When absence is a measure of happiness

Nabina Das | Updated on: May 18, 2018
Ghosts of the past  Photos   of the victims of the Godhra riots are displayed at a commemorative event in Ahmedabad.

Ghosts of the past Photos of the victims of the Godhra riots are displayed at a commemorative event in Ahmedabad.

 Night of Happiness
Tabish Khair
Picador India
Fiction
₹450

Night of Happiness Tabish Khair Picador India Fiction ₹450

Tabish Khair’s latest novel is a deep dive into the seemingly quiet, mundane lives marked by the horrific violence of the Godhra riots

On first reading, Tabish Khair’s new novel, Night of Happiness, is a linear first-person narration. It depicts, sequentially, a sense of befuddlement, hurt, intrigue, and inquiry in the mind of Anil Mehrotra, a straitjacketed businessman. But after subsequent readings, the symbolism of the narrative overtakes the apparently simple plot. Shab-e-baraat or the night of happiness — an image that gradually opens up the layers in this book — is the leitmotif here, as is the perceived absence of any eventuality, such as death, disaster or the 2002 riots, in this case.

More than Mehrotra, it is his colleague, Ahmed — of sparse speech and aphoristic utterances — who establishes himself as the protagonist. The social spaces that Mehrotra and Ahmed inhabit converge in a series of intriguing observations from Mehrotra’s point of view. Doubt, trust, empathy, outrage, and even a “suspension of disbelief” are the coordinates that constitute this narrative arc.

BLinknightBookCover

Night of HappinessTabish KhairPicador IndiaFiction₹450

 

Roshni, Ahmed’s wife, contributes to the trope of “absence” that the author uses quite successfully as the story progresses. Roshni, whose name means light in Hindustani, seems to suggest that unlike her name, she herself is not known or seen enough, apart from her physical features (apparently “not Muslim” enough) and her brief interactions with Ahmed, whom she marries . In fact, she is never seen because she dwells only in her past and in the presence of other characters, as an apparition would. These details, as well as the account of her tragic death — reportedly at the hands of a murderous anti-Muslim mob following the Godhra train deaths in 2002 — are revealed to us through Mehrotra’s private eye, Devi Prasad.

Ahmed, who has not accepted his wife’s death, has everyone around him believe that his life with Roshni is a continuing one, in all its domestic ease and mundane-ness.

Mehrotra’s encounter with Ahmed’s favourite but, again, nonexistent halwa is another mystery the story sets out to unravel. Ahmed’s attachment to Shab-e-baraat, his mother’s halwa-celebrating ritual, which is later supposedly made by his (absent/imaginary) wife Roshni too, brings together the symbolism of “night” and “happiness”, highlighting the tragic irony of the situation.

In this riddle of real and unreal sight, smell, taste and touch, Mehrotra, the “sensible businessman”, for all his formulaic business practices, is pleasantly given to quoting Macbeth. From his carefully set-up life to the overwhelming presence of the Other as he delves more into Ahmed’s strange nature, he confronts, perhaps for the first time in his life, a tug at his conscience: “Someone was guilty, and I wanted it to be proven that it was not me, because what had happened in that flat had somehow, in some vague, weird manner, imposed a burden of guilt on me too.”

Readers, too, slowly feel the weight of this burden. In the book, the ghost of our nation, our politics, and our tragedies come together in a subtle dismantling of disbeliefs of various kinds. A victim of one of the worst riots in post-Independence India, Ahmed, who is suspected to be an Islamist as well as a potential madman, fits into that rare tragic persona that can best be loosely termed “post-Shakespearean”. His perceived madness is a reflection of the so-called civilisation that has engulfed us. If government records cannot spell out the gruesome details of recent ethnic pogroms, if Roshni’s killing goes unpunished, if Ahmed’s fantasy world is a result of the apathy of the world around him, it is only natural that Mehrotra’s “delusional” brush with his employee’s “madness” is a corollary to all of that. For Ahmed, Shab-e-baraat remains frozen in his mind as the only source of happiness via the smell of the halwa he cherishes so much. Mehrotra, too, fleetingly realises the value of happiness while listening to his private eye furnish details of Ahmed’s curious life: “Yes, this was it, an Ahmedism if ever there was one: One need not search for happiness; one needs to stop for it.”

Khair’s prose in this novel, contrary to his earlier writings, is sparse, almost flat. But his mastery lies in creating a sense of punctuated wonderment and measured culpability through the narrator. Those used to reading stories of riots, revenge, drama and violence in the context of Indian politics would find this book somewhat slow-paced. But once deep inside the characters and their fraught selves, another world unfolds before our eyes.

A sort of Toba Tek Singh of our times — given to aphorisms rather than lengthy lonely rants — Ahmed chooses to belong to that world which lies in between contrived sanity and systemic dismissal of sentiments. In fact, his last moments are spent in this space he has invented for himself, away from the prying eyes of society, in a “night of happiness” perpetuated in his mind. There’s a thin line which even Mehrotra recognises as existential and, to quote the poet Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, “Somewhere along the line, matters of motion and rest are resolved”.

Nabina Das is a Hyderabad-based poet and fiction writer, currently teaching creative writing

Published on May 18, 2018
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