Ida: Noon. Why Noon, Aatish?
Aatish: To my mind that hour–especially on the subcontinent–has a kind of menace about it. It is an hour of glare and stillness, of short shadows. And that apparent placidity that contains, in fact, an underlying violence is the mood of Noon; it is there right in the beginning when we encounter the false tranquility of the lake, formed over a terrible scene of devastation.
On a lighter note, noon—a meridian hour, remember!—is both literally and otherwise as far away from Nehru’s “freedom at midnight’” as it’s possible to be. And that for a book about the legacy of Partition is no bad thing.
Ida: It has a very jagged rhythm, Noon; ‘jolting,’ one reviewer described it. Why did you do that?
Aatish: I wanted the book to be as much in its form about what it is about as it is in its content.
Ida: You lost me there. Please Explain.
Aatish: I wanted there to be absences in the actual structure of the book. I wanted that feeling of rupture and dissonance that one has at the end to be part of the fabric of the book, like the static the follows the end of a movie. I wanted the book to express its main themes as much in form as in content, for loss and separation to be part of the architecture of the book. Someone in London said to me that they felt the book’s shape resembled the shape of modern lives. I hope that’s true; because that is what I wanted.
Ida: You just mentioned the end of the book. Let’s talk about that for a moment. Pretty grisly stuff. Does it have a foundation in reality?
Aatish: Why do interviewers always ask that?
Ida: Because it’s interesting, I suppose, and because it feels true, like it really happened?
Aatish: Does it matter that it did? Isn’t it enough that it happens in the book?
Ida: Don’t be clever with me. You know very well what I mean.
Aatish: Well, listen, I don’t like to do this much, to break my fictional circle, as it were, but yes: it did really happen. I encountered the story when I was in Karachi in 2005 and it has been fighting its way out ever since.
Ida: What does it say about Pakistan? Because it’s such a Pakistani story, isn’t it, Aatish? Not just the violence; that could happen anywhere; but that strange cocktail of beards, sex, videotape and violence. It’s so modern, and yet so medieval.
Aatish: You’ve read so well! That’s true: it is all of those things. And, in fact, we must remember that when we talk about religious violence in Pakistan…the religion, in this new and mutant form, is not traditional. It is something very new, very modern. It is an ideology formed on the fault lines of modernity. And that is what gives it its distinct edge; because, ugly as it is, it is familiar; it is a reaction to our world.
Ida: Our world?
Aatish: The modern world, the world a man in Istanbul once described to me as “the world system;” shorthand for modernity, you know.
Ida: Let’s step back a moment. I know that you don’t want to talk about the meta-fictional side of this book. But we must discuss it because…well…what a strange book to have written! This year of all years! I’ve heard you say that it was complete before your father was killed. That is correct, isn’t it?
Aatish: Yes. That is correct.
Ida: But there are so many real world resonances, aren’t there? Not just in theme, but in detail: the father who dies violently in the prologue; the spectral figure of Sahil Tabassum later on in the book, never manifest, but always present like a Shakespearean ghost…and the mob at the end, screaming “death to the Tabassums, death to their house” What’s the deal, Aatish?
Aatish: I hate that American way you have of stressing my name.
Ida: I’m sorry.
Aatish: It’s fine. To answer your question, I don’t know. I don’t know how these things happen, Ida (he stresses; she laughs). I was sending the manuscript off to be typeset when my father was killed. I don’t know why the book seems to anticipate all that came later.
Ida: Would you prefer we didn’t talk about this…
Aatish: No it’s fine. I’m sorry.
Ida: You were here in New York when you heard?
Aatish: Yes, I was asleep. It was six in the morning. My mother called me to say my father had been killed. And then everyone began to call.
Ida: What did you do?
Aatish: I watched the news. I walked around. I spoke to people. What does one do?
Ida: What did you feel?
Aatish: Nothing. You don’t feel anything in those moments. Nothing but an overwhelming sense of absurdity. The next day his killer was on the front page of the Times. And I remember thinking then that I would never assimilate this moment, that I would never be able to bring it into the flow of normal Time. That, even years later, I would not be able to explain standing outside a deli one cold morning in New York, my father’s killer looking up at me from the front page of the paper. And, as you well know, he was someone who could have fallen out of Noon.
Ida: This strange experience you seem to have—seem even to encourage—of Life bleeding into Fiction, and Fiction into Life…where will it end? When will you move past your own direct material?
Aatish: Give me a break, Ida. I’ve had a fuller plate than most. That’s all. It’s taken me longer to deal with my immediate circumstances. And don’t discount the fact that the books, though they have had narrators who resemble me, have been quite varied in their material and form. Stranger to History, a work of non-fiction and travel, The Temple-goers, a novel, now Noon… they contain resonances of each other, but they are very different books.
Ida: Your father has been a significant presence in two of your books—I would even say three: The Temple-goers reeked of male issues. Has it been hard in real life to let him go?
Aatish: Yes. Because when someone dies, Ida, they win. The people who are left behind must surrender all the petty angers and resentments that they associated with that person when they were alive. And that process of giving up one’s existing impression of someone, of allowing them to pass into another realm, can be wrenching. You feel like your fist is being forcibly unclenched.
And, in the case of my father, there was the confusion I felt at his great courage in the end. I found myself very proud of this man who I had not spoken to in over three years. That was hard; having to change one’s mind about someone; of having to accept that–for all his flaws; and there were many–he was quite a big man. But Death can do that. It’s Like that line in Macbeth: “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.”
Ida: Who is that said of?
Aatish: The old Thane of Cawdor, just after he is executed.
