“What could have been an ordinary story of a businessman and his second in command turns into something touched by the mystery of Shab-e-baraat or All Souls Night.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
Tabish Khair has written a deceptively simple novella about a Hindu businessman Anil Mehrotra and his polyglot right hand man Ahmed. He hires Ahmed for his skill in languages and, as his business grows, finds him the ideal employee who never takes leave.
Except on one occasion, a relatively unknown Islamic festival called Shab-e-baraat which he celebrates annually. However he is willing to forego part of his leave because of urgent work but a storm crashes into Ahmed’s plans of leaving early and eating halwa at home with his wife. Anil is forced to drive him home and because it is a dangerous squall which is ripping roofs off tin sheds in Ahmed’s neighbourhood, he drops into Ahmed’s flat for a cup of tea.
There Anil discovers that his steady lieutenant may be delusional but because of their long relationship cannot bring himself to ask Ahmed whether his flat really houses his wife or not since he sees no signs of her and finds a plate empty of halwa set before him. Instead he sets a private investigator whom he employs in the course of his business to solve the mystery for him while he hides the whole story from his missus who is a writer and an editor.
Khair’s tongue in cheek view of society and the way it treats authors is to be seen in his description of a five star banquet set up for a NRI writer who is paying his second visit to India and who has been dubbed ‘a son of the soil’ by his publisher’s PR mechanism. He also details the differences between the lives of the rich and famous and that of a man like Ahmed whose fluency with languages allows him to communicate internationally but who remains a grassroots Bihari Muslim who picked up his gift of tongues as a tourist guide at Bodh Gaya.
What could have been an ordinary story of a businessman and his second in command turns into something touched by the mystery of Shab-e-baraat or All Souls Night. Ahmed had a wife who died in the Gujarat riots but who, despite her death remained part of his life – the mystery is whether he accepts her death at all. Anil gives him a year to come to terms with it – a year of fully paid leave which culminates in the arrival of a fragrant tiffin carrier on Anil’s desk.
Where it began with a man and a tiffin carrier the story comes full circle in a debate on what is real and what is merely surmise. “Nothing is but what is not” wrote Shakespeare – certainly where love is concerned people clutch at straws grasping at one night of happiness and whether Hindu or Muslim it makes no difference.
This is Khair’s story of mystery for the disturbed world of today.
Added 31st May 2018