In The Light of What We Know

Author: Zia Haider

First published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux /2014

Reviewer: Ali Ahmed Ziauddin


ZIA Haider’s ‘In The Light of What We Know’ is a recent addition to the long list of post colonial literature by a host of post colonial authors.  The first impression of a post colonial reader is that of sheer delight. Wow! Here is one of us equally apt in the art of modern storytelling that we definitely learned from the west. If literature is the expression of what is inexplicable in science than a novel is the most intricate form of that genre. It captures the authors world, his /her times and surroundings. And as Zia in his engrossing book clearly narrates, each novel in some ways is autobiographical, reflecting the experiences gathered from the school of life. Of course, it has to be beefed up with much more narratives, which then provides the reader a wide space to speculate. The reader is invited to share the journey of the author rummaging through their life with a rainbow of imagination as entertainment.

After reading carefully what comes out is a sad reflection of a grieving soul through a haze of pedantic discourses on mathematics, finance, philosophy, history, and what not, who feels utterly lost, and is in desperate need of an anchor. But what is left in suspended animation, is he seeking sympathy or making us aware that he is not alone in his journey? It’s an affliction suffered by all the elites across the post colonial world whether among the Diasporas or the domestics.  A novelist in essence is a social scientist without admitting it, but with an added advantage of growing wings of imagination. And Zia has taken full advantage of that scope.

In spite of acquiring an elitist education in Oxford, Harvard, and Yale by the sheer dint of his intelligence Zafar, the protagonist in the fiction longs for respect from Emily, an upper class English lady, the love of his life with all the right connections needed for career upliftment. But if it’s respect he seeks most, does it mean he suffers an inferiority complex or passing a judgment that the door which opens into the inner circuit of a structured established order of the western societies is shut for outsider no matter how deserving and aspiring? No easy answer.

The book is a brilliant critique of western societies governed by an oligarchy, but also a savage indictment of the elites across the post colonial world in general but the ones in South Asia in particular. It’s a peculiar situation. To the western elitist mind the post colonial world is still etched in a rather hazy Orientalist time warp. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the Romans in the declining days of the empire. They called the ferocious Germanic tribes barbarians, and tried to destroy or subdue them for centuries but failed. Finally when the latter became the masters of Rome the Romans were similarly condescending and needed several centuries to internalize the invaders. To the Mughals the Europeans were a bunch of uncouth, unscrupulous banyas (traders). And to the Brahmins all foreigners were Mlechchas (untouchables). To the Chinese the entire outside world was inhabited by barbarians. So if the westerners have an arrogant attitude towards the ex colonial people they are at least not alone in this trait. Hence, when the crunch comes; both the narrator and the hero even with the best of qualification and the right social and professional connections are still immigrants, therefore expandable.

But what about the elites in the post colonial world, why are they permanently trapped in the catch up syndrome? It is for the same reason the so called conquering barbarians chose to adopt the religio-cultural practices of the vanquished Romans. This puts the elites in a lasting conflict with the rest of the post colonial people. Although it’s essentially a class conflict but appears in multiple forms and dimensions. A host of literary giants of our times from across the ex colonial world have drawn attention to this issue. Yet it simply refuses to go away.

Most of the post colonial elites are groomed within the framework of a colonial paradigm. Their entrenched privileges simply don’t match with the vast majority, deprived of any privilege. Thus, the gap between the two entities widens, creating conditions for permanent instability in all the avenues of state and society, affecting all segments of the population. While the elites pretend to be the new colonial masters in their own countries whether out of fancy or insecurity; the common people feel alienated. And such diverse perceptions travel with the migrants as well. Not being treated as equals in the host countries they respond in a variety of ways, anger and bitterness are the two most common. Hence, Zafar is so angry with himself, and the narrator is so lonely. Macaulay must be having a hearty laugh in his grave.

There is another far more compelling and disturbing reason for Zafar’s disillusionment, thus his wandering is a way of soul searching. As a war baby he is at a loss, where does he really belong. Although he was born in Bangladesh he doesn’t quite feel at home here and considers it to be a land of dead ideas. He doesn’t feel very welcome in UK either, where he grew up and studied. And he definitely isn’t comfortable working in America. His spiritual loyalty is as rootless as his physical self. His suppressed anger reaches a boiling point when he comes across a series of warmongers, self seekers, and mercenaries from both the west as well as from the ex colonies in war ravaged Afghanistan pretending as do-gooders. And he snaps. One wonders why. He is so close to constructing a happy family life, yet, he finds the distressed call for dignity more overpowering. And that’s what gives the novel its life. Everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone has the ability to articulate and give it a shape. Zia Haider definitely has that gift.

The lifeline of a novel is its storyline. Unless it can captivate the reader it has all the chances to end up in the gutters. What makes a novel draw the reader’s attention? It’s literary skills, prose, research, structure, and not the least, plausible but intricate weaving of plots and sub plots. A little bit of mystery adds to the suspense of keeping the reader on tenterhooks. But as Mark twain had pointed out long ago, if ‘civilisation is the multiplication of unnecessary necessaries’ than some of the novels even by renowned authors is the weaving of unnecessary necessary words, and plots and sub plots. ‘In The Light of What We Know’ belong to this group.

But on this count Zia Haider will find himself in the good company of master storytellers like Maugham, Marquez, or Pamuk. For example why did Maugham have to drag ‘Of Human Bondage’ over six hundred pages? Marquez, in his famous ‘Love in the time of Cholera’ tells a great love story, which perhaps could have been said in half the length without losing the reader. And Pamuk is definitely trying the reader’s patience in his acclaimed ‘Museum of Innocence’. They undeniably leave the reader spellbound but never a lasting impression like several works of Sarat Chandra or Bibhutibhusan Bandapadhaya (Two Bengali novelists from early 20th century), they remain permanently etched in ones heart but rarely exceed two hundred pages. Or for that matter Marquez’s ‘Of Love and Other Demons’.

Finally, one must appreciate the authors’ amazing skill of blending life and art. At which point Zia blends into Zafar and then switches back to himself is at times quite difficult to distinguish. If the author’s brief life sketch is any indication, the book is neither entirely an autobiography nor a complete work of fiction. The message that comes across through a lot of personal tragedies, emotions, mysteries, and the circumstantial evidences is that the post colonial order whether in the ex colonies or in the industrial world is faltering and disorder is the new order.  The governing principles of the socio-economic order are fast eroding and losing human touch. The societies that are dependent on this edifice are collapsing, and families disintegrating.