AS the title suggests, K. Anis Ahmed’s The World in My Hands is a story about ambition and audacity, love and loss. The novel revolves around the lives of a group of friends — Hissam and Kaiser, and Natasha — as they struggle to hold together their deeply polarised personal lives against the backdrop of a grand political divide.
Hissam is a deputy news editor, who seems obsessed with secrets of success, and is embittered by the mediocrity of his professional status. Kaiser is a real estate tycoon and equally ambitious in matters of commerce. Natasha leads a social mobility NGO, is married to Kaiser and is also Hissam’s unrequited “beloved”. The fictional country of Pandua, which strikes an uncanny resemblance to Bangladesh, is in a state of emergency and the military is growing increasingly malicious in its hunt for anyone who might have an interest in opposing the new regime. Hissam is taken into confidence by the secret service, the Bureau of National Intelligence (BNI), with the promise of a more lucrative career; Kaiser’s name is on a wider list of offenders.
Ahmed is not a writer of profound truths — perhaps, that is why his prose seems familiar — but is an effective satirist of the ordinary. His understanding of the micro is far more impressive than his conclusions about politics (which are commonsensical at best and naïve at worst).
However, he constructs his characters’ obsessions and motivations with taste and humour. The way they reason with themselves and each other, the ways in which they invent their propaganda and justify their pursuit of power, are particularly relevant to the difficult choices they have to make. This is exemplified when Ahmed writes: “It was hard to know [whether] one should stay put on one’s presumed-to-be-safe perch, or take one’s chances and float like a dinghy on the swelling waters.”
Hissam is introduced to the reader as a conceited individual whose preoccupation with notions of success are expressed through his exhaustive reading of self-help books, which are never displayed on his bookshelf. Having remained on the verge of a long-awaited promotion, Hissam is becoming increasingly impatient with his washed-up superiors, one of whom he nicknames “the Relic”. Hissam’s resentment and bitterness comes through his witty nicknaming and word play, but he seems to be struggling with the mystery of his failure, trying to come to terms with his own mediocrity.
Pandua is described as a place where “earth and water change places” with considerable ease. With political turmoil tweaking the landscape that had for long suppressed Hissam’s potential, new opportunities are opening up for our deputy news editor; the old regime is being purged, fresh alliances are being made, new loyalties are being demanded.
The much feared BNI is spearheading a new state project, and it wants the media in its pocket. Hissam is chosen to help build a new Pandua. Rather than feeling like a pawn, Hissam feels important. The reader wonders if his loneliness (emphasised by the size of his classic pornography collection, “in the vernacular”) sways him to admire his military cohorts, despite the fact that he is terrified of them. He is pleased to be taken into confidence and he enjoys the charm and intimacy with which his new masters speak to him. At one point, his thoughts lead to the realisation that his greatest fear is being tortured, not dying. The disturbance of this thought is symptomatic of the losing wager that is now his career, built under the supervision of the military. The choice for accepting or rejecting this new role is not an obvious one, especially because the old regime showcased an exceptional talent for corruption. Things had to change, they were bound to, but which direction should they move in?
Ahmed’s corruption-centric view of the third-world becomes the first point of contention. Kaiser plays the role of the good businessman, whose millions are completely justified due to his wife’s charity outlets. Sure, he violated a few laws here and there, but “commerce moves faster than bureaucracy” and his masterpiece, a huge commercial property, had to open itself to some multinational outlets in spite of the regulations in place.
Not a single finger is raised about the role of corporations and businesses that act bigger than governments and posit some very difficult choices for the poor, maximising their profits at the expense of what Ahmed portrays as an inarticulate mob in a scene when his beloved palaces are being bulldozed. The crowd gathers to witness the “official vandalism” of the authorities, till an enthusiastic hired labourer (or “thug”) falls victim to a faulty ladder and plunges to his death. The crowd turns against the authorities, and Ahmed implies pity for the poor worker who, in his display of “false rage,” ended up hurting himself. In other words, hurting big business is hurting oneself. Lesson learnt.
Ahmed tries to inspire sympathy for Kaiser, the family man with a socially conscious ambition as big as the world he inhabits. He acknowledges that bad industrial practices occur, and a distinction is drawn between what sort of business is good for the country and which sort is detrimental but his passionate faith in an angelic version of the free market is irrelevant (and questionable) in the grand scheme of affairs, because most people are yet to see it.
The overlapping narratives of race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, culture, and religion are largely ignored for the sake of a simplistic narrative. This has an unfavourable bearing on the characters, especially the female characters, Natasha and Duniya. They are both stereotypes of South Asian women and South Asian-American women, respectively. Natasha — as the devoted wife, fundraiser and confidante to the two male protagonists — and Dunya (her American citizenship and name suggesting her phantasmagoric existence as a structural ploy rather than an actual character), the rebellious, westernised temptress — raise the charge of sexism against Ahmed. These characters are underdeveloped and dependent on their male counterparts, and unfairly so.
Where the novel does really well is in exploring the details of how everyone’s domestic lives carry on, while battles of good and bad, and right and wrong, are fought in the streets. How, when divided between political faultlines, the things that seem to matter the most to people seem so much more significant than the petty rearrangements of the regime for which blood is spilled and jails filled, and the world, torn apart.
The World in My Hands
By K. Anis Ahmed
Random House, India