Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know (aka ItLoWWK) is a serious novel that critics have been raving about. This book is likely to win a prize or two (already long-listed for The Guardian First Book award). With its exploration of universal themes such as love, fractured friendship, truth, and social in-justice, and the more personal theme of a diasporic exile striving to overcome the class disadvantages of his birth, this intellectual tour de force echoes A House for Mr Biswas, and may very well establish Rahman as the literary heir to V. S. Naipaul.
ItLoWWK’s lower rung introduces us to two highly-educated men—Zafar and a nameless narrator—who fall in and out of a kind of sibling love with each other and ro-mantic love with their significant others. The romantic love is reflected in the narration of one man relating the story of another while occasionally inserting bits of himself.
The failed romance of cross-cultural mar-ried life is best suggested in Zafar’s “trite homily:” “A bird and a fish can fall in love, but where will they make a home? … They only meet when the bird has the fish in its claws.” Zafar had fallen in love with, or perhaps fallen in love with the idea of, Emily, a scion of aristocratic England.
The relationship is fraught with the imbalance of power, and the insecurity of Zafar re-shaping himself to fit into Emily’s world. In metaphoric ways, this relationship reflects the inevitable loss of identity when imperial powers, such as the United States, arrive in foreign lands, such as Afghanistan, with ambiguous motivations; Zafar, like co-opted Afghanis who, I believe, rue the day that the red-white-and-blue flag was planted on their soil, and regret the inequities and indignities that pile up day after day, conveys a bitter, abiding sadness about his life with Emily: “I was so careless of the dignity that every man must guard so that he can face himself each day. That I count chief among my regrets, the relegation of dignity.”
There is also the more hopeful love of, and by, parents, some of whom are present, as in a touching exchange between the narra-tor and his father; the father uses a childhood game of 20 questions to enter into a Socratic dialog with his son to help at a time when the wheels seem to be coming off the son’s life.
Zafar’s parents are largely absent from the novel and from his life. Like the Zen-like koan of a story related by the narrator’s father about a message on an answering machine, Zafar’s brief, contained interactions with his parents were unhelpful in his making sense of life: “Who are you and what do you want? Some people spend a lifetime trying to answer these questions. You, however, have thirty seconds.”
There is a mysterious distance between Zafar and his parents that the narrator is unable to resolve until much later in the novel: “Perhaps the longing for a certainty in the love of one’s parents never dims with time…Something he said raised a question in my mind. Zafar had twice referred to being sent back to Bangladesh, sometime after his twelfth birthday … At college and through the years of our friendship before he disappeared, I could never bring myself to ask him directly about his family or his childhood.”
Zafar and the narrator strive to free themselves of a past that is at once ancient, horrific, fratricidal (Pakistan and Bangladesh’s civil war); the friends also seek freedom from a present that is materially comfortable, yet unsatisfying.
Both men were educated at Oxford in mathematics and subsequently entered lucrative careers in investment banking, eventually resulting in one friend being thrown under the bus of the ruinous 2007 global financial crisis resulting from collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and other barely understandable vehicles of market manipulation, and the other friend leaving finance to find himself at the fringe of another American debacle—the unending war in Afghanistan with its Rumsfeldian “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.”
While it can be fun to poke fun at Donald Rumsfeld, the former American Secretary of State, who, along with Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, will long be remembered for their tragic and foggy underappreciation of the of folly of war, this novel is far more than a diatribe against war-mongering, neo-conservative policy.
It is much more of a meditation on the fogginess of the little that we know, and the personal tragedies and global catastrophes that can ensue when actions assume greater knowledge than actually exists.
But Rahman is at his most powerful when he conflates the global, the personal, and the intellectual. In the blink of an eye, three chapters move from Zafar’s supper in Islamabad with a Pakistani colonel and his guests, to the narrator’s lunch in New York with an American senator who had built his fortune as the founder of a financial instruments ratings agency, to a dialog between the two friends that moves between Emily having “never cleaned a bathroom in her life,” and Zafar’s childhood poverty that compels him to see the invisible people on the street and giving the homeless his leftovers from Manhattan restaurants. Tying the seemingly disconnected plot lines are three articulations.
