Noon By Aatish Taseer
Noon is Aatish Taseer’s third book in as many years. As in his memoir, Stranger to History, and The Temple-Goers, his first novel, this one too, reflects on his main concerns: uncertain childhood, absentee parent, emergence of a shining India and the rapid slide of Pakistan towards failure. Here, too, he borrows heavily from autobiography; peopled by events and characters that are evidently inspired by real life.
It is the coming-of-age tale of Rehan, the result of a brief interlude between an Indian Sikh lawyer and a Pakistani Muslim businessman who grows up in Delhi, gets an American education and harbours a strong ambition to write. It’s a straightforward story that places familial corruption and betrayals against a backdrop of political violence, something else the author knows intimately. His father, Salman Taseer, a prominent Pakistani politician, was assassinated earlier this year, followed a few months ago by the abduction of his half-brother, Shahbaz.
Noon is a book that explores the vicious world of power, corruption, violence and complicity. It is organised into four loosely connected, non-linear short stories, a prologue and a postscript; all narrated in the first person by Rehan, excepting the second one, “Dinner for Ten”. This story reveals the obsession with notions of class and privilege displayed by a socially awkward Amit Sethia, wealthy businessman and Rehan’s stepfather.
The first story, “Last Rites”, is set in the Delhi of 1989, when a young Rehan was growing up with his constantly squabbling mother and grandmother. In “Notes from a Burglary”, the reader meets an adult Rehan having to deal with a theft, the inept investigation process and subsequent moments of truth about the hopelessness of the system. “Port bin Qasim: An Idyll” is about the time when Rehan goes to Pakistan and discovers the politics within the dysfunctional Tabassum family. A family that includes members who, variously, succumb to the charms of hired help, intrigue and betray each other, shoot home videos (some, extremely deviant in nature), choose to leave them lying around and end up being blackmailed, as a consequence.
Written in an entertaining and amusing manner, Taseer is able to focus on the crucial issues at hand, assisted immensely by his choice of a shorter format. His lively prose captures well the nuances of a declining world without sensationalising moral corruption and greed. The novel is a thoughtful and well-crafted work, even though the characters tend to remain one-dimensional throughout the narrative. The shadowy Sahil appears to be an intentional characterisation, possibly mirroring real-life, but inexplicably the primary protagonist Rehan, too, remains a peripheral figure. The reader never really sees him up, close and personal nor etched in full-bodied glory.
There is an underlying aloofness in the narrative, wholly expected of a dispassionate onlooker, not the central figure. We are introduced to Rehan’s reflections ostensibly expressed through somewhat contrived conversations. His actions mirror his own cultural values in both India and Pakistan, even as he laments the self-destructive forces battering the latter. We are informed of initial resistance from him, and just as expectations of decisive action are at their peak, we are faced with Rehan enacting his well-practised exit strategy: taking flight. Ultimately, Noon is an interesting novel; read it, do. The residual feeling of unfinished business, notwithstanding.
This review can also be read here.