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Aatish Taseer's "Noon"

Class War on the Sub-Continent

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Shortly after Rahan Tabassum returns home to Delhi for a vacation from his university studies in the United States, he finds himself in an increasingly tense situation involving his mother’s servants.  When she is away, her house is burgled—two computers and her safe carried away.  The assumption by the increasing number of detectives who try to unravel the theft is that it’s an inside job, involving several of the household’s ten or twelve servants, several who have worked for Rahan’s mother for years.  What slowly becomes the moral center of Aatish Taseer’s latest novel is the young man’s increasing awareness of class, the enormous gap between the filthy rich and those at the bottom (domestic servants, gardeners, watchmen).

Initially—because Rahan also believes that the thievery has been carried out by his mother’s workers—the young man feels a sense of superiority: “…my happy ideas of a summer in India [were] ruined, my routine broken into, I felt myself a rougher man than I knew.  To be morally superior in India was to feel physically weak and insecure.  And, as though revisited by that childhood longing for security, I ached to feel strong, to shed any naivety that might still remain.  I wanted the servants quickly to know how ruthless I could be.”

Slowly, these feelings are reversed.  When the police begin interrogating the household staff, Rahan’s earlier beliefs that “servants didn’t have birthdays or zodiac signs; their age and the places they had lived and grown up in didn’t matter….” begin to disappear.  As the personal details of the workers begin to leak out, Rahan begins—just begins, but no more than that—to see these people as human beings.  Moreover, the police employ increasingly unsavory methods to get the servants to reveal possibly incriminating evidence.  Rahan acknowledges his “protective screen of encoded privilege—not simply as money, but as aspects of privilege, English, Western dress, values and manners: the things that had put me above caste in India—made injustice, and especially cruelty, of the most casual variety, appear always as the work of others.  It was, and by extension, its taint, something that just went on in the society, but for which its educated classes bore no responsibility.”

What does Rahan do?  He simply runs away, leaves the ugly situation in which he has become embroiled, and flees to Europe to join one of his friends from the university.  This dereliction of duly is all the more revealing because, earlier in the narrative, Rahan was the most curious of children, always trying to get to the truth of a matter, though often that was the question of his own father who divorced his mother when the boy was so young that he has no memory of the man.  There’s a moving scene from his early childhood when Rahan goes up to a stranger and asks the man, “You are not, by any chance…my father?”

It is that quest to discover who his father is and understand him that takes Rahan much, much later to Port bin Qasim, a seaport in Karachi, where he finally meets the man and—as with the summer of the thievery—spends some time with him.  By this stage in the narrative we are led to believe that Rahan is more mature, able to size up people (including his older half-siblings) easier that he was when he was still a student.  His father had an earlier marriage before the one with Rahan’s mother, so there are children from that marriage, as well as others from a third one.  Moreover, Rahan’s father is filthy rich, so rich that he has surrounded himself by sycophants and toadies, most of who live in decadence because of the old man’s money.  Homosexuality, booze, discos, wild women (all the taboos of Muslim orthodoxy)–this is the atmosphere that Rahan discovers himself slipping into as he tries to establish a relationship with his older half-brother, Isphandiyar.

Aatish Taseer excels at creating a cast of morally questionable characters in his quixotic novel, Noon.  The man can write—there’s no doubt about that—relate a story through an imaginative sequence of seemingly disconnected scenes.  They are not that random at all, as the reader understands when the final sequence comes to a conclusion, but, oh, this novel needed to be tightened up.  Ironically, the two longest chapters are both the most revealing but also the most long-winded.  And “noon,” as it relates to Taseer’s story?  What is it?  The middle, implying that everything is unresolved, always waiting for something else?

Noon
By Aatish Taseer
Faber and Faber, 298 pp., $25.00.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.