I've done another disappearing act, haven't I? Sorry about that. Too much happening elsewhere.
In the meantime, my review of Aatish Taseer's Noon
in The Sunday Guardian on 25 Sept
. I might have sounded kinder than I intended to; far as I was concerned, the cover was the most interesting thing about the book.
Fourth Estate (HarperCollins India), Pp. 239. Rs. 499.
Four stories comprise Aatish Taseer’s third book, Noon, and sandwiching these stories are a Prologue and Epilogue that speak more loudly than Taseer can have intended for the superfluity of much of this book.
Many reviews have pointed out the autobiographical nature of the narrative, drawing as it does on Taseer’s own earlier work of non-fiction, Stranger to History, so I will avoid rehearsing the resemblance characters in this book bear to real-life people (whether coincidental or not) and merely note that these reviews are right to find similarities.
Instead, I’d like to examine why Noon fails to evoke more than a lukewarm response. The four stories revolve around the life of Rehan Tabassum. In the first two stories, he is a child and in the next two he is the grown-up narrator. Rehan’s childhood has been spent with his mother Udaya, who has moved back to India after her brief, failed relationship with Sahil Tabassum. The first story covers their move to a barsati in Golf Links and the second is a rather pointless portrait of Amit Sethia, his wealth and insecurities and his desire for revenge upon the royal family of Gwalior for slights real and imagined.
If nothing else, ‘Dinner for Ten’ explains the privilege that the older Rehan is heir to, since it is Sethia and not his absent father in Pakistan who has supported him through an expensive education abroad and the visits to the new farmhouse on the outskirts of Delhi. This rarefied world that has refined itself enough to successfully conceal its parvenu antecedents is the subject of perhaps the most interesting story in the book, ‘Notes on a Burglary’.
In this story, Rehan is alone in the farmhouse that belongs to Sethia and his mother, when a burglary takes place. Of course, ‘alone’ is a shifty word, because in this instance it means alone except for the servants. A couple of laptops and a safe have been stolen and suspicion falls on the servants, especially the cook, Kalyan. A number of policemen come and go, while Rehan observes the effect the burglary has on all concerned, including himself. When it becomes clear that he has to be complicit in the methods the police employ to question the staff, Rehan realises that he has been given a power he did not ask for and does not know how to handle. ‘One did not have to go outside the law to stray: one could stray irrecoverably within the sphere of its enforcement,’ he notes.
There are some finely drawn passages in this story, which is why it becomes doubly disappointing when Taseer fails to build on the potential that is evident. In a series of cringe-inducing descriptions, Rehan refers to ‘that sweet, musty servants’ smell’; notes that Kalyan ‘spoke now like a servant, playing up his stupidity’. By the time Rehan says ‘But servants were often like this’, I suspected I had strayed into a kitty party where the chief entertainment was moaning about the household help or lack thereof.
The story ends inconclusively, just before the investigation is finished. Clearly, Rehan has lost interest in the people involved and is more concerned with his own views on privilege and responsibility, without having to demonstrate one jot of the latter quality. Some measure of self-awareness remains, with Taseer having Rehan say, ‘Complicity...was, in a sense, the most untraceable of the great evils. [...] I, with my palate still sensitive, found its taste new and strong, but my response, arising out of habit, was weak and familiar’.
In other words, dear reader, he ran away.
This is the great failing of the book: that at the precise moment when things get interesting and people and relationships are seen to be complex, the narrator runs away and flays himself for it. In other words, nothing is more interesting to the narrator than the workings of his own mind, and if the reader should happen to disagree, tough.
In the last story, Rehan crosses the border and goes to meet his father and his other family – most especially Isphandiyar, the half-brother who has a troubled relationship with their father. Here is an opportunity for Rehan to play the negatively-capable narrator – say Carraway to Isffy’s Gatsby – but he doesn’t, because Taseer cannot bring himself to acknowledge that other people might yield a better narrative harvest than Rehan.
One would have wanted to know more about the country Rehan is visiting but like so much else in the book, the really interesting details are absent and just out of reach: the sea in Port bin Qasim (Karachi), the faces of the protesters who are smashing shop signs while the brothers sit in a restaurant sipping drinks, even their father.
Taseer is often praised for his skills as a writer, and I must admit to being slightly puzzled. There are some nice observations, and turns of phrase that are more than competent, but one is as likely to find sentence constructions that are plain bizarre. But beyond the slippages in language, it is Taseer’s repetitiveness that is disappointing. Someone like Larkin could have worked within a narrow range to great effect, but Taseer doesn’t have a fraction of Larkin’s skills or insight.
Towards the end of the second story, Taseer says, ‘The door was open. A crack of light cleaved the massage room in half. They stood for a moment that way as long shadows and little people.’ But this is Noon, a time of harsh, flattening light: it ought to have had fewer shadows and bigger people.