TALES RETOLD

India Today - - LEISURE - —Pad­mini Mon­gia

KHAIR SUG­GESTS THAT WE DO NOT SEE BEYOND THE SUR­FACE BE­CAUSE WE CHOOSE NOT TO SEE

The epi­graph of Tabish Khair’s new novel, his sixth, is from Co­leridge’s The Rime of the An­cient Mariner, first pub­lished in Lyri­cal Bal­lads in 1798, a vol­ume which ush­ered in the lit­er­ary move­ment Ro­man­ti­cism. In the Rime, a mariner shoots an al­ba­tross, ran­domly, and then tells his tale to a wedding guest plucked out by the mariner’s bony hand. This hand pluck­ing a sleeve also en­ters Khair’s nar­ra­tor’s dreams. Anil Mehro­tra, a busi­ness­man, re­counts Shab-ebaraat or Night of Hap­pi­ness to un­der­stand his em­ployee and right-hand man Ahmed.

The reader of Co­leridge’s bal­lad feels a dis­turb­ing shiver, which lasts through the long poem, as mys­te­ri­ous events un­fold and per­plex the bound­aries be­tween real and imag­ined, liv­ing and dead. A scholar of the Gothic, Khair is well-versed in the tech­niques used by writ­ers of the 18th and 19th cen­turies to push against the bound­aries of the Enlightenm­ent with its em­pha­sis on rea­son and ra­tio­nal­ity.

The pro­tag­o­nist of this novel learns to shed his pro­saic and dull un­der­stand­ing of busi­ness and life through his en­counter with the other— an older Mus­lim man with a sad smile and a knowl­edge base well out­side any­thing imag­ined by our busi­ness­man. As the nar­ra­tor learns from Ahmed, in­clud­ing about the fes­ti­val Shab-e-baraat which gives the novel its name, so do we read­ers. In do­ing so, we con­front not only the oth­er­ness of Mus­lims but of peo­ple at large: Khair sug­gests we do not see beyond the sur­face be­cause we choose not to see. The busi­ness­man even­tu­ally sees Ahmed and much more be­sides.

Khair’s nar­ra­tor may be prac­ti­cal, hard­headed, and suc­cess­ful, yet an English ma­jor lurks just be­neath his skin. Echoes of Mac­beth and of T. S. Eliot pep­per his nar­ra­tive along with the re­work­ing of Co­leridge’s bal­lad. Yet the scaf­fold­ing on which this novel rests feels forced. The busi­ness­man’s in­te­ri­or­ity, his com­pul­sion to shed his ra­tio­nal struc­tures for the ir­ra­tional ones of­fered by Ahmed, does not feel or­ganic. As a re­sult, the haunt­ing qual­ity of a tale told and retold, as Co­leridge’s Rime, does not stretch into this work de­spite the long reach of a hand pluck­ing a nar­ra­tor’s sleeve.

NIGHT OF HAP­PI­NESS Tabish Khair PAN MACMIL­LAN IN­DIA ` 450, 168 pages

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