Is it easy or hard to write about the contemporary moment? In some ways, it is the easiest to write about. After all, it’s our life, our times. They belong to us, in our daily newspapers, in the blare of our televisions, on the newsfeeds of our social media. Most of all, they belong to our daily breath and steps out on the streets and between our kitchens and bedrooms. How hard can it be to write about that which pervades us every single moment of every day?
Honest admission: it’s a real challenge for me as a novelist. It’s not the problems faced by the historian or the scholar: that a moment does not really reveal itself to us till tried and tested by time, don’t judge a book by how it’s being read today but by how it’s read 50, 100, 200 years later, and so on and so forth. Fiction isn’t scholarship; nor is it critical judgement that seeks to be objective. My problem is that I don’t find my adult looking glass interesting enough for fiction. Not that the times are not interesting enough (they are rather too interesting for comfort), for every writer worth her keyboard knows that no time is more or less interesting from art’s perspective, just the way two old women idling in a kitchen is no less interesting than a nation in the midst of partition, both equally (though differently) rich in the eyes of art.
Every century, every decade, every moment is rich material for art. Every looking/feeling glass is not. For me, the glass of childhood, now long a thing of the past, has a raw and vulnerable magnetism for which the restrained bourgeois sensibility of an intellectually sophisticated adulthood is a sorry match. I know the contemporary only as an adult. And as an adult, I know too much (though never enough), I understand too much (not enough to do real good but just about enough to spoil the fun), am way too much in control – again, not enough to make any difference to anyone else but enough to lose the terror and bewilderment that is such rich soil for art. The contemporary is awash in the dull daylight of adulthood. There is a past out there half-shrouded in the dangerous dawn-light of childhood when eyes are thick with mucus and the vision blurred.
Many writers opt out of the contemporary as their subject. The reasons as numerous as there are writers. For a good many it is the flawed and mesmeric power of memory. At least since William Wordsworth the modern literary sensibility has been in the thrall of this power, where reality becomes more real only when seen through the cobwebbed veil of memory. Memory, too, is a whimsical democrat – there’s no telling whether yesterday’s memory will be more compelling than that from fifty years in the past. And vice versa.
There be other reasons, I’m sure. Even nostalgia, though romance for the past includes its gutters in the same breath with its roses. The terrifying democracy of art.
The here and the now
Two new books by two of our most widely noted writers do the thing that is rarer than you think: not the evocation of a lost world, nor that of an imaginatively engineered future – they plunge headlong into the unmanageable contemporary. The contemporary by calendar measurement, and certainly the contemporary by spirit.
They come to it from very different addresses: since his last two books (How to Fight Islamic Terror from the Missionary Position, Jihadi Jane), Tabish Khair has been drawn to the sharp contours of public trauma, the headline-worthy contemporary. His latest novel, Night of Happiness, though not newsworthy in its title like its immediate predecessors, also packs its final punch through the jagged landscape of political spectacle, albeit refracted through the sad mist of private life.
Anjum Hasan is more drawn to the harder-to-hear, inner pulse-beat of the contemporary; the odd love-life of the Bangalore start-up owner rather than psychedelic communal riots. Not that she can be trusted – she is the kind of a writer that would be drawn to the big just as fast as the small. Just that she’s never drawn to the big because of its bigness but a small wisp of something stuck to it.
Public events and private lives
Indeed, glued to the question of the contemporary is the messy tug-of-war between the private and the public. It is messy enough in real life but far messier for the writer, never more so than for the benighted “postcolonial” writer. Night of Happiness is the rivetting personal story of the unnamed narrator, a sharp and successful urban Hindu entrepreneur with an Ivy League degree, the rather insipid story of his rich-bored wife and patron saint of literary festivals, and the magnetic enigma of Ahmed, the narrator’s quiet, inscrutable and efficient employee.
The enigma raises its iceberg tip early in the novel – why does Ahmed pretend to eat and serve halwa on the festival of Shab-e-baraat, the night of happiness, when there is no halwa on his plate? Why does his wife never step out when the narrator visits Ahmed’s home? Like a sharp whodunit, the private enigma drives the rest of the narrative, to its final revelation in a public trauma in the life of our nation that still feels raw and contemporary in spirit, if now a few years old on the calendar. This is an eminently readable novel whose spirit, rooted in the deepest human fears and desires, is timeless; but the particular twist in its dance, the dark fount of its narrative entropy is claimed by an event that belongs to our nation’s very contemporary canon of terror and shame.
A Day in the Life is a wrinkle in time in the other sense of the contemporary, in the tread of our daily walk to the corner store to fetch a cup of tea or buy a pack of cigarettes. The stories are small gemstones that deliver on the promise of the book’s title to perfection. The public sphere of history here is felt through idiosyncratic, even eccentric fragments – the half-crazed old soldier’s party in memory of an ancient war where he was the cipher of a cipher. The trauma here is not that of a riot or a genocide but the sudden death of a maidservant with whom her lonely mistress comes to share an unexpected relationship of love and affection – and what a poignant death it is, and how real. The loving ghost of the past also peeps its head into the household of the contemporary.
One-to-one friend/relation-ship, a recurring theme for Hasan, experiences its colonial incarnation in a story set in 1872, between the memorable figures of Luftan Mian and Gopal Singh. With the odd, irregularly eroticised friendship of Gulfam and Matthew, we return to one of the defining milieus of the contemporary, the start-up world of Bangalore. Here, Hasan finds characters infused with the most disturbing spirit of the contemporary: “He’s the kind of citizen who throws his garbage on the street, plays Honey Singh loud enough to wake the dead, prays vociferously to all the deities but will happily run his four-wheel-drive over a beggar.”
These are fictions that remind us that our times are indeed, too interesting for our own comfort – and, depending on who we are – our safety. For it is now a cliché about our times that it makes fiction, even graphic novels, feel dull and real. It is a testimony to the richness and diversity of our writers that some are drawn to the psychedelic nature of this reality while others gravitate to the graffiti on the wall. But it is also a mark of the powers of the sharpest talents that whether they choose an ordinary day in the life or the ritual night of keen pleasure, they celebrate the inescapable dialectic of the alien and the extraordinary that makes up the heart of all successful art.