Saturday, September 10, 2011

Back To The Navel

This appeared in the latest issue of Tehelka.

NOON  Aatish Taseer

The great Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “In all my writing, I tell the story of my life over and over again”.  It’s a statement that comes to mind when reading AatishTaseer’s third book, Noon. Following on the heels of a travelogue and a debut novel, this is another tale in which clear autobiographical currents can be discerned, many of them already covered in his two earlier books.

Planned as an episodic sequence rather than a conventional narrative, Noon plunges us from the start into the world of its protagonist Rehan Tabassum, son of an intrepid Delhi journalist and a businessman-politician from a neighbouring land, evidently Pakistan. (Although the country is referred to in the book by the names of two cities, the first, Port bin Qasim and the second – oddly and obviously enough – La Mirage.) The forlorn Rehan strikes alliances with both families: as a child, with his devout grandmother in Delhi, and later, with his step-brother, Isphandiyar, from across the border.

The novel also delves into the lives of others in Rehan’s orbit: notably, his mother, who re-starts her life in New Delhi after her return from London at the end of her association with Rehan’s father; and Amit Sethia, a rapacious industrialist with whom she subsequently has a long-lived liaison. The account of the latter’s motivations and rise to wealth seems to have been included as a way of making the novel encompass and understand recent changes in India and Indians, and this Naipaulian device doesn’t quite work, as the account lacks the personal texture of the rest of the book. Naipaul is a presence in other ways, too: sometimes stylistically, sometimes as a direct quotation from An Area of Darkness, and sometimes as unprocessed attempts to make sense of the plight of the individual against a historical backdrop.

In one lengthy chapter, Taseer employs an interesting and apt device to explore contrasting attitudes and beliefs between higher and lower social strata, namely, a theft at the Delhi farmhouse where Rehan is ensconced after his return from a US college. Domestic help – some new, some of long standing – is suspected, and varieties of police officials are called in. Unfortunately, the ramifications of this drag on for far too long; after a while, no new perspectives emerge.

The next section, describing Rehan’s time in his father’s land, is more evocative and insightful. He travels here, wanting “to enjoy my strange patrimony, with its many players and new country, to feel it more as an opportunity than an obligation”, and Taseer is candid about his protagonist’s need for parental approval as well as his life’s many absences. The register changes with the introduction of political machinations and blackmail, with some of it being reminiscent of Invitation, Shahryar Fazli’s recent Karachi-based novel.

Noon, then, emerges as a bit of a hodge-podge: a little insight and sensitivity blended with a lot of solipsism and self-indulgence. At one point, the narrator asserts, "The gaps in my life were too many, the threads too few". It shows.

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