Review: Night of Happiness by Tabish Khair
How much does the Hindu majority of India think about its privilege? How long before prejudices we considered beneath us bubble up to the surface? Who pays the price for our advantages? These are the questions hurled at the reader of Night of Happiness by Tabish Khair.
A mere 154 pages, Khair’s book could be considered a novella that packs a punch — to the stomach of anybody who may not have considered the questions it poses. A story about Hindu privilege as much as it is about the ‘invisibilisation’ of Muslims in India, this is a taut work and the author appears to have weighed each word for its functionality.
Told in first person through the voice of Anil Mehrotra, a Hindu businessman, the reader follows his investigation of a Muslim employee, Ahmed. Ahmed has no last name: the first subversive action that blanks out his identity. The protagonist considers himself a progressive soul. He wines and dines with the city’s elite artists and writers, some of whom are Muslim; he considers the gaurakshaks loonies, doesn’t share the ideology of Hindu extremists, and completely distances himself from the Gujarat riots of 2002. Yet, within the first eight pages of the novel, his discomfort with Islam and its followers becomes obvious.
Reluctantly granting Ahmed an interview because his is the only Muslim one in a stack of job applications from Hindus, Mehrotra is ready to reject him even before the interview is completed. “I did not want to feel prejudiced by not giving him a chance, but I had never known a Muslim intimately, and, well, you know how it is in such matters. You work with what you know,” he says.
Ahmed is eventually hired for his acumen with different languages, which is good for client-servicing in Mehrotra’s import-export business. So begins their seven-year friendship-of-sorts. Ahmed is an exemplary employee — on time, ready to help everyone, quiet but polite. He asks only for one day off a year, the night of Shab-e-baraat. It’s the time he and his wife honour his mother by taking halwa to her grave. Mehrotra doesn’t know what the holiday is about — he admits that the only other Muslim he has ever really known was with him at boarding school and could only speak English. Both religion and class separate Mehrotra and Ahmed.
When Ahmed is asked to stay back to work on the holiday of Shab-e-baraat, being a devoted workhorse, he agrees. Eventually, Mehrotra drives him home and is invited into his house. There, he sees a strange side to his right-hand man. Served an invisible halwa made by Ahmed’s wife, who also never materializes, Mehrotra decides to have his employee investigated. The details that emerge, unfolded steadily through the book, force him to fire Ahmed for fear of him “going crazy at work.”
Ahmed does not exhibit any signs of being an extremist or even dangerous. He is the first one to decry the idea that the Quran proclaims that women must wear the niqab. He is married to a non-Muslim — another detail that bothers Mehrotra even though Ahmed says he never asked his wife to convert.
Mehrotra’s detectives find that the woman to whom Ahmed was married did convert, though not at his behest. The businessman is informed about a quiet, studious young man who fell in love with a barmaid in Bodh Gaya. While he imagines Ahmed in a madrassa, the detectives find the man belonged to a pacifist, non-political sect of Islam that sees itself as modern and not fundamentalist. “Their stress is on education and living an ethical life defined by Islamic precepts.”
This news does not allay the Hindu’s man fears that Ahmed might be crazy and a danger to other employees. Neither does the fact that Ahmed has not, in seven years of employment, exhibited any signs of violent behavior.
The investigation sheds light on Ahmed’s courtship of his wife, his willingness to work outside his community to support his mother, and how he came to learn the many languages at which he is adept. It also brings out the fact that the Muslim community shunned him for all these acts. Mehrotra remains unconvinced. The more he learns, the further into Ahmed’s life he wishes to dig.
To have the voices of Hindu men tell a Muslim’s tale is a carefully thought-out decision on the author’s part. Ahmed’s story is being told through his employer’s omissions, lack of knowledge about Islamic culture, and presumptions.
Eventually, though the investigation finds nothing violent about Ahmed, it unearths a violent incident in 2002 in Surat. Though nothing suggests that Ahmed may be dangerous, Mehrotra fires him anyway. But not before confronting him with what he has found.
Interestingly, even before he learns of the details of Ahmed’s life, Mehrotra displays signs of suppressed guilt towards Muslims, even an underlying fear. While asking Ahmed to stay back during the holiday of Shab-e-baraat, he describes his employee’s short silence while considering the matter as “a loaded gun” pointed towards him. Later, he expresses irritation at the way Ahmed looks at him without anger — though he does not know why he expects anger either.
The reader is left to wonder if Ahmed’s firing had anything really to do with the incident of the invisible halwa. Perhaps the only danger he posed to Mehrotra was the discomfort he caused by being a victim of Hindu violence. This is often the case with many members of majority communities, whether they are Hindu, Israeli or white American. These individuals see other members of the majority community perpetrate violence against the minority and believe that, because they did not take up arms or join the mob, they did not facilitate the violence. The opposite is true: not speaking up against oppressors makes you part of the oppression.
Avantika Mehta is an independent journalist. She lives in Delhi.