A Dutiful Boy by Mohsin Zaidi

A Dutiful Boy is an important book for me – it’s importance measured by the fact that one of my beautiful, dutiful sons singled this book out as my Christmas present. The book charts the pain of a gay Pakistani Muslim’s journey to acceptance, love and flourishing.

The book’s inner sleeve explains that Mohsin Zaidi grew up in a poor pocket of east London in a devout Shia Muslim community. His family were close knit and conservative. He became the first person from his school to attend Oxford University, and it was there that he found the space to become the man he was born to be.

Zaidi talks frankly about his own self-hatred and his prayers to be “different” and “cured”. The tensions and the love of Pakistani family life are well told. Throughout Zaidi is committed to his parents, brothers and his extended family of aunts and uncles and this is one of the most moving aspects of this story. The book is as much a memoir of their journey to acceptance as it is of Mohsin’s.

Counselling helped. I will treasure the exchange with his counsellor, Maureen Zaidi reports. Responding to Maureen’s questions Zaidi admits that he had thought of suicide. Maureen asked: “do you think your parents would rather a gay son or a dead son?” Zaidi didn’t know the answer. “ A dead son they could explain. It would be a moment in time and then they might move forward. They’d live with the shame of a gay son for as long as I was alive.” Then Maureen invites Zaidi to imagine a future in which he has a son.

“Now imagine your son in exactly the situation you are in now – the same history, the same conflicts, the same desires and the same fears. What do you do?”

Zaidi replied: “I grab him. I hold him tightly and tell him that he’s OK. That he is loved and that I don’t give a fuck about religion. That any God who loves me must love him as much.”

Then Maureen asks: “Now think about his sadness, what does that make you feel?”

“It makes me angry … really, really angry.”

“Digging deep into this pit of anger, I felt something shift inside me. My sense of justice kicked in. The anger felt good, powerful. Like rocket fuel. I wouldn’t be stalled by the obstacles put in my path. I would knock them down. I was surer than ever before that I would not marry a woman. I would live my life as a gay man, and, one way or another, there would come a time when I would face my family and force them to face the truth.”

Throughout this journey Mohsin remains the “dutiful boy”. There is secrecy about his gay life and there are enormous tensions along the way but there is integrity in the way Mohsin and his family will not let go of one another in spite of the pain and shame they all suffer and in spite of the distance they put between themselves.

This is a story in which all find their cure and it is a delight to read how Mohsin finds love and the freedom in which he can grow his work. Other people aren’t so fortunate and continue to struggle in cultures which hate homosexuality and seek to change, cure and deny those who are gay. Mohsin and his parents set up a support group for the families of LGBT Muslims.

In the first session his Mum said to the group: “My brother was sick and it … he has taught me a lot. We have so little time with our loved ones. Why waste it? God created my son this way and it is me who had the problem, not him.” His Dad joined in: “Children are not ours to disown, my son is not hurting anyone. He is a good person. I don’t care what anybody says. I know that Allah loves him like I do.”

A Dutiful Boy by Mohsin Zaidi was published by Square Peg on August 20th 2020

Coin sides and the shape of peacemaking processes

How many sides has a coin? When we toss a coin we call “heads” or “tails” because we assume that a coin just has the two sides. On the toss of a coin we are divided into winners and losers. The winners are able to claim that they won fairly (even though only by chance) and the losers have to suck it up. There are two sides now and both know whether they are on the side with greater chance or lesser chance. The losers’ last chance is to overturn privilege – and the odds are always stacked against them.

The 12 sided thrupenny bit was first minted in 1937

But there aren’t just two sides to a coin. There is another smaller side which nobody calls because it so disproportionately small that the chance of it landing on its edge are virtually zero. But then, who hasn’t spent time standing coins on their edge, and who of us of a certain age hasn’t enjoyed making the old thrupenny bit take its stand on one of its twelve sides (as opposed to its two large sides).

Just imagine twelve sides. That is precisely what our scriptures imagine – with the twelve tribes of the twelve sons of Jacob finding and founding society in the land they were caused to occupy. The early church shared that imagination, counting twelve apostles and replenishing that number when one fell out. The thrupenny bit represents a design to facilitate concelebration, conversation and dialogue – remembering that there are rarely only two sides to any question and that to resolve conflict many sides have to be considered. Sitting round a circular table is to adopt this design. Each person has their point of view, their side, in a facilitative process which intends to iron out the abuses of positional power.

Polyhedron 20 from yellow

Pope Francis, in Fratelli Tutti (2020), suggests the image of the polyhedron as the shape of better things to come. Promoting a “culture of encounter” he writes:

“The image of the polyhedron can represent a society where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another, even amid disagreements and reservations. Each of us can learn something from others. No one is useless and no one is expendable. This also means finding ways to include those on the peripheries of life. For they have another way of looking at things; they see aspects of reality that are invisible to the centres of power where weighty decisions are made.”

Fratelli Tutti 2020

Colum McCann underlines how tricky it is to get beyond binary thinking about winners and losers and right and wrong in his novel Apeirogon. The title is a mathematical term for an object of an “observably infinite number of sides” – a shape that reflects that conflict can never be reduced to simple opposed positions. Apeirogon is based on the real life friendship between Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin, two fathers (one Israeli, the other Palestinian) united in their grief for their daughters – both killed in conflict. They both join the Parents Circle Families Forum – a group of people similarly bereaved who unite in their sorrow to press for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Apeirogon: a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. Countably infinite being the simplest form of infinity. Beginning from zero, one can use natural numbers to count on and on and even though the counting will take forever one can still get to any point in the universe in a finite amount of time

from The Apeirogon

And there’s another shape – the circle. The shape of things to come if ever we come to the time of resolution – when there are no sides to join or oppose, when the corners we tend to cling to are rounded off by our encounter with the various truths of any situation. The earth is well rounded as if prepared for peace making.

Reservoir 13

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor is set in an unnamed village in Derbyshire’s Peak District. On the surface this is a story about what happens to a village community when tragedy strikes. Buried deep is the question of how a community can sustain a compassionate interest in the aftermath of tragedy.

Reservoir 13 opens with a search for a missing girl, Rebecca Shaw. It happened at least thirteen years ago. It’s a common enough tragedy, as evidenced by Jon McGregor’s careful punctuation of the story with reports of similar events on the television news. There are thirteen chapters – one for each of the years since the girl’s disappearance. Each chapter begins with the same words: “At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks” (including arson) and each chapter follows the same chronological formula. There are no paragraphs, just long lists of observations of events and relationships.

Life does go on. Weather happens, birds carry on nesting, children grow, relationships change, cleaning has to be done, bridges need mending, the reservoirs need maintaining and the cricket team keeps losing. People come and go.

Life goes on. Is that cliche, or is that proverb – wisdom hard won in the teeth of bitter experience? The author is omniscient. He sees it all. There is no moral judgement – except in his poetic retelling of this village life in details which are compellingly compassionate.

This is a book which focuses on what doesn’t happen, rather than what does. A girl goes missing. What are you supposed to do after the search party? This is a story where a girl goes missing twice: when she is on holiday with her parents and when she goes missing from the story.

I remember a similar search where I was living in the Manor estate in Sheffield. A boy had gone missing. Local residents wore themselves out for weeks, joining in search parties, day and night. I can’t remember what happened. I can’t remember whether the boy was found, whether he was dead or alive. I can’t remember his name. Is that to my shame, or is that what happens? Life goes on.

A boy or girl goes missing, but it is only those closest to them who will miss them. We barely remember. That is how we re-cover.

Reservoir13 was winner of the 2017 Costa Novel Award and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017. It was published by Fourth Estate in 2018.