I'm Pakistani-American and a nonfiction writer, so I have the street cred to speak this truth: Nadeem Aslam's homage to kachnar (which Mr. Clout has asked me to address) is crap. I'd call it "sappy," but it didn't even have a tree trunk for sap to drip from.
There are three key tropes he's trafficking in. One is that of an immigrant family bonding over ethnic cooking from the home country. The second is the small-world phenomenon of meeting long-lost contacts in unlikely places. The third is the grace-of-God phenomenon of two people with the same roots winding up with very different fates, with the more fortunate of them looking at the less fortunate and thinking "There, but for the grace of God..."
On all these points, Aslam says some things that are true, and assuming he hasn't lied to the NYT, the specific events in the essay really happened. But nonfiction--in my opinion--must do more than just narrate actual events; it must go beyond the true-to-the-self-experience truth of fiction to tell us something tangible, actionable, relevant, useful and universal. It's called literary journalism for a reason: it serves a social function first, not an aesthetic one.
Back to Aslam's three tropes. First, Pakistanis care about their food, a lot. You can't go to a Pakistani's house, even as an electrician, and not accept something to eat; that would be like spitting on their feet. And it's a traditional society where women do almost all the cooking, so a family would of course associate all their favorite foods with some aunt. So this whole anecdote of obsessing about the food can be universalized to Pakistanis and maybe to other food-centric immigrant cultures, but the essay never tells us why this matters except to call up some kind of maudlin warm fuzziness in the reader. Nor does it address or acknowledge some very problematic actions/instructions/social implications inherent in this trope, like the fact that this middle-class Pakistani emigre who runs his own life and has a career as a writer is happily defining the women of a more restricted society he has chosen to leave behind solely by their function as homemakers. Part of the Pakistani food culture he's describing is the fact that the nieces and nephews would have little sense of the aunt's worth as a person outside her role in serving them food. If the author is expressing nostalgia or warmth about such a society while visibly benefitting from life in a very different social milieu, he has to deal with the politics of that. To just drop the story with all these tensions inside it flies in a short story, but a journalistic essay has different codes.
Pakistanis tend to be clannish in a way that makes these small-world meetings pretty common too: even if we don't normally encounter our relatives in restaurant kitchens, a Pakistani will ride in a cab with someone from the village next door to theirs and quickly find they know all the same people. This too produces a maudlin warm-fuzziness, both in the Pakistani expats who have such encounters and the readers of Aslam's piece. But what's the point here? It might be that you can travel halfway around the world in the effort to leave some of your past behind (which IS part of emigrating--if everything were perfect at home, you'd never leave) and still wind up defined by the place you were born. This would be a bold political statement, and one I'd disagree with (it would deny the possibility of social mobility and justify the elimination of progressive social policies like a graduated tax rate or affirmative action), but I could only agree or disagree once Aslam had bothered to make the point.
On the third trope, I don't think Aslam's anecdote can be universalized at all. Pakistanis are so family-centric, as the first two tropes illustrate, that it's unlikely many people would immigrate--even illegally--without contacting their relatives. The notion that two branches of the same family could wind up in such different places on the class ladder--one half cooking in restaurants and driving cabs while the other gets to eat out and ride in cabs--is not at all useful as a window into any broader trend. Nor is it especially warm and fuzzy. Instead it fulfills the criticism most often leveled at the NYT and the liberal press in general--that these publications are designed to exorcise the guilt of the affluent, to allow them to say "There but for the grace of God go I" and thus eliminate the fact of that inequity.
Frankly, it seemed to me that this kind of guilt-exorcism was at the heart of the whole piece--feeling warm and fuzzy towards a poor relation because she feeds you good food and then disappearing after a night of conversation with a full belly without addressing any of the social tensions that anecdote brings to light.
That all these tensions are discernable in the narrative is not sufficient. That's how it works in fiction, where the text has all kinds of internal quirks and different societies at different times can use the same text different ways; all the author has to do is give us a meaty narrative with lots of quirks to work with. Nonfiction, I believe, is written at a particular moment and with a particular social purpose. Aslam treats nonfiction as a fiction-style narrative that just happens to be true; in this, he follows a growing trend among nonfiction writers that I frankly find despicable. The fact that all the social purposes I can conjecture for this piece are so politically unpleasant only makes me dislike it more.