Haunting. . .
- By Jim Hicks
At long last, I’m finally sitting down to write a piece that I promised ages ago. This will be an admittedly partisan review, responding to the latest book by Tabish Khair, who is both a friend and on the MR masthead. Yet, given that it’s Hallowe’en today, on several levels it does seem the perfect moment to tell everyone why they should read Namaste Trump & Other Stories (Interlink Books, 2023).
The worldwide expansion of a holiday where children traditionally transvest as monsters, witches, and ghosts seems innocent enough—surely a form of what Joseph Nye, more than three decades ago, called “soft power.” That this year’s holiday coincides with a genocidal explosion of hard power in Israel/Palestine, however, should make the overlap between fictive and real horror horribly apparent to any relatively sentient adult. Of course, in the comfort zone, as opposed to the conflict zone, kids can still be protected from such realities, or even the knowledge of them, and surely should be. That decades of unwavering US support for Israel, despite its open-air imprisonment of Palestinians, has led to the horror we’re witnessing this Hallowe’en is also undeniable—and US pulling the brake may be the only way to stop this train wreck. Yet we still see green lights everywhere, with only a glimmer or two of yellow.
Probably I shouldn’t overemphasize this calendric connection. Unlike his most recent novels, Khair’s collection of stories, written over the last half dozen years or so, are set in India, his country of origin—several tales, in fact, are set firmly in his fictional hometown, Phansa (a locale that appears, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha or Juan José Saer’s riverine countryside near Rosario, as the back story behind all his stories). So, no Hallowe’en here, and no mentions of the so-called Middle East either, not even, in any direct or overt sense, stories about India’s colonial past.
And yet, in addition to place, what brings together the stories of this collection is a particular form of what Bakhtin called narrative chronotope, though Freudians would likely have referred to it as the return of the repressed. In short, in each of the eleven stories (actually, ten stories and a novella, “The Night of Happiness”), in a wide variety of ways, the present is haunted by the past. The novella and two additional tales, the titular story “Namaste Trump” and “Shadow of a Story” make that haunting literal: they are ghost stories in both a classic and Bakhtinian sense: the irruption of past traumas into present time, disrupting the otherwise secure of their protagonists, comparatively successful citizens of our neoliberal capitalist hegemony.
As both Poe and Sartre would agree, when it comes to narrative the place to begin is the end. So here’s a snippet from the final pages of “Night of Happiness”:
Ignore my story if you want, stranger, but I cannot ignore it. And I cannot share it with my normal world either. That tiffin carrier with the fragrant halwa will not leave me alone; I know it will come back next Shab-e-Barat if I try to ignore it. Perhaps you, in your remoteness, will be my solution. Maybe it is a kind of redemption to speak, freely and truly, to a total stranger? Maybe there is no other redemption? I will find out. I hope to find out.
A few words of explication are necessary. The novella borrows from the eighteenth-century trope of the found manuscript; here, the anonymous author has scribbled out his story and left it in a hotel room for some stranger to find. The tiffin carrier appeared one day, with no explanation, on his desk at the office, and that fragrant halwa is the specialty of the wife of his right-hand man, Ahmed, served every year on the Muslim holiday mentioned here. What I perhaps shouldn’t say, but will, is that when this tiffin appears, both Ahmed and his wife are dead, and the latter was victim of the Gujarati riots, many years before. A past never past.
“Namaste Trump” is a COVID story, told from the point of view of an ad company employee who, because he has a legislator among his friends, is asked to design a poster promoting the visit of President Trump to India. What the story focuses on, however, is the pandemic-era fear, scapegoating, and mistreatment by the narrator and his wife towards their servant, Chottu, as well as the ways in which the forces of order side with this socially connected couple when they send him away and then get him assigned to a migrant labor camp, where he catches the virus and dies. Like that halwa, however, Chottu is remarkably persistent, and by the end of the tale, one suspects that his fate will be linked to that of the couple forever.
The third ghost story in the collection, Khair’s “Shadow of a Story,” is perhaps the most complex, insofar as its narrative is framed as a critique of the celebration of storytelling, a common theme in Indian writing in English by renowned writers such as Amitav Ghosh and Salman Rushdie. The narrator protests that unconditional affirmation is far too simple; as he puts it, “stories are also terrible things [. . .] There is nothing reassuring about stories! Even their beauty can be deadly! They cast strange shadows!” The tale that gives evidence for these misgivings follows a rich family who allegedly has used black magic, including a ritual killing of a young girl—ostensibly to heal their sole offspring, who is said to be cursed. When the girl returns, the parents disappear forever, without a trace, and for once, even the law seems haunted. When stories lead to murder, their power is hardly innocent.
Another strand in this collection traces the experiences of a Khair surrogate—a young Muslim boy as well as his mother, his father, a village doctor, and his tutor, a young Bengali woman who, in one of the stories, has a brief affair with the doctor’s assistant. Among the narrator’s schoolmates, one—named Narender—repeatedly leads in insulting the tutor; when she eventually moves away, he spits on the ground and says, “Good riddance.” The war that gives rise to Bangladesh serves as backdrop for these stories, and the tensions between Hindus and Muslims, along with the boy’s attention to the natural and social worlds, provide the early stages of his sentimental education.
Obviously, given the rich panoply of tales this collection contains, I can’t clue you in on all the sense and sentience you’ll find within its pages. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, at least in passing, the two final stories Khair crafts for his readers. Both record stunning acts of resistance and protest against the social and political forces that render their central characters nearly powerless; in other words, they model acts of public sacrifice, and the closing acts will haunt readers long after the final pages are turned.
The first of these stories, “The Thing with Feathers,” refers only indirectly to Emily of Amherst’s image of hope. Instead, it tracks the trajectory of a tutor who becomes progressively more incapable of not saying what he thinks, even though his truths are unwelcome. He thus also becomes a social pariah, since no one wants to hear what everyone else keeps to themselves. And things do end badly, or not—you be the judge. The collection concludes with a farmer’s tale of dispossession over several generations, accelerated by COVID but also by the usual greed of bankers and lawyers, the usual parasites that have always fed on families that work the land. This tale ends, however, with its protagonist freed to migrate from country to city, the essential story of modernity, and still the tale of our time. Whether tragedy or triumph, it’s the sacrifice, and the haunting, that matter.
No doubt I will seem to have wandered far from my opening theme, and the frame in which this review has been written—the relatively recent phenomenon of a globalized holiday called Hallowe’en. And surely the horrors of this particular season—where “Never Again” seems either forgotten or relativized—have no obvious place in this collection of stories, engaged as it is in very different histories and cultural contexts.
Yet the essential message that I take from Tabish Khair’s Namaste Trump is that ignoring history makes us sure to repeat it. And don’t forget, when Freud discussed the compulsive repetition of the same—without recognition and understanding, without change—the name he gave to this form of haunting was clear. He called it “the death drive.”
TABISH KHAIR is the author, most recently, of The Body by the Shore, Just Another Jihadi Jane, and How to Fight Islamic Terror from the Missionary Position. An astute political commentary and literary critic, he writes regularly for Indian newspapers and has authored several articles on the war in Israel/Palestine, for the India Forum as well as The Hindu.
JIM HICKS is Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review.