Monday, August 29, 2011
Aatish Taseer’s Noon is a remarkable novel because of an absence of linear narrative and also because of its sparseness.
It’s unsettling because it doesn’t offer any closures.
Despite its experimental form, it’s a great read and effortlessly involves the reader in the lives of its characters.
I continued to wonder what could've happened to Kalyan in India and Mirwaiz in Pakistan - the two characters most exploited by circumstances and people they serve.
Rehan Tabassum is a young man whose mother is an Indian and father a Pakistani. He has lived with his mother as a child, grown up in the US and returns to both India and Pakistan as an outsider.
Anyone even remotely aware of the lives of the rich and famous in the subcontinent will immediately recognise several familiar characters – some of them seem to have been derived from the novelist’s life.
However, Taseer is able to transcend the personal (and the prurient), and take on a persona of an observer to describe the life of the sub-continental rich and those who serve them.
There is evocative poignancy in the manner in which Taseer portrays the relationship between those who serve and their masters – it’s a relationship of servility and subservience on the one hand, and cunning connivance and concealment on the other.
In Notes from a Burglary Taseer depicts the grime beneath the flashy success of an India that has turned into an economic powerhouse, putting more wealth in the hands of the already wealthy, and their disdain for the underprivileged.
Concomitantly, the chapter also narrates the utter incomprehension of the lives and values of the rich by the poor who share their space.
The following description of Rehan's mother's reaction to her stolen jewellery is masterly:
“Her pain at what had been lost became keener when she considered that the great part of her jewellery’s value lay in the people who had made it, jewellers such as Bulgari and Cartier. But this aspect of their value had no importance in India and would have meant nothing to the people who stole it. In fact it was fair to say that only a handful of jewellers in the entire country were capable of assessing the jewellery’s value in these terms. And it was not to these places that the thieves would go. Where they would go, the jewellery would be broken up like scrap metal into gold and precious stones and sold piecemeal. And in this form, now with irony spread evenly among victims and culprits, it was not really worth much. My mother could not manage a smile at the philosophical implications of this: the special pain of losing the things into which we breathe hidden value; and India, ever prepared to cut down to size anyone clinging to alien refinements.”
The elaborate charade of investigation conducted by the local police and its casual, random violence on the farmhouse’s staff is riveting as is the relationship that Rehan has with Kalyan – a relationship that is transactional, based on dependency on both side, and yet one in which the master, who appreciates the servant’s deft culinary skills, doesn’t care too much when the police want to give him the “third degree.”
Rehan, the eternal outsider, leave India when the goings-on become unbearably intolerable.
When he goes to Pakistan, his alienation is more acute not merely because of his strained relationship with his father, but also because his inability to understand the deeper nuances that defines relations in a feudal society.
He seeks solace in the meaningless and the mundane.
In Port bin Qasim: An Idyll Taseer captures the true essence of Pakistan’s existential dilemma in a conversation Rehan has with his brother Isffy (“a brother from yet another mother).
“…Everyone has some high idea or the other about what the country was founded for, but it’s always something completely divorced from the reality of the place, something we have to be and are not.’
‘Isn’t every place like that?’
‘No. In other places, what you have on the ground becomes the foundation of your aspirations. Here, it’s the other way round. There’s always something abstract that needs to be imposed on the existing reality. And it fucks up everyone’s moral compass. Because if you’re always setting out to be something you’re not, and are never going to be, if you’re always chasing some Utopia or the other, after a while you get fed up and stop bothering even to be what everyone is, which is human; your most basic morality starts to erode. And, Rehan, you know what they’re about, these unobtainable Utopias?’
‘They’re an excuse for retreat, for more nihilism and futility. Rumi says – though it could just as well be our founder speaking: “That which is not to be found is what I desire.” So what do I do instead? I build high walls and retreat with them, I occupy myself with futility.”
Although always in the background, Begam Akhtar is the only constant for Rehan both in India and in Pakistan.
Noon is an immensely readable and an interesting novel.
Literature Live Mumbai had organised a reading and a discussion with Taseer in Bombay recently at Olive, a restaurant inside a former horse stable at the Racecourse. The event – expectedly – was attended by the who’s who of Bombay.
There was an unusually large component of young women at the reading. I was later enlightened by a friend: They were all there primarily to oogle at the handsome author.