A mysterious Bangladeshi friend thought long lost materialises at the door fresh returned from Afghanistan and a myriad wanderings. The friend is Pakistani and as pedigreed and privileged as the Bangladeshi Zafar is not. However rumours are rife about Zafar, ‘that that he had been spotted in Damascus, Tunis, or Islamabad, and that he had killed a man, fathered a child, and, absurdly it seemed, spied for British intelligence’. The list, tantalising as it may sound, is totally misleading. The conversations between the two friends consist of references to higher mathematics like Gödel’s incompleteness theorem which talks about claims that are true but cannot be proven. And in between the chapters are trending topics like the Wall Street crash, geopolitics, terrorism, the Bangladesh war.
The book is in fact more conversation than story, a constant back and forth of thought and dialogue and an exchange of ideology. Sometimes it becomes difficult to keep track of the speaker. Bangladeshi or Pakistani they are both Oxford men, covet upper class English women, though Zafar briefly achieves and then loses the aristocratic, beautiful Emily in miasma of Kabul intrigue, both have problems with English racism and are plagued by the political machinations in the lands that used to be their homes.
There is no doubt of the author’s erudition. Chapters begin with suitably weighty quotes from Donne, Churchill, Freud or Feynman and have footnotes into the bargain. And information abounds. Zafar catches sight of a chessboard in a Pakistani army man’s house and his thoughts fly to Kipling’s Great Game – the more so since he is on his way to Afghanistan. In a sense it is an exhaustive compilation of global knowledge bases, possibly because the author himself hails from rural Bangladesh like Zafar and in the course of time spent much thought on the nature of education and its entitlement thereof.
In the Light of What We Know is fairly open about its literary borrowings as well. You can trace the influences of Naipaul, fleetingly F Scott Fitzgerald and, in the opening chapters, W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz which tells the story of a wanderer encountered after many years of separation which in turn is very Ancient Mariner – though Rahman uses an epigraph from Austerlitz to confirm his inspiration.
All this accumulated theory works well when it is augmented by description like the young Zafar’s walk to his village in Bangladesh after a bridge collapse sends the train he was to board into the river. A village in a country that the rest of the world condemns as a basket case of misery. Zafar is angry at the contrast between the Third World and life in the UK where everyone is automatically a ‘Paki’ – he claims mathematics absorbs that anger and presumably that is the author speaking. But the anger that should swell into overdrive in the climax of the novel is muffled by the amount of information that also goes into those pages. What is true is that three or four years studying classics or economics in an Ivy League institution should not entitle someone to run a NGO in Kabul or even to a seat on the UN, but that is the way the world goes for the privileged, while the rest have to deal with the fall out.
As a debut novel, the book is weighty and remarkably exhaustive. It is an author looking at his life through a kind of internal monologue in the light of everything that he has come to know, which is possibly less than he thinks he does know.
In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman
Published by PanMacmillan India
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