Noon By Aatish Taseer, Fourth Estate, Rs 499
Aatish Taseer’s second novel, Noon, is made up of four, relatively disjointed episodes, framed by a prologue and a postscript. These fragments move back and forth in time, across countries and continents, weaving together a tale of loss and longing, union and separation, through the voice of Rehan Tabassum. The four-part structure, alluding perhaps to the musical form of the quartet, is built on a crescendo of emotional intensity, a rising curve of which we have little inkling in the first two, somewhat sedate, sections of the novel. Yet, Taseer’s prose never fails to hold our attention. On the contrary, his account of a high-society dinner party in Delhi, hosted by the nouveau riche industrialist, Amit Sethia (who later turns out to be Rehan’s stepfather), in honour of “the Rajmata of some long forgotten desert kingdom” (it’s easy to guess who this ethereal beauty may be), is in the best tradition of the roman à clef. The influence of the wicked exuberance of Truman Capote’s Unanswered Prayers, the patrician humour of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies and the photo-real texture of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories are palpable in this section.
Born of a Pakistani father and an Indian mother, Rehan is, presumably, a thinly disguised self-portrait by Taseer, closely resembling the first-person narrator of his earlier novel, The Temple-Goers (2010). Rehan’s sentimental journey, in search of his “strange patrimony”, also echoes the real-life adventures that Taseer chronicled in his part-memoir, part-travelogue, Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey through Islamic Lands (2009). But the enormity of what Rehan manages to learn at the end of Noon surpasses the denouement of Taseer’s earlier ventures. Noon may lack the structural coherence of The Temple-Goers, but it is driven by its own sinister logic. As Rehan admits, “the material is strange and distressing… the tale without moral”. Yet, in spite of this sordidness, or perhaps precisely because of it, he is compelled to write it all up. As Rehan tells his story, his tone simmers with a latent, baroque energy, while he tries to calmly record the last detail, observing people and places through the eye of a camera, as it were.
“What we cannot know is as much a part of us as what we do know,” Rehan concedes, as he is about to recount his bizarre experiences in “Port bin Qasim”, his quasi-fictional fatherland. “And people, like places, must learn to live with their absences, with those parts of the record that have been sanitized.” But the point of Taseer’s novel is precisely Rehan’s inability to learn any such thing. Rather than accepting the comfort of half-truths, Rehan keeps rummaging for the pieces that have gone missing from the puzzle that is his past. In this sense, Rehan is a ruthless seeker: he does not spare anyone, including his beloved mother and estranged father — and, least of all, himself — in the course of his intense self-scrutiny. Rehan’s mother is given to temper tantrums, his biological father is a notorious philanderer, and his stepfather acts like a bumbling fool. Rehan’s own exchanges with Mirwaiz — the “butt boy” to his father’s “court eunuch” who is “full of seductions” — are kinky, if not erotic.
A typical moment of self-knowledge, for Rehan, usually begins with an acute awareness of his privileged upbringing and education. Soon after arriving in Delhi from an American university, he sets himself a regime of reading and exercise. “I felt at the end of the day mentally and physically fatigued,” Rehan confides, “but full of piety, as if nothing was more important than this private enrichment.” It is this voice of the modern, globe-trotting, self-ironizing, postcolonial subject that Taseer has perfected in Noon. If Rehan is far from squeamish about confronting unpleasant truths about his near and dear ones, he is the least kind to himself. In the brilliant third section, “Notes on a Burglary”, Rehan trains his hawk-like gaze upon himself, dredges up his prejudices and presumptions in clinical detail, and still somehow avoids the easy theatricality and hysteria of going on a guilt trip or a Naipaulesque rant against the entrenched injustices of Indian society. While praising the culinary skills of his cook, Kalyan, Rehan mentions, almost in passing, “In another country, with another idea of human possibility, Kalyan would have been a different man.” As the police heckle the servants working in Rehan’s stepfather’s farmhouse in Delhi during an investigation into a theft of a safe full of jewels and two laptops, Rehan comes up, time and again, against his “undeclared expectations of servitude, which was really an expectation of a kind of subdued humanity. Just as servants didn’t have birthdays, so I was now surprised they had parties. Not surprised; offended.”
It’s not easy to pull off this voice, familiar though it may seem. Taseer’s achievement is not only in bringing to life this autobiographical persona but also in turning him into the prototype of a certain kind of metropolitan consciousness. This is a sensibility that is forged in the interstices of cultures, in those who live “between” global metropolises, blessed with “the advantage of retreat”, and hopefully gifted with “an intellectual stent to channel out the bad memory” that India somehow always manages to leave them with.
To look through the eyes of a character like Rehan, or Daru in Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke (2000), is a self-reflexive exercise for the ‘common reader’ of Indian writing in English. Although Rehan and Daru are creatures forged by their eccentric, individual destinies, each, in his own way, is also a type sharing a certain class and educational background. They are compelled by this shared baggage of urbanity and global citizenship to set out on picaresque adventures, at the end of which they have learnt just about enough of the world and its ways to be able to write a book. So, at the end of their stories, they ironically arrive at a stage when they can actually start writing the story they have just finished telling their readers. Reader, writer and narrator, each is left with the vaguest sense of discontent, as if the tale deliberately frustrates the expectation of a tidy, if not happy, ending. But then, such is the ragged business of life, and the task of fiction is not to iron out its edges.