Tabish Khair’s unsettling new novel asks what secrets Ahmed is keeping from his boss Anil Mehrotra

Starting with a plate of halwa, the novel peels one layer after another off one man’s life.

Ahmed went into the kitchen again, this time to fetch two cups of tea, in cheap flowery porcelain, of the sort you buy from general stalls with stuffed shelves. (I know: that is the sort of crockery my wife buys for the servants to use.) The tea was much sweeter than what we drink at home. Then, as we sipped the steaming hot brew, he explained: “Roshni – that’s my wife’s name – never really knew what faith she had grown up in, and I never asked her to convert. Everyone else around us did, of course; we lived in a mohalla. And when I married her nevertheless, everyone we knew put pressure on Ammajaan to get Roshni to convert. All those uncles and aunts, who had for years given us the occasional Eid gift but pretended not to really see Ammajaan’s hardship; even her regular clients, the contractors and affluent families for whom she had stitched and woven, all of them wanted Roshni to convert. All of them wanted Ammajaan to press me. But, for some reason, Ammajaan did not do so. She said to them, ‘Roshni is a Muslim name, isn’t it? She says her mother was Muslim. This is a Muslim girl. How can a Muslim convert to Islam?’ Maybe that is why when Roshni came into our house, she imitated Ammajaan in her routines, even down to observing rigid purdah. At first I protested – she had never worn a veil, no, far from it – but how could I prevail against two determined women?”

Ahmed laughed, a laugh that was little more than a grunt. “You see, when Ammajaan passed away, it made no sense for us to stay on in the mohalla. The neighbours had not accepted Roshni. Neither had anyone from my family, apart from Ammajaan. Mumbai made better sense. A big city.We could start anew there. Little did I imagine...”

Suddenly, as if a switch had been thrown, there was darkness on Ahmed’s face.

As if a curtain had fallen. His face closed; it simply shut down. It happened so abruptly that I almost looked around, expecting someone to have entered, to have caused that change. But there was no one there, just me and familiar, transparent Ahmed, now worryingly opaque, as if something had come between us, something heavy and brooding, like a monsoon cloud.

I waited for Ahmed to resume, but his account had petered out, as the rain outside was petering out too, and he seemed lost in thought for a few seconds. His face assumed more creases and shades, as if an invisible artist was reinforcing lines drawn in the past with deeper strokes. Then he shook himself out of his reverie and glanced at the curtain segregating the kitchen. “Ah,” he announced, “it is ready now, and I have to do as I must.What do we all do but what we must, Mehrotra sa’ab? You know, Ammajaan taught this recipe to Roshni. Roshni makes it exactly as she used to. Can you smell it?”

He sniffed appreciatively – or was it anxiously? – and got up. It relieved the atmosphere of brooding expectation that had settled on us when Ahmed had abruptly discontinued his narrative. He collected our cups – we had finished our tea by then – and, placing them with his trademark slow care on the plastic tray, took them back into the kitchen. I sniffed discreetly. There were food smells in the air, but they could well have been from adjoining flats – there was nothing distinctive about them. I prepared myself to be enthusiastic about some insipid fare, which is the usual burden of being served a dish someone else has grown up with.

This time Ahmed was gone for longer. I squirmed impatiently.The rain had diminished to distinct drops now, and I could hear traffic on the streets again.There had been no thunder or lightning for some time. I texted the missus to say that I was on my way but delayed by slow traffic because of fallen branches and wires.

Ahmed came out of the kitchen carrying the same plastic tray, but now it held two small plates and two glasses of what, from the colour of it, seemed to be Rooh Afza. I detest that nauseating drink, and have never understood why so many people swear by it. Is it even real rose extract, I have often wondered.

Ahmed handed me a glass of Rooh Afza first. I accepted it gingerly, gazing dubiously at its contents and wondering how to get out of drinking it without offending anyone in the flat.

Ahmed, I knew, would understand; he was not easily offended. Actually, I had never seen him offended by any incident or remark. But the rose drink must have been prepared, like the halwa, by his wife, and I did not want to seem rude and spoiled-rich to her. The best thing, I thought, would be to take a sip or two, and then just let it sit on the table, as if I had forgotten about it. I proceeded to bring the glass close to my lips, blocking out its overly sweet and synthetic smell, and forced myself to sip from it.

So engrossed had I been in negotiating the Rooh Afza that I had not even glanced at the plate Ahmed placed in front of me. He had gone back to his chair, holding his plate, and was eating from it. I put down my glass and picked up my plate. It was then that I noticed it did not contain any halwa. There was a pile of nimkis and a small spoon on the plate, but no halwa.

At first, it just struck me as an omission: Ahmed may have simply forgotten, in his hurry not to detain me longer than necessary, to put halwa – that famous maida ka halwa he always talked about – on my plate! I was going to bring this to his notice with a joke; I glanced up at Ahmed, who was busy eating. My jokey remark was aborted by the sight of the plate that Ahmed was holding.There was no halwa on it either! Only, as was the case with my plate, a pile of nimkis and a stainless-steel spoon.

Can you imagine how taken aback I was?

