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Night of Happiness – Tabish Khair

Night of Happiness – Tabish Khair

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Night of Happiness – Tabish Khair

Tanya Singh

 

 

The setting for ‘Night of Happiness’ is enigmatic, and really adds to the tale. We know that Phansa is based on Gaya, where you grew up. When did you move away? Could you share a fond memory from your childhood with our readers?

I was 24 when I left the town for good. I had tried to leave it once before but had returned after two months in a university town of India. So Gaya is the place I spent my formative years, as they say, though of course we all continue growing and at times changing as human beings until we die – or at least we should do so. Life means growth. But still Gaya remains central to my understanding of life, myself, other people: a kind of touchstone. I have fond memories of Gaya: it showed me things I would not have known in Delhi or London. But I am not nostalgic about the place either. It had its drawbacks: any creative or intelligent person has to belong to his place of origin (in reality or in the imagination) and also escape from it. These are related acts. Blind belonging and blindly escaping are both dangerous and restrictive. I use Phansa to explore all these aspects, but also because then I can distance myself a bit from Gaya in my fiction and perhaps write about it in a more holistic or nuanced manner. 

 

Your book has a lot of elements to it, and it’s story describes a Hindu-Muslim friendship and the Godhra riots of 2002 – extremely controversial issues today. I think that fiction is an excellent way to get the attention of ‘apolitical’ readers, and actually get the message of peace out. What does it mean to you, to write about important issues today?

I have only one life, and so little time during my working days: “How can I even begin to write about matters that I do not consider vastly important, stories that I feel I simply have to narrate before my days run out? There are so many stories and so little time!” It is not a choice. But actually, despite the political underpinning of Night of Happiness, and my other novels, such as Jihadi Jane, where I take on Islamism, I write about human beings, not about political issues per se. If I had to write about political issues directly, I would – and I do sometimes – resort to non-fiction. Fiction allows more nuances, more possibilities, more contrasts that can be absorbed into a narrowly ‘issue-based’ narrative. 

 

Anil Mehrotra and his employee Ahmed are very different from each other. Whose personality would do you associate more with, if at all? 

A bit with both, and not entirely with either, which is what I can say of almost all protagonists in my fiction. It is true that Anil and Ahmed are very different people – in so many ways – but incidentally they share an element: they are both trying to make sense of a world that does not always make sense. I consider that a very human characteristic. I am deeply interested in people who struggle with this, even if their struggle leads them down a blind alley. Anil starts off, given his privileges, assuming that his world makes easy sense, but when he encounters something that does not make sense, he struggles with it in his own way. Ahmed does not have Anil’s privileges and safety nets, and his world fractures much more horribly, and of course he, in his own way, tries to make sense of it too. Of course the problem – which Anil encounters – is this: “can we make sense of the ways other people, especially people different from us, make sense of a world that does not always make sense? What does it require to make that jump in empathy and understanding?”

 

The plot of your book is gripping. Is the halwa real, is it not; there is a lot of anticipation and foreshadowing. What is your take, was the halwa really there the first time, and the second time?

That I will leave to the reader to decide.

 

Which is your all time favourite book? Could you also name authors that inspire you?

I can answer this only with what I recently said in response to a similar question by an American journal. You see, towns like Gaya, where I grew up, are places where the pressure of life largely drowns out literature, in any language, and in any case not places where English is freely spoken. Gaya is not Delhi, Kolkata, Goa or even Ranchi or Dehradun. I was lucky to have books (in English and other languages) around me, both at home and in school, and I read voraciously, gravitating to English and texts in English translation, partly for the variety they offered and partly because my other two languages (Hindi and Urdu) were at political loggerheads. By early college, I had read most of the major romantics and mainstream poets like Tennyson, Browning, Auden and Whitman, much of Dickens, Austen, George Eliot, Hemingway, Kafka, Graham Greene, Tolstoy, Chekov, Gogol, Kundera, Gorky, etc., and of course the more popular writers like Wodehouse and Somerset Maugham, which my cousins or classmates also read at times. (Not to mention the earlier and very popular secondary school substratum of Enid Blyton, Alfred Hitchcock, Ludlum, Louis L’Amour, Hindi pulp, comic books, etc.) “I loved many of the so-called classics as a reader, but I could not always connect to them as a struggling writer: my small town world was not there.” They could not really teach me how to write my world. Even Premchand or Tagore did not help much. Some of Russian fiction was the closest I got to it. A bit later I found a connection of sorts in R. K. Narayan and, strangely, in fiction from the American south (Faulkner, Willa Cather, etc.) and the Caribbean (Lovelace, Selvon, Naipaul, etc.). Later I also discovered Indian writers in translation – Ismat Chughtai, Manto, Mahasweta Devi – who helped a bit. But I have had to work with bits and pieces of writers and their works; I could not totally absorb any single ‘influence’ because of my unusual background. My influences are quilt-work at best. There is no one source. 

