When the narrator of Tabish Khair’s 2018 novel, Night of Happiness, finds himself unable to trust his own judgment, he attempts to unburden himself by telling an odd-but-true story to a stranger at a bar, only to discover that he has turned into what he feared: an unreliable entity, a person who makes other people uncomfortable. He observes then that “we all hang onto the spider threads of sanity, swinging by a chasm”. From such spider threads of sanity, or perhaps from a horde of grasping hands making a desperate leap across the chasm, Khair constructs his newest collection, Namaste Trump and Other Stories.
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 stand alone 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 reappear in more than one story; the narrative appears to pick up where it had been left off, with a different story inserted in between.
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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.
In Night of Happiness, a successful businessman suspects that one of his best workers, Ahmed, is not quite what he appears, which induces him to look into his background, starting with a difficult childhood in Phansa. In “The Corridor”, we return to the same town, looking at it through the eyes of another young Muslim boy from a relatively privileged background as India goes to war with Pakistan and fears of violence emerge even in places far removed from the border.
The narrator’s father, a doctor, takes him to Miss Sushmita’s house for tuitions, where he witnesses the fragile balance of lives in towns like Phansa that have little entertainment and no room for mistakes. The story appears to end without any resolution, but we return to these characters in two other stories, “The Ubiquity of Riots” and “Elopement”. The latter is a story of a hasty romance followed by abandonment that does not end up as a “love jehad” case despite all efforts to cast it as such.
“Through these stories, Khair explores bigotry in its assertion as well as in its ignorance of the fears and dilemmas of the “other,” and he shows up bigotry as an intersectional web of religion, gender, class, and race.”
Not all Muslim characters are blameless victims here. Some are marginal—a name with no voice, a name to which various appellations can be attached. Others are mean-spirited or bigoted. Through these stories, Khair explores bigotry in its assertion and in its ignorance of the fears and dilemmas of the “other,” and he shows up bigotry as an intersectional web of religion, gender, class, and race. In fact, as we see in “Scam”, bigotry can also manifest itself as a desire to “save” desperate people while refusing to recognise the social patterns that rendered them desperate in the first place. From the perspective of a cynical journalist, Syed, we discover that an inability to find evidence to corroborate your story is not evidence of a lie and thus, truth itself emerges as a ghostly figure.
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 (dessert) 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 valorisation of a particular postcolonial aesthetic after an encounter with brute violence in Phansa.
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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.
Annie Zaidi is a writer and filmmaker.