The first is an epigram by Patrick French. “I can remember at one official function [in West Pakistan] where there was a group of women, wives of members of the elite, and I overheard one laughing to the others, ‘What does it matter if women in Bengal are being raped by our soldiers? At least the next generation of Bengalis will be better looking.’”
The second is the narrator’s reflection, a month after his lunch with the senator, a month during which the narrator had coaxed the senator’s son away from joining the military: “As simple as that. Business moves fast. So much for conflicts of interest. Let me point out, if it isn’t obvious already, that there’s some irony in the term conflict of interest: In practice there is seldom a conflict but rather a confluence, a mutually rewarding arrangement. I think to Zafar it might have been the ugliest thing in the world, though I expect he would have added that it’s simply inevitable.”
The last is a heated dialogue between the two friends after discussing the dissipation of Zafar’s love for Emily and remembrance of Zafar’s feeding the homeless.
Zafar: “Listen. I’m talking about why I noticed the homeless guy. You can’t understand it because you don’t know what it’s like.”
Narrator: “Why are you having a go at me? All I’m saying is that when you see a homeless guy and give him food, that’s a commendable act of charity.”
Zafar: “You said it yourself. I always noticed them. I noticed them because I couldn’t help it. Only from the inside can you know what it’s like from the inside. Understanding isn’t just knowing or learning what it is but knowing what it’s like.”
Narrator: “Do you think you might be confused a little?”
Zafar: “I think I might be confused a lot.”
Narrator: You say love is about actions, and all I’m saying is that your actions were quite loving.”
Zafar: “What? Giving some sod on the street the leftovers that would have gone in the bin?”
From the early parts of the novel, the relationship between those with power and those without, those with privilege and those without, those from Bangladesh and those from Pakistan, pre-figures much of what follows. The narrator is of landed, elite Pakistani origin; Zafar is of soiled, unknowable Bangladeshi origin. They are “brothers,” but there is a vast distance between them, just as at Partition in 1947, newly formed independent India separated Pakistan, united only by its Islamic faith and the ego of its founding father.
Toward the end of the novel, there is redemption of a sort. The reader is led to believe that Zafar, this tormented soul, might have experienced happiness once upon return to Bangladesh, and the narrator’s search for the meaning of his friend’s life finds some closure: “The thought pleases me that at some time in those years he disappeared, my friend might have paid a visit to that area of the world, to the place he had been the happiest, as he once said, with the woman who had loved him.”
In the end, what the narrator observes in writing the story of his friend’s life is relevant to a careful reader making sense of a challenging and highly satisfying novel: “Writing this has helped, this effort of looking in while looking out. That is what it is to consider the life of another, some-one who made an impression, and in the course of writing discover—no, not discover, not quite, not even learn or understand, but simply sit and listen and fully embrace the risk of disrupting one’s precious outlook on the world that such listening entails.”
The wonder about reading Zia Haider Rahman is not only his masterful and mel-ancholic blend of the wholeness of life, of life’s moments of sweetness (sugar), savori-ness (salt), and bitterness (pepper), but also his outsider’s view, his understanding of the world from the periphery. Despite the autobiographic parallels between Zafar and Rahman, this highly personal and at the same time universal novel does not accept any worldview as a given, especially not that of the protagonist-cum-author; Rahman is neither the voice of a certain segment of the world, nor an intermediary like many South Asian authors who write for a Western audience. He is simply an individual finding his way, a seeker attempting to know the world and, in the process, inviting his reader into an engaging dialogue of self-understanding and mutual discovery.
Rajesh C. Oza is a Change Management con-sultant who also facilitates the interpersonal development of MBA students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.