February 18, 2020
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Heated Affair

V.S. Naipaul has called Taseer "a young writer to watch." I am relieved to find something said by Naipaul recently that I can endorse again, fully

Heated Affair
By Aatish Taseer
HarperCollins | Pages: 248 | Rs. 499

It is not one tribe, as has been commonly held. There are at least two tribes of Indian English novelists: the Babas and the Babus. Where I grew up, boys of the English-medium type (like me) were called babus by servants. They could not possibly be called baba, as the term baba is a father-equivalent in most North Indian languages, also as in Satya Sai Baba. I suspect that ayahs serving the colonial British in pre-1947 India were taught to call British toddlers 'babas', if only to distinguish them from the babus who were those ludicrous English-knowing Indians. It must be from there that the mantle of 'babahood' settled on characters like those inhabiting Salman Rushdie's fiction.

The protagonist of Aatish Taseer's Noon is a true-blue baba. Rehan Tabassum, son of a short-lived inter-religious marriage, is a baba not just because that is how his servants refer to him but also because he has inherited a fluent international-cosmopolitan identity and education. This is further reinforced when his mother, a lawyer in Struggling India, marries one of the richest industrialists of Shining India. Narrated in the first person by Rehan and also in the third person, the sections of Noon take us through some crucial events in his life, culminating in the theft of two laptops and a safe from his parents' farmhouse in Delhi.

Rehan is, at that moment, in the farmhouse, trying to write, and hence the resolution of the mystery devolves largely on him. He has to negotiate his way not just through the density of servile declamations, which are always more layered than they seem to be, but also the difference of babu readings of his and his servants' realities: for, though neither Rehan nor Taseer might have been aware of it, most of the police-officers and investigators who descend on the farmhouse are not babas but babus.

In fact, this triangular negotiation of assumptions and identities, shot through by the inevitability of tensions and misperceptions, is one of the strengths of the novel. Taseer writes well of the complex and at times unstated relationships between these three layers in a recognisable Delhi setting of power and pelf. Wealth and violence cohabit in this novel, as they do in Shining India. Appearances are deceptive.

Taseer is a rare master of well-hefted sentences, and he can combine perceptions of intellectual depth with emotionally evocative scenarios. While Noon can be read as a novel about a crime and its resolution, it is more than that: it is an exploration of Shining big city India from a perspective of cosmopolitan privilege, which (it suggests) is partly complicit in those aspects of India that are not too shiny. It is also an attempt to fictionalise some of the routes from old Struggling India to new Shining India, and the debris by their sides.

V.S. Naipaul has called Taseer “a young writer to watch.” There was a time when one could not disagree fully with Naipaul. For even when Naipaul's narration of non-European spaces sounded like Evelyn Waugh's, there was a germ of truth even in its one-sidedness. Lately, this has not been the case. So, I am relieved to find something said by Naipaul recently that I can endorse again, fully. Yes, baba.

A shorter, edited version of this review appears in print

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