Yes, the sense of foreboding returned at that instant: It is one thing to forget to put something on a plate you are serving and another to not notice its absence on your own plate! Time slipped back, just a few minutes, to that moment when I had seen a shade fall on Ahmed’s face.

But, still, I felt only discomforted, confused; it was nothing compared to what I experienced the very next second, when Ahmed, with the gentle tinkle of spoon on china, scooped “halwa” out of his plate and levered it, carefully, making sure nothing spilled, to his mouth. It was then that I broke out in a cold sweat: Ahmed was totally engrossed in “eating” the halwa! I felt as if a cold gust of air had entered the room, and folded around my neck like an icy muffler. I stood up, half stood up anyway, and if Ahmed had not been so absorbed in eating the non-existent halwa, he would have noticed it. I sank back into the sofa, eyes riveted on Ahmed.

He put down the spoon, picked up a nimki, dipped it in the part of the plate that was bare, and then carried it to his mouth. He chewed, he swallowed. Then he grasped the spoon again, this time to scoop up empty air from the vacant part of the plate and “eat” it, his jaws and throat muscles moving exactly as if he was chewing and swallowing. I was filled with a sense of horror, horror of the sort I had never experienced or imagined.

At that moment, Ahmed looked up from his plate and saw me staring at him, my plate inert in one hand.A vulnerable expression flickered across his face, some emotion raw and indecipherable.Then he gave his slow smile and said, “Go ahead, Mehrotra sa’ab; you have not touched it. I promise you, it is delicious. Exactly as Ammajaan used to make it. If anything, even a bit better!”

What could I do? What could I have done? How could I tell a person who was eating ghostly halwa that my plate did not contain that food either? I picked up a couple of nimkis and popped them into my mouth, that icy muffler strangling me now, my fingertips cold and numb.

“No, no,” said Ahmed, “try them with the halwa. That is the best combination.”

I picked up a nimki and dipped it in my plate, as though using it to scoop up some halwa.

Then I carried it gingerly to my mouth. I put it in and chewed slowly, doubtfully, which Ahmed probably took for appreciation, for he looked pleased, relieved even, and nodded before returning to his plate. I could feel the nimki in my mouth, but of course there was no taste of halwa.

Ahmed’s calmness, so domestic, so normal, must have defused my sense of icy horror. The chill that had gripped me, filled me with numbness, subsided. But now I felt bewildered, angry and insulted. I did not then know the source of these emotions, especially the anger and feeling of humiliation, but I have since turned that moment over and over in my mind, and I comprehend them better now.

Bewilderment anyone would understand. But I felt anger too at the situation, at Ahmed, for turning out to be so different from everything I had taken him to be. Until then he had been the most reliable, reasonable, trustworthy and easy person I had ever known. Now suddenly, he was – what was he – demented, superstitious, crafty, crazy, a fool? In any case, he was not the person I had known. By not being what I thought he was, he had thrown my world out of gear.

A motorcycle was being kick-started under the building.

And the insult? Yes, I was humiliated, because I felt forced; I felt I had to act a role.What would happen if I were to say, Ahmed, you are crazy, there is no halwa on our plates! Would he go bonkers and start raving and arguing? Or would he laugh and say it was just a joke on me? Which would be disrespectful too, that sort of liberty taken with someone who paid his salary. Also, what if this was not just some hidden craziness, but a deeply subconscious bid of Ahmed’s to humiliate his boss? I could not know. I did not wish to know.

Time had slowed down even further in that tawdry flat with its pool of water next to the open window.The seconds and minutes were flies and tiny insects stuck on the edge of a cauldron of boiling molasses, which is one of the images that have stayed with me from the only time I visited some remote villages while backpacking along the Ganga with my Columbia University batchmates.

It had stopped raining outside. Entirely. I heard the water dropping from roofs, gurgling down pipes. It sounded ominous, as if the world had gone hollow. The place seemed filled not with real sounds but echoes, ghosts of dead sounds.

I decided to play along with whatever it was: madness or a sadistic game. I needed time to think. I swirled a few more nimkis – at least they existed and tasted good – in the empty halwa part of the plate and popped them into my mouth. I even drank the Rooh Afza in my distraction and hurry to finish off the nimkis.

Then I put the plate down and made my excuses.

I was late; the missus was waiting for us to go to a dinner. Ahmed looked slightly disappointed. “It was too rich for you, wasn’t it?” he said. “You left most of the halwa untouched.”

I made appropriate non-committal noises. I could not force myself to say something complimentary about the halwa, so I asked him to thank his wife for the “snacks”.

Suddenly the place had filled with too much...too much of what? I could not make up my mind. I felt that each fat drop landing with a plop on the dingy balcony outside and the ledges of the windows was heavy with clouded significance. The water I could hear rushing down pipes and cisterns spoke a language both expressive and incomprehensible.

“I need to rush, Ahmed,” I told him. I need to kick- start time again, Ahmed, I wanted to scream; I have to free the minutes from the molasses of your rustic cauldron!

Ahmed was polite as always. He insisted on accompanying me to the car. As we left the flat, I stole a glance at the kitchen, and the curtain moved slightly, as if his wife was standing behind it, listening to us.

Excerpted with permission from Night Of Happiness, Tabish Khair, Picador India.

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