By M. Athar Tahir
A thar Tahir is no stranger to readers of English literature in the country. He is known as a poet — an English language poet, to be specific — and, with six collections of verse to his credit, sometimes his work in prose recedes into the background.
Tahir has won numerous accolades in the genre of poetry, but his credentials as a researcher are equally deserving of merit. He has written several books on art and natural history and his introduction to Taufiq Rafat’s English translation of the epic poem ‘Puran Bhagat’, composed by the 19th century Punjabi poet Qadir Yar, was so elaborate that it was later published as an independent book. It was an introduction to not only Qadir Yar, but also to the form of classic Punjabi poetry.
Tahir’s first work of fiction was Other Seasons, a collection of 25 short stories published in 1990. It has taken him a little over 30 years to come back to publishing fiction, but he crowns his return with the more expansive form of storytelling: the novel.
The title of this novel, Second Coming, is borrowed from one of Irish poet William Butler Yeats’s most famous poems and hints at the second phase of love in the protagonist’s life. The two phases have an age between them; the first encounter occurring during his adolescence and the second in the twilight of his life.
Some of the short stories in Other Seasons were informed by Tahir’s profession as a bureaucrat and it appears that his novel, too, has some influences of the same. Verily, the most effective fiction comes from the reality surrounding a writer, as it lends an air of authenticity to the work. Like the author himself, the main character in Second Coming is a bureaucrat, a Rhodes scholar and a former commissioner.
Athar Tahir returns to fiction with a debut novel about an ageing bureaucrat falling in love with a much younger Thai woman
Our bureaucrat travels to Thailand to take part in a conference and there, forms a deep relationship with his translator, Sukhon Urairat, whom he calls ‘Su’. He, meanwhile, remains unnamed, perhaps to add to the suspense that grows in the reader’s mind over the course of the story. The only inkling of his name we get is from his emails to his Thai love — he signs the missives with the capital letter ‘A’, which could possibly hint at the author himself.
Tahir weaves two very important aspects of modern life in his novel. One, this is a relationship started during a short tour abroad; two, it is built into something deeper and more meaningful through online communication. Both can be said to be phenomena of modern contemporary life, the latter somewhat more than the former.
The story tells of a man at the height of his career, with a somewhat gratifying family life after an arranged marriage and children who are now grown up. His wife suffering from cancer represents the sexual and emotional aspects missing from his life. Driven by what can be called, in Freudian terms, the pleasure principle, he ventures into a relationship and exploration of love with his Thai translator and guide.
Their brief interactions at the conference grow into something bigger with the passage of time, the professional evolving into the intensely personal. They spend years emailing each other and then he travels to her country to reconnect with her, all the while dreaming of discovering new emotions in the land of the Buddhists.
Buddhism is an undercurrent in the novel, which is divided into four parts, each named for one of the four elements of the faith: ‘Earth’, Air’, ‘Water’ and ‘Fire’. Buddhism is also a leitmotif because, after every section concludes, the reader is taken back to another stage of A’s rejuvenated love life.
I am almost twice her age even if I don’t look it, flabby around the waist and the skin is beginning to sag at the throat and gather at the back of the hands. To her I may be a romantic, ridiculous and revolting. And since I have almost no experience in the slippery arts of love or in the conniving crafts of wooing, which apparently her three exes did, I may seem pathetic and pitiable. But I have been honest, something she has not. — Excerpt from the book
Each section named after one of the four elements describes A’s journey into the self, leading him to nirvana. ‘Earth’, representing solidity in one’s personal life, describes the initial physical attraction A feels for Su. ‘Air’ denotes mobility, or A’s expansion of his attempts to reach out to the beloved. ‘Water’, meanwhile, exemplifies the stage where the fluidity of emotions leads to internal confusion within his own self as well as within Su and ‘Fire’ represents heat and energy.
Tahir’s giving the title of ‘Fire’ to the last section might surprise some readers, but it also appears to be wordplay, a trick played by the author since Buddhist texts speak of two types of fire. One is the commonly accepted fire that causes heat; the other is the fire of extreme cold. It is up to the reader now to look into it and come up with their own interpretation of which kind of fire the author means.
Second Coming also explores the nature of love, or rather, the delusion of love that humans tend to fall for. Love involves two persons, which means things become complicated. This causes the undercurrents of tension that flow through the story. The question of how to adequately pigeonhole it is raised by the narrator too, in the middle of it all when he asks, in a monologue, “I wonder if I love her utterly or if I am in love with the idea of being in love, an idea which fulfils some need.”
At places, Second Coming reads like a travelogue, or the diary of a tourist, when the author shifts focus from the characters to the places and sites the protagonist visits, including Bangkok, Pattaya and Koh Samet. At such points, the narrative becomes too descriptive instead of exploring the two characters upon whom the novel is built. This focus on descriptions rather than development of story and characters happens in several of the stories in Other Seasons as well.
From the pleasure principle mentioned earlier here, which drives the protagonist to Thailand to explore new vistas of romances, A arrives at the reality principle, which brings him a reality check. In explaining the reality principle, British literary critic Terry Eagleton has said: “We are sometimes willing to forgo gratification to a heroic extent, but usually in the canny trust that by deferring an immediate pleasure we will recoup it in the end, perhaps in richer form. We are prepared to put up with repression as long as we see that there is something in it for us.”
It is for the readers to discover at the end what A gains from this reality principle, the suppression of emotions, that also sums up his relationship with Su.
The reviewer is a member of staff based in Lahore.
He tweets @IrfaanAslam
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 14th, 2023