Between two worlds

November 12, 2011

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“Cosmetic surgery has become popular in Port bin Qasim,” says Aatish Taseer’s narrator in Noon, referring to Karachi by its fictional name in the book. “[T]he town was filled with women still fresh from their surgeries, some still with bandages on the bridges of their noses.”

Not even in the depths of Defence is the town filled with such women, but Taseer’s depiction of Karachi still makes it sound as if he has spent his time there driving between fashionable Zamzama restaurants and someone’s mansion in Phase V, DHA, with a detour to the Emirates office, and then proceeded to write a piece that aspires to capture the zeitgeist of the city.

This is the last one-third of the book — more a collection of stories than a novel, despite being billed as such, but more on that later — and is presumably based on one of the author’s visits to Pakistan to try to build a relationship with his father, the late Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who left him and his mother, Tavleen Singh, after  he was born in London. The prior two-thirds draw on his life as a child and a young man in India, where he grew up, and provides knowing, nuanced glimpses of everyday life in that rapidly changing country. In Pakistan, on the other hand, the narrator uncovers a city and a family of murderous violence, extremist politics, elitism, blackmail and illicit sex. The caricatures that are painted in the process seem designed to shock and titillate while at the same time confirming some of the outsider’s most cherished stereotypes about the country.

These exaggerations and simplifications go beyond wealthy aunties with reconstructed noses. As Rehan Tabassum, the narrator as well as Taseer’s fictional stand-in, arrives for lunch in a posh shopping area, he is greeted by the sight of a violent protest by the Zeban-e-Pak party. The group seems loosely based on the MQM but with vaguely Islamist elements. It is destroying shops on Zamzama because it wants the country to stop using the English language and use only Urdu instead.

Complex facts are comfortably avoided as Karachi’s ethnic and religious violence is fused together.

Of course Noon is not a work of non-fiction, and instances like these could be justified as creative license — in another book.

But the bulk of this one, set in India, tells stories in which the drama is far less heightened. Hand-picked as its anecdotes might be, it perceives the contradictions and ironies of entirely believable slices of life, and a reader has no reason to think, by the time she gets to the Port bin Qasim chapter, that the author isn’t continuing in what he thinks is the same vein.

Besides, the attempts at fictionalising the Pakistan part of the narrative are far too thinly veiled to be taken seriously. Karachi is Port bin Qasim, with its nod to Islamic conquest, and Lahore is the glamorous but shallow La Mirage (while Delhi, London and Dubai are the far less exotic Delhi, London and Dubai). Fez at the Sind Club is Marrakech at the Gymkhana Club, and the Taseer family’s WorldCall business is Qasimic Call. Taseer is simply dressing up in more exciting packaging what he wants to suggest are truths about the nature of the country.

There is also a more serious danger of this lurid Pakistan portion of the book. Facts about the Taseer family are freely mixed in with anecdotes that might well be fictional (just as Sahil Tabassum, Rehan’s father, shares initials with Taseer’s father). The trouble is that this cocktail includes such things as violence, socially unaccepted sexual preferences and blackmail. The author’s estrangement from his father for some time before the latter’s death is well-known, and the Pakistan section continually creates an uncomfortable sense of retribution, or at least the feeling that private details are being revealed and that Taseer is irresponsibly playing with the truth, especially since this is a family already at risk in Pakistan. Neither this, nor the sense that one is reading a parody of international newspaper clippings about Karachi, is eased much by the narrator’s admission that his view of Port bin Qasim and the family is “an eclipsed one”.

None of this is meant to imply that illicit sex, violence, elitism and politics are not features of Pakistani society. The Karachi of Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is no less lurid, but avoids Taseer’s mistakes by taking itself far less seriously. But the rest of Noon, in which the narrator speaks of India, is written with a far quieter, more nuanced touch. When he speaks of the country where he — and his narrator — grew up with his mother, Taseer’s language teases out the most telling details from even the most ordinary scenes, and does so in a perceptive voice tinged with humour, nostalgia, and an arch sense of the contradictions of Indian life: a glistening mobile-phone outlet and a politician’s “peach-coloured mansion” among chai shops, buffaloes and dung along the main artery of a small urban town; lettuce wilting over the foie gras an industrialist’s wife serves at a failing dinner party; a Hindi-speaking police officer’s “occasional and fluent effusions in English centred on a single, admired word, such as ‘systematic’ or ‘revive’”; a young boy being fed mutton and lentils by his grandmother as he watches Hindu mythology dramatised on television. Peppered with telling observations, his narrative moves quickly, propelled by absorbing story lines, rounded characters and clean prose that create memorable scenes without slipping into the exoticisation that South Asian writing in English is so susceptible to.

But while much of it is an engaging read, Noon doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. A fictional tale of a son in search of a father who abandoned him in his childhood? A thinly veiled autobiographical attempt to get back at said father, including a possible exploitation of his high-profile family for sordid effect? An analysis of the complex loyalties of an Indian with close ties to Pakistan? A comment on the injustices of class and caste in a rapidly changing Indian society and economy? A taste of everyone’s favourite topic of the moment, Pakistan, a place where violence and religious extremism are routine, but, oh look, they eat at nice restaurants and have sex too, sometimes even of the homosexual kind?

In the hands of a master craftsman, it could perhaps have told all these stories while also telling the story of Rehan Tabassum.

As it is, the book is a collection of several distinct anecdotes strung disjointedly onto the basic framework of Taseer’s life. It describes the struggles of Rehan’s childhood in India, where his mother returned after her lover abandoned them in London.

It takes a detour through an episode in the life of an industrialist his mother would later marry, one that seems to have been squeezed in just so the author could comment on the liberalisation of the Indian economy and the resulting shift of power into the hands of new money. It then moves on to a moment of moral reckoning for Rehan the young man, now an idealistic graduate of an American liberal arts college returned to India, faced with the fact that he is sending his household staff into police torture so that one of them can confess to a theft at their farmhouse outside Delhi. Finally, Rehan visits Pakistan to meet his father and siblings. Instead he uncovers a sordid city and an even more sordid family and flees from them in horror, as he did from the farmhouse episode.

A clue to this structure, or lack of it, might lie in what could be a writer’s manifesto, but appears just once, and late in the book. “Sahil Tabassum… once said to me… ‘I like a book to have a beginning, a middle and an end,’” the narrator says. “I thought to myself… mine cannot be that kind of book. The gaps in my life were too many, the threads too few.” But there has been no prior mention of this, or any other, formal intent, and it appears more as an afterthought than a sustained device meant to reflect the shape of Rehan’s life. Incomplete and at times sensationalist, Taseer’s latest book is at its best when offering bite-size observations that reveal India’s changing dynamics. In them, he applies a fine brush to his own little bit of ivory. Beyond them, he fails to maintain their coherence or the lightness of their touch.

The reviewer is a Dawn staffer

Noon (NOVEL) By Aatish Taseer Harper Collins, India ISBN 978-0-3305-4041-4 256pp. Rs995