Night of Happiness is a slim book, with the barest of plotlines, more supportive of poetry than prose until it moves into, as poems may, into heavy themes. It opens with a fevered prelude and the question of suspense around who the imagined future reader of this unbound manuscript will be, stumbling upon it in the drawer of a hotel bedside table, and feeling its “desperate tug”. What the novel’s opening chapters suggest, however, is a kind of bland evenness of language and scope that sets up a cat and mouse game of expectation and rewards as the anticipation of some outrageous occurrence hangs in the air.
Its protagonist, a successful businessman Anil Mehrotra, is well-entrenched in the art of pragmatism honed by a life full of acceptable compromises. He has a stable and undemanding relationship with a wife known only as the “Missus” whose life as a literary maven barely intersects with his beyond making society appearances together as a couple. The couple has two daughters and the man follows the script handed out by the Missus when he accompanies them to weekly golf classes at the club; he barely sees them on other days. He has office employees that fulfill their functions but are mere cogs in the wheel to his entrepreneurial moves.
What Anil actually desires for himself is hard to see from the thinly drawn character sketch. It appears to be author Tabish Khair’s intention to present characters with little more than outlines and then slowly fill in a few based on their significance to the story. Thus, most characters are known only by a few throwaway remarks made by themselves or that Anil tosses out. The whole picture adds up to one of ennui and weariness. Everyone behaves more or less predictably, success inevitably follows Anil’s hard work and there seems to be little in terms of motivation or struggle to really expand a story.
Except there is Anil’s decision to interview the only Muslim applicant for a position at his company, establishing both his decency and biases. “Oh well, I thought, now I bloody well have to. But I was also prepared to reject him. Honestly, I had almost made up my mind to reject him. I did not want to feel prejudiced by not giving him a chance, but I had never known a Muslim intimately, and well, you know how it is in such matters. One wants to work with known factors. First rule in business, first rule in life work with known factors.”
This hankering for the “known” settles very well at first with the new employee’s character. Anil’s mysterious new hire becomes the reliable Ahmed, a recalcitrant, precise and private individual, polite almost to a fault.
Anil’s interest in the beauty or pain of life is limited, his characteristic mood is one of numbness, anesthetised as he is by the inane predictability of his world. However, events occur that force him to take another look at Ahmed. What he finds there, under the mask of the well-mannered pillar of his establishment, is a breath-taking deviance that is enough to shatter his own reality. “Much as I had enjoyed reading magical realist novels in the days when I still had time to read, I felt a prickling of irritation at this remark, as I was still obsessed with my evening at Ahmed’s and I could not help wishing no one had exploded the narrow reality of my world.”
Despite the jolt of this “explosion”, what follows is a slow and leisurely exposition into Ahmed’s background and life so that even this unknown can be “known”. It, in turn, sets loose a series of events that have a domino effect towards another unpredictable conclusion.
The title itself, Night of Happiness, becomes something of a bitter-sweet irony and one ground in powerful symbolism in the novel. Using a somewhat prosaic but relatable protagonist,
Tabish Khair takes him on a journey that forces him to confront big questions. What happens when one man’s reality crashes against another’s incredulity? How can unbearable tragedies become embedded and absorbed into the everyday world? How can one feel genuine sympathy for a loss that is not one’s own?
Tabish Khair’s novels have been translated into several languages and shortlisted for major awards like the Man Asian Prize, the DSC Prize, the Hindu Fiction Prize and the Encore Award. His latest novel is a gentle circling back to his interest in terrorism and loss and presents the last ripple in the pond instead of focussing on the centre of conflicts. Its narrator becomes, by overt reference, a kind of Coleridgean Ancient Mariner, one who is divested of all faith in predictability and content rather than share something beyond words, to make “an offering to something unknown and unknowable”.
“Ignore my story if you want, stranger, but I cannot ignore it,” he says. “And I cannot share it in my normal world either… Maybe it is a kind of redemption to speak, freely and truly, to a total stranger? Maybe there is no other redemption? I will find out. I hope to find out.” This shell-shocked desire to build a new type of relationship and utter new kinds of words seems fitting in the world that is revealed by the end of the novel. A world that has been rendered unfit for easy understanding by terrorism and intolerance.
Karishma Attari is the author of I SEE YOU and DON’T LOOK DOWN, by Penguin Books, and runs a workshop series titled Shakespeare for Dummies...