Beneath the layers

Beneath the layers

Tabish Khair’s latest novel, Night of Happiness, is intriguing. On the face of it, it appears like a simple story centred around Anil Mehrotra, a prosperous businessman, and his trusted aide, Ahmed. Lend the story some serious thought and the many layers of the story come screaming out, hitting out at our complacency. Well, almost.

It begins on a stormy night. It’s Shab-e-baraat, the day Muslims recall their “...ancestors, those who are dead, the ones gone before us to the realms of eternal peace and joy...” It’s the only day Ahmed requests for a day off from work. But, this time around, he’s forced to work to clear a consignment. Mehrotra is feeling guilty about it. He tries to book a cab for him, but in vain. He realises that the least he can do to assuage his guilt is to drop Ahmed home. As they reach Ahmed’s house, the fury of the rain intensifies. Ahmed invites Mehrotra home for a cup of tea as it’s unsafe for him to drive through the storm. Mehrotra accepts the invitation. Even before entering the house, Ahmed apologises to Mehrotra on behalf of his wife. “She observes the purdah. I will request her, but she might not come out to meet you.” Fair enough, thinks Mehrotra, since “it’s part of your faith.”

At this point, little does Mehrotra know that this is just the beginning of the bizarre experiences waiting for him. For, he is soon served halwa, the famous halwa his wife makes on the occasion of Shab-e-baraat. “It was then that I noticed it did not contain any halwa. There was a pile of nimkis and a small spoon on the plate, but no halwa.” To add to Mehrotra’s confusion, “...Ahmed, with the gentle tinkle of spoon on china, scooped ‘halwa’ out of his plate and levered it, carefully, making sure nothing spilled, to his mouth.” He even says, “Go ahead, Mehrotra sa’ab, you have not touched it. I promise you, it is delicious.”

The experience of eating the “ghostly halwa” sets the tone for the rest of the novel, setting Mehrotra on a quest for the truth about Ahmed. The Ahmed he knows is simple, hardworking and trustworthy, an awe-inspiring polyglot who is known for his aphoristic utterances. But the Ahmed on the night of Shab-e-baraat appears almost insane.

Enter private detective Devi Prasad. A peek into Ahmed’s past is now offered. A past that is marked by his upbringing by a single mother in the fictional Bihar town of Phansa, the same Phansa that features in several of Khair’s novels; his years as a tour guide in Bodh Gaya; his marrying Roshni, who is “not Muslim” enough; the couple’s years in Mumbai and Surat; the 2002 Godhra riots to which Roshni falls victim; and his subsequent return to Mumbai. Ahmed, who has not accepted his wife’s death, lives in a world of make-believe where she is still alive. He even has everyone around him believe that she’s alive, even though nobody’s seen her.

Mehrotra is shocked by these revelations about Ahmed. It does justify Ahmed’s weird behaviour. “But could I ignore his madness? Did I not owe honesty to him — and to myself and my business?” Mehrotra is caught in a dilemma...

So proceeds Khair’s Night of Happiness. The trope here is ‘absence’ — of the halwa, of the wife — that Khair employs strategically to weave a story that defies any classification in terms of genres. As the story unfolds, it has its readers in its grasp, a grasp that’s almost hypnotic. The prose is poetic, peppered with a poet’s sense of allusions. As we thumb through the pages, we realise the truth in Khair’s words, as he has revealed in one of his interviews about the book — “I thought of a man whose experiences would be difficult for many of us to understand, a man we cannot pin down and file away. And, that man and his experiences grew into Night of Happiness.”

Khair’s tone can be sly, but his intentions are clear. He’s written a complex allegory for the horrific communal violence that marked 2002. His book is especially moving about people who have lost their loved ones, and who, like Ahmed, fail to accept reality for what it is. Khair’s mastery shines through in his ability to create a mystery when none is expected, and his exploration of the psychology of victimhood and the haunting cost of loss. It sure is a riveting page-turner right from the word ‘go’.