Tabish Khair's tale unfolds during Gujarat riots

Novella Night of Happiness evokes the strangeness of the familiar

By Sonia Sahoo
  • Published 24.08.18
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In The Architectural Uncanny, Anthony Vidler mentions how the Freudian uncanny emerged as an aesthetic sensibility and psychoanalytical strategy to reflect over the shock and suffering caused by the two World Wars. As a crisis of memory and time, trauma both eludes representation and yet haunts the unconscious like a spectral trace demanding articulation. The rupture rising out of the recurrence of an unassimilated painful past in the disturbed present leads to an uncanny experience of disorientation where the known world seems strangely alienated, even intimidating. Tabish Khair's Night of Happiness is a classic literary trompe-l'oeil that draws on the disquieting ambivalence of the uncanny to create a powerful novella that unfolds against the backdrop of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Khair achieves this effect through a double-layered narrative structure where the surface veneer of the text camouflages a palimpsest of repressed memories, ruinous loss, absence and forgetting. Yet at fleeting moments, the world of the narrative present blurs to unmask not just the haunting burden of the past, but also to reveal flickers of a shadowy new space of in-betweenness that shatters the trust we place on our senses to perceive reality and discern truth. The plot turns on one such liminal moment set between the polarities of life and death - the Muslim festival of Shab-e-baraat when the devout offer prayers seeking salvation for their sins and deliverance for the deceased.

Arvind Mehrotra is a pragmatic entrepreneur running a successful business venture. He is helped by a team of dedicated workers, foremost among whom is Ahmed. Humble, soft-spoken, courteous and hard-working, he is an asset to the company, well-loved and respected by all. However, when circumstances contrive Arvind's visit to Ahmed's house on one rainy night of Shab-e-baraat, a new and untold dimension to the latter's personality is disclosed. While Ahmed's fastidiousness as a host is nothing beyond the normal - he goes to the kitchen to ask his wife to prepare tea, talks to her privately in the kind of hushed tone one would use when a visitor is present and, after a patient wait for the ceremonial ' maida ka halwa' to be cooked, offers it to his guest - yet the invisible 'halwa' Ahmed both serves and savours appreciatively, uncannily brings to mind the phantom that lurks in the absent presence of the unseen and the unheard.

Deeply shaken and driven by the need to rationalize what he has witnessed, Arvind tries to find out more about Ahmed's private life. As he stumbles on one fact after another, what emerges is the less-than-ordinary life story of a small-town tourist-guide from Phansa near Bodh Gaya in Bihar. Khair's description of Ahmed's early life delineates a man who refuses to be defined by stereotypes. He eats at Hindu restaurants, speaks foreign languages other than the mandatory Urdu and Arabic, mixes with the local Tibetan refugees, marries a girl not deemed Muslim enough and quietly defies the religious diktat preventing women from entering graveyards by never setting foot there again except to attend his mother's funeral. His liberalism provides no defence however when his wife Roshni is lynched by a revenge-hungry mob in the aftermath of the Godhra violence.

Ahmed's struggle to sort out and transform the incoherence of grief is achieved through a process of selective forgetting and remembrance. In his newly solitary world, the painful memories of Roshni's chillingly apathetic murder are numbed and forgiven, though not completely erased; life gathers meaning in the fragile though happy reminiscences of a time prior to the ordeal, constructing an alternate reality that soon acquires the force of the uncanny. His withdrawal into a safe haven cocooned by familiar images and vivid sensory impressions is most forcefully registered in the sublime metamorphosis of Shab-e-baraat into the 'night of happiness' if not of compassion in Ahmed's delusional imagination. Arvind's decision to relieve Ahmed of his duties for a year as a cure for his 'madness' ironically severs whatever connection the latter has with the outer world, giving him the impetus to permanently possess and inhabit the beautiful stillness that lies at the centre of his happy inward space. Yet, even as one readies to dismiss Ahmed as a lunatic, Khair ends with a masterstroke of the startlingly uncanny that forces a rethink of the fluid interface between reality and illusion, reason and insanity, the strange and the familiar.

Khair has often expressed concern at the shrinking space for moderate Islamic voices in the face of religious chauvinism. However, Ahmed's fractured identity is expressive perhaps not just of the indeterminate position of the average liberal Muslim, but of all rational voices caught between the binaries of free speech and radicalism. Notwithstanding its deft handling of the literary uncanny, it is this understanding which ultimately lends the novella a kind of timely relevance.

NIGHT OF HAPPINESS By Tabish Khair, Pan Macmillan, Rs 450