 

Your books have been translated into many languages, and you have readers from across the world. Do you have any advice for amateur writers?

I have been published and reviewed widely, true, and translated into some languages, but it has all happened outside mainstream and institutionalised routes: I have not had any major agent pushing me for instance, and I do not even know the name-makers of the literary world. Even the fact that I teach in a university in the West means very little, as it is a university in a provincial town of Denmark, and I do not exist as a writer there, only as an academic: the university pages do not even list my creative writing. There is no support for me as a writer, and that is fine by me: after all, their language is Danish, not English! My readers have mostly found me on their own. One friend says that my novels are the “best kept secret of committed readers of Indian English writing!” So what can I say to amateur writers? Perhaps only this: Do your stuff, with hope but no expectations. ‘Creative writing’ is not a profession, but it can be a calling.

About the Interviewee:

Born and educated in a small town of Bihar, India, TABISH KHAIR is the author of various books, including the poetry collections, Where Parallel Lines Meet (Penguin, 2000) and Man of Glass (HarperCollins, 2010), the studies, Babu Fictions: Alienation in Indian English Novels (Oxford UP, 2001) and The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness (Palgrave, 2010) and the novels, The Bus Stopped (Picador, 2004), Filming (Picador, 2007), The Thing About Thugs (Harpercollins, 2010; Houghton Mifflin, 2012), How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (Interlink and Corsair 2014), Just Another Jihadi Jane (Periscope and Interlink, 2016/17), which was published as Jihadi Jane in India (Penguin, 2016), and Night of Happiness (Picador, 2018).

His honours and prizes include the All India Poetry Prize (awarded by the Poetry Society and the British Council) and honorary fellowship (for creative writing) of the Baptist University of Hong Kong. His novels have been shortlisted for nine prestigious prizes in five countries, including the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Encore Award, and translated into several languages.

Other Routes, an anthology of pre-modern travel texts by Africans and Asians, co-edited and introduced by Khair (with a foreword by Amitav Ghosh) was published by Signal Books and Indiana University Press in 2005 and 2006 respectively; he has also edited or co-edited other scholarly works.

His writing has appeared in various anthologies of poetry and fiction, including The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry, City Improbable: Writings on Delhi, The New Anthem, Fear Factor: Terror Incognito, Delhi Noir and Penguin's 60 Indian Poets. Academic papers, reviews, essays, fiction and poems by Khair have appeared in Indian (Hindu, Times of India, Biblio: A Review of Books, Indian Book Review, Economic Times, PEN, DNA, Telegraph, Outlook etc), British (Guardian, New Left Review, Wasafiri, Third Text, Independent, New Statesman, First Post, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, London Magazine, P.N. Review, Salt, Metre, Thumbscrew, Stand etc), Danish (Information, Politiken, Weekendavisen etc), American, German, Italian, South African, Chinese and other publications.

tabish-khair-by-Jesper-VoldgaardSeveral recent books on contemporary Indian writing, including Bruce King's 'Rewriting India: Eight Writers' (Oxford UP, 2014), discuss Khair's work in detail. Two collections of essays on Khair's poetry and fiction have also been edited and published by Om Prakash Dwivedi and Cristina M. Gámez-Fernández.

Khair now mostly lives in a village off the town of Aarhus, Denmark.