Aatish: Ah, ah, ah.
Ida: Sorry! So, we’ve talked about Noon, we’ve talked about Pakistan and your father, what about India? You’ve said some pretty harsh things about a certain writer cum activists on the Left–no names!–who, we in the States, kind of like. She seems, in an environment of rapacious capitalism, to be a friend of the poor and marginalised. What possible objection could you have to her?
Aatish: None except that I don’t think she’s a friend of the poor at all. She would like to doom them to a permanent state of picturesque poverty. They are beautiful to her–the poor–beautiful, benign and faceless. And that is exactly how she wants them to stay. Let me say also that it is not the poor who animate her politics. Oh, no! The people who get her into the streets are the new middle classes. This class, still among the most fragile in India, people who have newly emerged from the most dire conditions, are despicable to her. She mocks their clothes; their trouble with English; she hates their ambitions; when India wins the cricket and she sees them celebrating, her skin crawls; she wants, more than anything, to do these people down. And it is her overwhelming hatred of them that allows her to be a friend of movements that are seemingly far apart. The jihadists, the Maoists, the Kashmir movement, the anti-development people…they’re all her friends. Anyone who can prove a credible threat to the future of India is a friend of that woman. I would go so far as to say she has a prurient fascination with the enemies of India. And where do they love her? In Pakistan, and in the faculty rooms of Europe and America. No surprise there.
Also, this business of pretending she’s a lone voice in the wilderness. What rubbish! At least have the good grace to admit that not one thing she says is provocative or new; it is perfectly banal. And we know how well the universities Europe and America reward this bogus cant!
Ida: Are you enjoying yourself?
Ida: But you also, to some extent, live off the West. Does it bother you?
Aatish: Terribly. I want more than anything for India (and Pakistan) to be places that can support their own writers.
Ida: And they can’t at the moment?
Aatish: Not quite. India is beginning to be able to. Just about, and only in English.
Ida: English! How strange?
Aatish: Yes, it is the only truly dynamic language in India at the moment.
Ida: Does that bother you? There seems to be an anxiety about language in your writing?
Aatish: It makes me sad, yes. Not the English; the English is fine; but the English at the expense of other Indian languages, what Sheldon Pollock describes as it’s “scorched earth” relationship to the vernacular. It also means that I have to live with a feeling of irrelevance in India, which I hate. I would like very much for a slice of the 56 million newspaper readers in Hindi–I speak of one paper alone–to also be reading my books. But that sadly is not the way things are.
Ida: There’s a Western perception that Indian writers are passé, that this is the moment for Pakistani authors. Do you agree?
Aatish: That’s among the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Only idiots say that. Indian writers are just about now writing for India. For the first time, India can sustain her writers. It means that there are readers, the true beginnings of a reading-writing society. In Pakistan, a successful book sells 1500 to 3000 copies in a country of 180 million. Pakistani writers, no matter how good, are all émigré writers. They do not write for Pakistan. I know just the type of idiot who’d say that…Trust you, Ida…the West, you know, samples different literatures the way they sample different cuisines. One day, they’ll have Vietnamese food. The next, they’ll have Afghan food. Life goes on, what do they care? But in India, for the first time, we could have a serious literary life supported by Indians. It’s a long, fruitful road ahead and there’s so much to write about.
Ida: The ‘idiot’ to whom you refer…what is your beef with him?
Aatish: I disapprove of him. That’s all.
Ida: Disapprove of him? That’s a bit imperious…
Aatish: I saw him at one of his book launches, a grotesque figure, a man become obese on the affections of Indians! He lay on a stage, this great whale of a man, dressed in a mirrorwork kaftan, if you please, his dirty feet hanging off. And all about him, like little pixies, Baul singers skittered around…
Ida: Baul singers?
Aatish: They’re Bengali bards of a kind. And to complete this awful scene was an audience of embassy trash. They sat among bolsters and fountains, sipping white wine. You’ve never seen anything more hideous in your life. But we mustn’t blame him alone; the fault is as much India’s; it is India who makes giants of these mediocrities, fattening them up till they’re as corrupt as Kurtz.
Ida: That’s a bit harsh…
Aatish: In this respect, one cannot be harsh enough. In a more confident country—like Russia, say, in the 19th century; or, even China today—a man like that would have been booted out. He would have been a figure of fun and contempt. He would not have been able to position himself as a gatekeeper to intellectual life. But in India, he can; we love a man like that!
Ida: Have you got it all out, Aatish?
Ida: Do you think you suffer from rage?
Aatish: Maybe. I sometimes get drunk and march about in the street, railing at people and things.
Ida: Is this healthy?
Aatish: It’s bad for the skin, I think. I had a terrible break out a few years ago and had to be prescribed strong doses of Acutane.
Ida: I’m sorry. That must have been hard for a writer as…well, nevermind.
Aatish: As what…go on.
Ida: No, it’s better I don’t
Aatish: As narcissistic as me? Vain perhaps? Is that what you were going to say, Ida?
Ida: Well, I…
Ida: Well, I just felt that you seemed through this whole process to enjoy yourself rather a lot…
Aatish: Because I feel very near to you, Ida. Is that wrong?
Ida: Are you being inappropriate?
Aatish: Inappropriate! Oooooh! That devastating word of American opprobrium. Inappropriate! No, Ida, I’m not being inappropriate. I just wish we could talk longer. I was about to tell you that my parents met this way, you know, over the course of an interview. My mother had been sent to interview my father, who’d just written a book…
Ida: Aatish, let’s me make myself quite clear: we are not going to ‘meet’ this way…
With this, she rises to leave.
Then at the door, she turns around.