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Finding the meaning of a man's life: Tanveer Ahmed's memoir

By Peter West - posted Monday, 10 October 2011


Tanveer Ahmed tells his story in a book that might be called a memoir. He grew up in Bangladesh, came to Australia with his parents and studied medicine. He had a meteorically short career as a TV star and now practices as a psychiatrist and part-time journalist.

After the family came to Australia, Tanveer's family had a brief sojourn in inner Sydney. He did most of his growing up in the western Sydney suburb of Toongabbie. He provides a series of little vignettes with occasional events that makes one smile. He had a friend who was Turkish and had many relatives who seemed to "suffer disproportionately from injuries in car accidents". One friend could break wind on demand and other boys came from miles away to see him perform.

There are flashbacks to Bangladesh. One friend, called Rojon, died there of tetanus. There are various stories, which suggest extreme poverty and hopes for living in a more peaceful, predictable world before the move to Australia. I find these scenes rather opaque and I'm not sure what to make of them. For example, the meeting of his future mother (Minu) and father (Afsar) through a wedding planner:

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…After a period of dedicated attention during which the esteemed guest was met by my grandfather, his other children and curious neighbours, Minu strode in with her sister and greeted Afsar with the Islamic "Salam alaykum" before taking a seat on a wooden chair…

I'm sad to say that I get lost in all this. There is detail a-plenty, but the human drama is lost. What did the people feel? And can we share their emotions? There is too much incidental detail and too little reflection and meaning.

Tanveer got a scholarship to Sydney Grammar School. We're not told how. His father told him not to look up to the Australians, who were descended from convicts and spent their lives drinking. He went to university and met a variety of people, many from the Indian sub-continent. He says:

I had dream Indian credentials. I was studying to become a doctor and was good at cricket but just couldn't come at pretending to be African-American and adopting the theatre of hip-hop, which was what many of the guys seemed to revert to in expressing their cultural difference. I couldn't understand how thin, Indian guys studying economics or engineering could consider themselves big, tough and well endowed. From my encounters in male change rooms most guys of Asian origin, myself included, were usually short and thin in more ways than one.

As so often, this is mildly amusing, and it's fluently written. But hardly a revelation, or riveting reading, I'm afraid.

Tanveer passed his exams and became a doctor. We hear about a cricket team briefly called the Taliban. It seemed like a good idea at the time, I suppose.

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Eventually we hear about a man called Darren who becomes hyperactive on cannabis (Tanveer assures us that he himself does not). They did some comedy and Tanveer acquired a taste for the entertainment industry. He appeared in a TV show and does a variety of things including calling out "Nooooooooooooooooooooooo bingo!" Sadly, all other comment had been cut out when the show appears. He was afraid of becoming a laughing stock. In any case, the show closed.

Tanveer ends the book at the point at which he passes his psychiatrist's exam.

There are fulsome tributes on the cover from various people, footballers and so on. They tell us that the story is evocative and heart-warming and funny. But the story isn't evocative, nor more than intermittently humorous or entertaining.

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Tanveer Ahmed's book The Exotic Rissole was published this month by New South ($32.95).



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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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