Ragini Mohite reviews Tabish Khair’s latest novel of fear, suspicion and erasure.
Tabish Khair, Night of Happiness (New Delhi: Picador India, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, 2018), 154 pp.
Tabish Khair’s latest work and seventh novel Night of Happiness (Picador, 2018) is the story of fear, suspicion, and ultimate erasure. Coming in the guise of a thriller, the novel is a sensitive acknowledgement of the indignities faced by minority communities and individuals in contemporary India. His protagonist, Anil Mehrotra is an Ivy educated business-owner whose manuscript is discovered by the reader in a hotel room drawer, next to the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, and carrying an epigraph from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Khair opens the novel by directly addressing the reader and his unnamed narrator is the mariner holding the reader captive with his glittering eye and fascinating story. Khair’s Mehrotra is at home in the urban, increasingly cosmopolitan Indian city. A Hindu man who is seemingly distanced from religion and secure in his wealth, he refers to his wife only as ‘the missus’. Mehrotra is a striking representation of the liberal urbanite whose own hidden prejudices come to light.
But the true glittering eye arresting the reader is Ahmed. Decorous, disciplined, and vulnerable, Ahmed is a Muslim man from Phansa employed at Mehrotra’s business, eventually becoming his right-hand man. Ahmed’s strange behaviour one stormy night compels Mehrotra to have him investigated as he begins to question the existence of Ahmed’s wife, Roshni, in the home he has visited. He alternately wonders whether Ahmed has extremist tendencies, or is insane, or keeps his wife hidden away. The investigation that follows reveals as much about the Hindu man’s internalised prejudices as the Muslim man’s inner life. While investigating Ahmed, Mehrotra also performs the Hindu gaze that often pervades the lives of Muslim women in purdah. The seemingly liberal Mehrotra who thinks to himself, ‘what a relief it was when things were exactly as they seemed’ (p.42) is visibly discomforted when his assumptions about his employee are challenged and goes on to reveal his hidden biases. On the other hand, Ahmed is the observant Sunni Muslim of the pacifist Tablighi Jamaat who marries a non-Muslim woman without insisting on conversion, fights for his mother’s revoked right to visit her husband’s grave and interacts seamlessly with members of other faiths and lifestyles. Ahmed argues that ‘the purdah was not a veil put on women but a curtain between private and public spaces.’ (p.95)
Khair pushes aside the veil of urban liberalism to display the suspicion that Muslims are faced with and reveals to us that prejudices can be rendered invisible and fostered. Ahmed is first afforded an interview because he is the only Muslim applicant, and Mehrotra admits that ‘I was also prepared to reject him’ (p.8) until his multilingualism proved to be a potential benefit to his business. Mehrotra maintains: ‘First rule in business, first rule in life: work with known factors.’ (p.8) Through the novel, Khair pushes his readers to question if such knowability really exists. The novel is itself a sparse narrative, forsaking all else for its primary plot line, one that is as singularly obsessed with its investigation as the mariner with his tale. Leaving his manuscript in a five-star hotel room, Khair’s Mehrotra selects his audience to resemble himself: English speakers who would occupy such elite spaces: ‘you could be almost anybody.’ (p.2) The streamlined investigative report too is embellished by Mehrotra’s imaginings about Ahmed’s life. While he adorns Ahmed’s narrative with details, Mehrotra’s own insularity becomes increasingly evident. He is uncomfortable in unknown and poorer neighbourhoods and needs his wife’s assistance when he searches for a Muslim acquaintance within his own circle to question. The narrative too is filled with small erasures. Ahmed’s story is told through Mehrotra, a man who is both his employer and a Hindu, and who eventually carries out an erasure by firing him. In doing so, Khair foregrounds both Mehrotra’s biases and the frustrations of having oneself labelled, having one’s story told and controlled by an uncomprehending other.
However, Ahmed’s wife, Roshni is the largest erasure of the novel. A victim of the 2002 Gujarat riots, she has been bodily erased—burned alive—by a politicised mob and Khair grounds the smaller indignities suffered by Ahmed in the aftermath of a pogrom whose repercussions are still evident and ongoing in India. At this point, the heroic significance of Khair’s Ahmed is revealed. In claiming that, despite her death, ‘Roshni is always with me’, (p, 136) Ahmed resists the erasure of his wife by the rioting mobs. He insists that emotional sympathy and connection can hold sway even as reason crumbles into communal and societal divides. But ultimately, Khair returns to his reader. In Mehrotra, he holds a mirror to those who need to see victimhood performed in order to turn suspicion into sympathy. He asks: ‘Can one pity suffering that refuses to show? Can one comfort someone who remains calm?’ (pp.137-38) In his poetic and sympathetic narrative, Khair replies in the affirmative.
Dr Ragini Indrajit Mohite is a scholar of modernist and South-Asian literatures. She received her PhD from the University of Leeds. Her essays have been published in the James Joyce Broadsheet, South Asian Diaspora, Stand, and International Yeats Studies. She is currently working on her first monograph. Find her @RaginiMohite