This review first appeared in the Asian Review of Books on 17 December 2011
Noon by Aatish Taseer
17 December 2011 — “Write what you know” is an oft-touted writing maxim that could apply to Aatish Taseer’s work, three books – two novels and one memoir – in three years, all of which pivot on a search for identity. However, in Taseer’s case, it could equally be a matter of writing what he doesn’t know for his books grapple with the gaps in his life. As the narrator Rehan Tabassum in his third book Noon says: “…if everyone has a book in them, mine cannot be that kind of book (with a beginning, middle and end). The gaps in my life were too many, the threads too few.”
Aatish Taseer was born to an Indian Sikh mother and a Pakistani Muslim father. Growing up in a pluralist India, estranged from his politician father, his first book Stranger to History is as the subtitle says, a son’s journey through Islamic lands. In The Temple-Goers, his first novel, he turns his gaze upon contemporary India and its rapacious society in the wake of the country’s economic boom. Noon, the third in the triptych, melds his partitioned halves with four disjointed stories, two each set in India and Pakistan.
We meet the narrator Rehan Tabassum in a train as he’s journeying to meet his estranged father for the first time. It is 2006, an earthquake has ruptured Kashmir and the Jhelum river has risen to flood villages in the valley.
The first of the four stories in Noon rewinds sixteen years when a young Rehan has returned with his mother from London and the single parent is trying to establish herself in Delhi. An ambitious lawyer, she searches for an apartment even as young Rehan resists—he enjoys being cosseted by his grandmother and a burglary in a classmate’s house ratchets his fear. The house-hunting travails lead to shared confidences. When Rehan queries about his absent father, his mother suggests he give him a kick when he meets him.
“He didn’t give us anything? No car? No house?”
“Not a tissue to wipe my face on.”
A second story starts off in the years before India’s economic liberalization and ends in 2002, by which time the erstwhile privileged elite had lost to the economic czars emerging in the wake of fiscal reforms. What is intended as an observation of a transforming society becomes a long-winded yarn with no fresh insights.
Taseer has received high praise from V. S. Naipaul, a writer whose work has also been shaped by a search for identity, and it is in the last two stories that Taseer’s scrutiny turns incisive. “Notes from a Burglary” is a tragicomic account of a theft in a Delhi farmhouse, whereupon the household staff is arraigned by a swarm of policemen who deploy their caste-related knowledge and an interrogation technique that involved a “studied mixture of boredom and cruelty” to psych out the burglar. Rehan, the son of the mistress of the farmhouse, and on a study break from the U.S.A., discovers contradictions within himself as police thrash the servants in search of answers and Rehan, though principally against it, is complicit in the act. “A protective screen of encoded privilege made injustice, and especially cruelty, of the most casual variety, appear always as the work of others.”
The final story, set in the country of his father, is an insightful romp into the treachery and politicking within a family that finds a parallel in the country at large. Taseer picks at the disingenuous lies that masquerade for political cause in Pakistan. A black and white picture of a self-immolation in a daily is headlined thus: “Youth sets himself ablaze on discovering his name has Sanskritic origins”.
Noon is book-ended by images of violence, a theme that runs through the stories that have been cobbled into a novel. However, to merit being called a full-fledged novel, this collection of interlinked short stories and novellas would need more threads, as Rehan would agree.