Thursday, January 25, 2024

Review: Stories about being Muslim in contemporary India

My review of Tabish Khair's latest collection, Namaste Trump and Other Stories

The book’s structure is imaginative, if also unusual. While its contents can be described as split into two broad sections–the novella Night of Happiness, which was published as a standalone in India in 2018, and a set of short stories–it would not be wise to read the novella as distinct from the stories. In fact, it is impossible to read each story as a self-contained whole to the extent that the same characters re-appear in more than one story; the narrative appears to pick up where it had been left off, with a different story inserted in between. 

Why has the author chosen this unusual approach instead of simply writing two or three novellas, and what should we read into the placement of the pieces? To me, it appears that Khair is nudging the reader to look beyond the events of individual stories, to seek out patterns, and to pay attention to the movements of time and shifts of location that the characters undergo. Some characters are semi-rural while others are firmly urban but all are strung together on the twin threads of Phansa, a small town in Bihar, and the experience of being Muslim in contemporary India, be it as protagonist, victim or observer... The horror of violence – past, present or future – repeatedly manifests in these stories in the shape of a paranormal experience. The sympathetic narrator of Night of Happiness must contend with an invisible halwa that leads him to feel “a bony hand” clutching at his heart. 

The titular story, “Namaste Trump” reveals the banal cruelty of a cynical upper-class executive who turns out a domestic worker during the COVID-19 pandemic, an act that has spiritual consequences. “Shadow of a Story” is a proper ghost story where Khair is in his element as a writer of fiction working in academia. Its narrator is a man who takes literature seriously and is able to reconsider positions taken in the context of literary criticism, and reassess his own valourisation of a particular postcolonial aesthetic after an encounter with brute violence in Phansa. Truth appears as a frightening presence in “The Thing with Feathers.” A personal favourite, this is a story about the unravelling of a teacher, Rakesh Sir, who “did things properly, always within limits” but who loses control of his tongue, and thus inadvertently becomes dangerous. The author once again drives us to a junction of reason where the evidence provided by one’s physical senses and simple common sense collides with an intangible, unbelievable world where the rules of our world no longer hold good. 

Through these Phansa-connected stories and their chaotic or uncanny outcomes, Khair reveals to us a landscape where petty cruelty is interlaced with looming threats of violence or destitution, and also with a quiet courage that approaches madness. It is a landscape filled with memorable characters that the reader can carry into, or far beyond, the towns and villages of their own origin. 

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