Thursday, October 06, 2011

Reading between the lines

Halfway through Noon, the sophomore novel by Aatish Taseer, I was almost tempted to call it a post-modern joke. Many questions were unanswered: is this the fiction equivalent of a mockumentary where the writer’s memoir masquerades as fiction? Is this novel a parlour game for the Indian and Pakistani gentry, who are supposed to read between the lines and guess who’s who in reality? Will Aatish Taseer continue to mine his own past to write fiction?

A golden rule about enjoying a work of fiction as laid down by D H Lawrence is to “trust the novel, not the novelist”. Fair enough. It’s common knowledge that at some level every writer generously pilfers from his or her personal experiences. But Noon is cut with a different cloth: Taseer talks about his parents through Rehan Tabassum, a love child of Udaya Singh and Sahil Tabassum. Taseer had a not-so-idyllic childhood because his father Salman Taseer, a Pakistani politician who was assassinated earlier this year, never displayed any fatherly affection towards him. Rehan, too, has to deal with his father’s absence after Sahil deserts Udaya in London in the mid-80s.

I could have ignored these obvious similarities with Taseer’s personal life if Noon had been fiendishly compelling, which it mostly isn’t. Instead of exploring themes in some depth, the novel provides fleeting glimpses into various stages of young Rehan’s life. Right from his childhood in Delhi where an adoring grandmother takes care of him to a stint at his stepfather’s farmhouse to a visit to Sahil’s place in Pakistan, Taseer’s sharp gaze never overstays its welcome. Noon could be called a daring piece of fiction in as much as the writer chooses to leave many loose ends.
The slim novel also packs in myriad side-characters with brief, walk-on parts of little consequence: a typical single mother who is overprotective about her son, a gay uncle and his toy boy, a step-brother who ascribes his transgressions to his father’s overbearing presence, a Rajamata steeped in colonial delusions of grandeur, a step-father who is desperate to gain entrance into the noble class, a servant desperate to prove his loyalty under trying circumstances. Taseer needs to be commended for his portrayal of human foibles. Every character is inherently self-righteous but it’s their mean side, which also happens to be more human, that shines through.

For instance, Rehan imagines what might happen if his servant Kalyan is convicted of theft, a thought that coincides with the arrival of Kalyan’s family at the farmhouse: “I had to stop myself from thinking of their (the family) disappointment and fear on that same Uttarakhand Roadways bus, heavy with the smell of diesel, coiling its way back through unlit mountain roads to the place from where it came… I thought, if India was the sort of country where college essays were written about such things, Kalyan’s son might grow up to write one about this visit to the capital… And where would I be in such an essay? A small player in the background, a figure of fun perhaps, denied even the dignity of a villain.”

I got my Jonathan Franzen rush when Rehan muses about his ambivalent relationship with Sahil: “We had blood and almost nothing else in common.” Taseer’s charming disdain for the schmooze fests is apparent, “And like this, the diplomatic circle closed around Mahapatra, bringing an atmosphere of great cheer and congeniality to the recently moribund gathering.” Rehan reflects Taseer’s sensitive side: “Servants didn’t have birthdays or zodiac signs; their age and the places they had lived and grown up in didn’t matter.”

Sadly, Taseer’s canvas is way too big and he crumbles under the weight of it. The journalist in him (he worked for Time and Prospect magazines) probably tempts him to weave many events into the narrative – the Kashmir earthquake, London bombings, Musharraf’s presidency – without really adding any value to it. His understanding of the new India is more or less generic. Here’s a description of his stepfather’s obsession with technology, “wireless Internet, a modern gym, flat screens and DVD players, Tata Sky and dark-brown plug points capable of taking the plugs of the world.” Taseer describes a loyal employee as “the most bendable unbending man I ever knew!”. There are more such vapid descriptions that help Noon’s abstract plot progress roughly at the same pace as a glacier.

V S Naipaul hailed Taseer as “a young writer to watch”. That endorsement should have come from anyone but Sir Vidia. After all, early in his career he rejected Trinidad as a viable creative place and decided to “withdraw completely from nationality and loyalties except to persons”. His corpulent work has a girth that extends from Gabon to India. It might not merit a comparison here but both Taseer’s novels (The Temple-Goers was set in Delhi) are set more or less in his comfort zone — England, India and Pakistan. While that’s no crime, Taseer should withdraw from his narcissistic navel-gazing self and attempt something different.

It’s said that everyone has one book in him or her, and if that’s true Taseer has done that. Let’s hope that from now on he puts wonderful writing talent to better use.

Aatish Taseer
Fourth Estate
238 pages


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