Imran Ali Khan
At 7am when your eyes are still adjusting unwillingly to the sun, and you have just stood in a queue to have your bags scanned and your person felt up at the Pune airport, to find the shutters of a bookshop open is almost as close to salvation as one would get. Sarkars is a matchbox of a bookshop neatly tucked into a corner of the departure terminal surrounded by vending machines and Shrewsbury biscuits. It was on one of those 7 am mornings on my way out of the city, looking for something to read in Sarkars, that I bumped into Aatish Taseer’s Noon. Taseer looking all too surly on the jacket of the book may not have been the brightest thing that morning, but I remembered enjoying his Stranger to History when it first came out. Noon is Taseers’ third book in three years.
Noon is a curious time of day. For some (like me) it’s the waking hour filled with the heaviness and regret from the night before with little or no promise of the day to come. The sun is oppressive, a deep quiet heaviness stills the air and the long unnatural shadows walk before us. Taseer’s Noon is very much like that. Rehan Tabbusum, the narrator who is caught between the many lives of his separated parents (an Indian lawyer and an estranged wealthy father in Pakistan), a stepfather who is a diamond quite recently cut and polished, a doting grandmother and an American whom he spent the summer with in Seville who keeps popping in every now and again with cryptic SMS’.
Noon is a slim little book which starts off with great promise. Heavy, delicious quotes from Valmiki’s Ramayana (in Sanskrit, and translated for us mortals) and we are thrown head first into a heart-wrenching dialogue between Rehan Tabbasum and Mirwaiz about earthquakes in Kashmir and there is some hope for the book to become a grand narrative.
Don’t hold your breath, because this does not happen. Taseer’s narrative flits over two decades of India and Pakistan, a history in violence and a history of a nation whose elite have little or nothing to do with anyone else, and Rehan Tabbasum is part of this coterie. Rich, intellectual (if reading the Russians in the afternoon makes you an intellectual) and so at odds with the world that one wished he would find himself a rock to hide under. The characters are painfully static, one-dimensional and are possibly merely concepts in his notes somewhere, the author having forgotten to add some meat on them. The Mother and Daughter who are at loggerheads, the arriviste who (surprise surprise) has a bone to pick, real or imagined, with the Indian royals, and the Servants – oh the servants! (Yes, Mr. Taseer our servants do have birthdays and do have lives after they have cleaned our homes.) The gay characters too do surprisingly badly — deeply stereotypical and unfairly pathetic, they are scheming, hysterical and so sexually charged that one can only wonder how they survive long-haul flights.
Noon is divided into four parts, and ‘Notes on a Burglary’, set in Rehan’s stepfather’s farm house, is possibly the most gripping of the four narratives. Rehan is ‘alone’ in the house (the servants don’t count) when a few laptops and a safe are stolen. An investigation begins and Rehan is suddenly forced into a position of power he did not want to take on. Rehan is now forced to consider the lives of the people that work for him, forced to smell “that sweet, musty servants’ smell” and note that the servant “spoke now like a servant, playing up his stupidity”. It is at this point that I wished I was wearing my Cartier watch so I could look lazily at the time and say “Oh dear! I have an appointment I absolutely must keep” and this is almost precisely what Rehan does: “Complicity…was, in a sense, the most untraceable of the great evils. […] I, with my palate still sensitive, found its taste new and strong, but my response, arising out of habit, was weak and familiar.” There are big gaping holes in the narrative, and Taseer deliberately leaves out parts, but did he have to leave what could have been potentially the best parts? Later in Pakistan at Port bin Qasim, Rehan is with his estranged family, his father (still) looming in the shadows.
Fundamentalists, raunchy half-brother, scheming gay uncle (and Kashmiri boy-toy), the rich Westernized (read as smoking, drinking, divorcee, skirt-wearing) women and faceless mobs (there was some vandalism somewhere but Rehan was drinking tea) — Pakistan remains a half-formed thought in Taseer’s head. Things happen around Rehan Tabbasum but he is so busy reading Dostoevsky or not answering cryptic messages from Spain about gazpacho that we never really find ourselves anywhere, just floating in some poor little rich boys’ existential angst about the history of the world and the history of violence.
Taseer struggles under the narrative, his canvas weighs him down and there is carelessness in his language that is unforgivable — describing his servant for example as “the most bendable unbending man I ever knew!”, or “To be morally superior in India was to feel physically weak and insecure”… and there are many such vapid thoughts.
Noon moves at a glacier speed, slowly dripping into a large pool where Taseer sits admiring his own reflection and contemplating his navel, leaving us to find our own way home amidst the wasteland of violence and hoping that the fourth book (in year four) will not include either of his parents or himself.