Aatish Taseer’s latest novel, Noon, despite being a slim and incredibly easy book to read, is not an easy one to describe. It is composed of four unequal parts, each longer than the last, with a prologue and epilogue. All the sections are bound together by the presence of Rehan Tabassum, the child of an Indian Sikh woman and a Pakistani Muslim father (similar to Taseer’s own life), although some sections are from his first-person perspective, and others from a third-person perspective.
Through the four stories of Noon, a reader follows Rehan from his early childhood all the way to the present day. A reader is walked through an evolving, triangular relationship between Rehan, his mother and his grandmother; the changing social dynamics between India’s new business elite and the decay of its old, compromised feudal lords; an investigation into a robbery; and finally the power play within a politically and economically powerful family in Pakistan. Closely observed, and finely told, the stories have atmosphere and resonance.
All the stories are about an elite group of people. That may make sense while describing the whiny Rehan Tabassum alone, but it doesn’t do all that much to illume what is happening in the societies of India and Pakistan, where the stories are set. Bulgari, Cartier and a host of other brand names litter the pages of Noon. The only desi cultural reference is to the late artist M.F. Husain, who is not even recognized properly by the characters populating an upper-crust dinner party.
Farmville: The characters in Noon are most comfortable in Delhi’s sumptuous farmhouses. Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint.
Noon presents a reader with flats in Golf Links and a farmhouse on the outskirts of Delhi. There are dinner parties for ambassadors and royalty, spas at five-star hotels, but few insights. It comes as no surprise that rich people have little idea of what their servants are up to. Nor is it a shocking revelation that the police use all sorts of coercive measures to interrogate the poor.
All the events in Pakistan happen within the air-conditioned interiors of posh restaurants or the houses of the rich. A political demonstration outside is described, not experienced. The gay brother-in-law to Rehan’s father is portrayed as a scheming, cowardly nobody—his homosexuality apparently what makes him “a court eunuch”, for which we are even supplied an appropriate Greek word from history.
Noon: Fourth Estate/HarperCollins India, 239 pages, Rs 499.
Rehan’s half-brother is a damaged, petulant child, needing and resenting his father’s attention, and letting it all come out in deviant sexual behaviour.
Taseer’s latest novel does a great job showing the lives of a tiny, gilt-edged minority, the crorepatis and their catamites, whose problems seem to have little in connection with the places they live. Their connection to the rest of the world is through their servants, the people who open their doors, wipe their shoes and who are the brutalized weapons in the petty games of rivalry and jealousy. Unfortunately, Taseer also tries to portray and comment on the wider societies through the mouths of his characters. Their descriptions of that wider society are all similarly condescending—consisting of second-rate Naipaul-isms.
When Rehan goes to the servants’ quarter, he observes that it has the “stale, sweet servant smell (he) has known all (his) life”. The police who come to investigate are caste caricatures, with the Jat as the bumbling, aggressive fool at the bottom, “sly and cruel, his humour bawdy”. His superior officer is of an undefined higher caste, and it shows in his clothes, language and competence. A yet more senior officer is a Brahmin, of course.
Why the police have this strict caste hierarchy is never explained or remarked upon. Why the elite are above caste is not even considered. In Pakistan, Rehan’s half-brother expounds on visions of purity, and how the cause of all of Pakistan’s misplaced anger stems from “that same vision of purity on which (it) was founded”.
The epilogue is a series of blog comments on events in Pakistan. These descriptions and expositions on the larger South Asian political scene are the weakest part of the book. The sheltered nature of the elite lives that Taseer describes so well makes these commentators completely unbelievable when they comment on the rest of society. This adds little to the book, none of it good, and could have been left out entirely.
In six words
Where the rich secede from reality
Omair Ahmad is the author, most recently, of Jimmy the Terrorist, winner of the 2011 Vodafone Crossword Book Award for fiction.
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