For many of us, our faith is such a vital part of our identity that all the other parts of it are its appendages — conflating, gradually, into it. However, for some of us, we find a conflict here. A vital part of ourselves that doesn’t quite go with our faith. It is this conflict that Zaidi chooses to examine in his memoir, A Dutiful Boy.
The subtitle of the book — a memoir of secrets, lies, and family love — while correct, also fails to define how the writer’s struggle with his religion plays a significant role in the memoir. It is this part that, I think, will resonate with many who read it. There is a part in the book where Zaidi says, “I anguished over whether I believed or not, concluding there needed to be a fourth category added to the ‘believer, agnostic, atheist’ list. Those labels all required me to pick a side but I didn’t want to pick and didn’t want to say I was agnostic because I wasn’t. The fourth group was for those who simply did not engage with the question.”
This alienation from his faith, the distance from it that Zaidi feels stems from the realisation that he is queer. And so, he finds himself in this fourth category, someone who has been unwillingly thrust away from their religion because it does not accept them. In tackling this theme, Zaidi’s memoir brings to the forefront what many queer South Asians struggle with when they first come to terms with their own identities — the unwelcomeness their faith may display towards them and how to accept that with the new realisations they have made about themselves.
Zaidi’s path to acceptance, similarly, is an arduous one, overfilled with obstacles and roadblocks and internalised queerphobia. Starting in the early 2000s, Zaidi outlines his life as an immigrant in a neighbourhood at London’s East End, detailing life both as a Pakistani child and as a person who was gradually realising this part of himself that his devout Muslim parents believed was a “Western Import.” Zaidi’s account of his childhood is non-romanticised, honest about the hard edges of it, of his parents’ love that seems conditional, the clear demarcations between what he was allowed to do and what he wasn’t, what he was expected to do and what he wasn’t. It is this frankness that makes the memoir engaging to read.
His writing, similarly, is raw and honest — free of embellishment. At times, however, Zaidi writes in a clipped tone as if conveying the anger he feels ravaging within him, born out of self-hatred and fatigue. In the epilogue, Zaidi goes on to admit that he thinks that the memoir “is about rage. About refusing to accept things for the way they are instead of the way they should be.” In a way then, the memoir is as much about acceptance of queer identities as much as it is about their refusal.
It is in this refusal that Zaidi finds a space for his family to exist. The close bond between himself and his family plays a vital role in the memoir, as is obvious from the title. Zaidi highlights how growing up, he was the golden son, the one who would lift his family out of poverty. This is something that will resonate with many South Asian readers. So many of us have been on the receiving end of our parents’ expectations of a better life and the crushing weight it bears. Zaidi recounts these experiences with an unflinching voice that conveys how he can both love his family and dislike them. The duality highlighted here is very important to the memoir as it shows how bound to his family he feels and why it upsets him so much when they refuse to accept his queerness. His family’s contribution to his internalised queerphobia is prevalent throughout — from the way his brother throws around incendiary comments to the way one of his uncles chooses a derogatory nickname for him. However, much like Zaidi’s own coming of age, the memoir also serves as a coming of age for his family who learn to accept him — a process which is as tumultuous as you can imagine it to be.
His family’s acceptance of him, simultaneously, serves as a reflection of Zaidi’s reconciliation with his faith. It is only when his beloved uncle is sick that Zaidi finally masters the will to return to the prayer mat, to again connect with a faith that he had rejected because it refused to co-exist with who he is and agonised him. In this reconciliation, Zaidi finds relief. It is this that ultimately allows Zaidi to see how two parts of himself don’t have to conflict, that they can simply co-exist.
A Dutiful Boy, thus, presents a non-stereotypical narrative. An unusual one where the person, instead of abandoning their faith and family, can come to terms with both. And in doing this, the book gives readers a hopefully narrative — one that highlights both the hopeless and the hopeful realities of coming out as queer in a South Asian family.
Grey dreams of a world where she can be queer loudly and where her cats are immortal.