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