comes afterwards. But it’ll be nice to travel again someday. There is still a lot of the world left to see.
Lastly, what are you working on next?
‘The Bad Muslim Discount’ is a book for adults, obviously. I did have another book come out, More Than Just A Pretty Face, which was for teenagers and young adults. I’m working on another novel for that age group. It’s about a young man who has been raised and home schooled by his reclusive great grandfather. He has to start going to school for the first time in this life and find his place in the world. It should be fun. As for my next project for adults, well...I have a few ideas that’ll make some good trouble. We’ll see how they pan out.
This conversation is an exclusive from November Bookazine. To read more grab your copy here.
Words Nidhi Verma