Millennium Post

In the Light of What we know

In the Light of What we know
The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind.' A welsh word has been quite popular on the Internet in the last one year; Hiraeth roughly translated into English as homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past. This is the recurring undertone of sadness; of a fluid form of homelessness running throughout this complex narrative which follows lives of the nameless narrator and his friend, Zafar as young students to their late forties amidst a world gripped in financial meltdown and the crisis of war.

Zafar, undoubtedly a portrait of the author’s own self (they both hail from rural Bangladesh, educated at Oxford) is a character worth dissecting deep though it’s hardly likely one can grasp him in entirety; a point re-iterated through another of the novel’s detail to mathematics and specifically to Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem which emphasizes that we human beings lack a definite ability to prove or to know what the self and the other are. Similarly, we as readers cannot entirely know Zafar, maybe he himself cannot. Someone during the novel says as much to him: ‘You are so unsure of your bearings that you wonder if you’re pretending to be the person you actually are.’

The protagonists are both mathematicians, and their discussions give the novel a rare intellectual depth. Their conversation topics range from mathematics, pure science to philosophy, the effects of exile, living as an immigrant, modern warfare, geopolitics, financial trading and Wall Street, depiction of Islamic terrorism and Pakistan and Bangladesh (the narrator hails from Pakistan, his friend from the latter) and a post 9/11 Afghanistan. Infact when Zafar starts telling us about his experiences in Afghanistan, it sort of hits us that Rahman could be more or less in this portion be highlighting a quintessential post 9/11 novel where sending a bunch of social workers to a country ‘after’ bombing a country is the trend; putting up this façade of humanity after creating its very need.

The plot starts in 2008 with Zafar arriving unannounced at the London house of the nameless narrator who currently was going through career-patch after being projected as the blame-it-all guy in the havoc wreaked on the investment bank he had been working which was actually due to the global financial melt-down. Zafar arrives and decides to stay, not just stay but tell his story. He starts filling his friend on those years between when they were students together at Oxford till now, and his style of filling (and Rahman’s) is much too generous, all with footnotes and epigraphs from literary giants such as Edward Said, Naipaul, Freud, John Donne, Cicero, Dante and so on) Very ironically with this opulent display of highly elite knowledge, Rahman seems to be asking the readers a very pertinent question: Who gets to decide who is ‘educated’ and who is not? What criteria factors are at play in this decision of the possession and acquirement of knowledge. Are a mere 3 or 4 years of studying economics or finance in Ivy League institutions enough to run an NGO in Afghanistan?
The narrative also brings out this debate of class contrasting these two characters, one belonging to a privileged and the other to an underprivileged background; the narrator’s father being a famous academic in from Pakistan’s elite circles and Zafar being born in East Pakistan to a man who comes to London to be a waiter. The idea of multi-nationalities, inferiority complex of coming from a ‘staff class’ country like India or Bangladesh, lower class obscurity, the concept of who is heroic and who is not vis-à-vis the working class drive Zafar’s narrative and are at times pieced together with the narrator’s own fillings of his version.
Avantika Singh

Avantika Singh

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