‘In the Light of What We Know’ Suffers From Sahib Syndrome

While living in Pakistan I often noted how a certain class of subcontinental man was prone to what I called “sahib syndrome” – the need to pontificate, at length.

In the Light of What We Know is a big, ambitious, debut novel from Bangladeshi author Zia Haider Rahman. Clocking in at 500 pages and shifting in location between the US, the UK and Afghanistan, Rahman’s novel is at times dazzling in its sharp observations, and other times frustrating in its wordiness.

While living in Pakistan for ten years, I often noted how a certain class of subcontinental man was prone to what I called “sahib syndrome” – the need to sit in a drawing room and pontificate, at length, about this or that issue. Everyone else was expected to listen and agree. I have never met Zia Haider Rahman, and I’m sure he’s a terrific guy, but man, he has a bad case of sahib syndrome.

This isn’t to say that the book is not engaging. It is, particularly later on, when the slow-motion plot has gained some momentum. But before you reach that point, you have to wallow through a great deal of material, some of it bracing, much of it less so.

The plot is somewhat contrived. An unnamed, disgraced investment banker is the narrator here, but it’s not his story that we’re primarily concerned with. The narrator is the son of Pakistani immigrants to America, who grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, and subsequently moved to Britain before becoming involved in the financial frenzy (and bubble) of the early Aughts. He is married, and the marriage isn’t going well. He is on leave from his job following accusations of financial impropriety. The man’s life, in short, is rather on the skids.

Not that any of this matters much, because it’s not the banker’s story that we’re concerned with, but rather his friend Zafar’s. Zafar is an old college chum, the son of working-class Bangladeshi immigrants to Britain, and he appears on the narrator’s doorstep one morning, unannounced, after an absence of years. Zafar appears bedraggled and disoriented, and the narrator takes him in, sits him down and listens to his story. That story, which is transcribed from conversations that the narrator tapes as well as notebooks that Zafar leaves behind, forms the backbone of the novel.

Zafar’s experiences are interesting enough and would probably have filled a book half this length. His story in England focuses on his experiences at Oxford and his attempt to mingle with the upper classes, a stratum to which he most assuredly does not belong. He grows infatuated with a wealthy young woman named Emily, who seems to evoke in him a lust which is equal parts sexual and social. They court, go out together, separate, reunite, separate again. There is talk of pregnancy and marriage, but Emily is an elusive creature, and nothing is as it seems.

Eventually Zafar finds himself in Afghanistan shortly after the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing American bombardment there. As part of the international rebuilding efforts, Zafar must face his own flaws and shortcomings both professionally and personally. Emily is there too, and she is crucial to the story’s sinister denouement.

The narrator’s retelling of his friend’s history is far less straightforward than this summary suggests. Zafar skips and weaves through various time periods and events, dropping mysterious hints about this or that – the Colonel in Islamabad, the envelopes in Kabul, the doctor in England – to return to them later. In theory, this is a useful technique, allowing suspense to build while the reader waits impatiently for the big reveal, and also has the useful effect of prolonging what is after all a rather straightforward series of events. The problem, though, is that much of the material used to prolong the suspense is dull.

This is especially true at the beginning, while the reader is still getting to know both the narrator and Zafar, and trying to hold together a vast amount of information in the hope of deciding what’s important and what’s not. Rahman distracts us with a fair amount of material that is either boring or simply tangential, such as this lengthy description of Emily’s father, a character who barely figures in the story:

[He] was a High Court judge who’d made his name as a successful Queen’s Counsel in the field of tax law, before being raised to the bench. Robin was a tall man, with sharp eyes somewhat tempered by a ruddy complexion; Somerset Maugham would have said he had a high color, if I’ve understood the phrase correctly. I hesitate to describe him as English because I have heard that there was quite a bit of the Scots in him, descendants of the Bruces, apparently…

And on and on, all in the service of a character who turns out to be perfectly irrelevant to the course of the story.

Elsewhere is a four-page footnote on the nature of map projections, a conversation about the Poggendorff optical illusion, and pages and pages of navel-gazing prose:

I’ve never claimed to be a master of self-knowledge, and perhaps such a thing is illusory if, as Zafar said, there is no path from the self to the self, but what I would say now is that my friend had acquired a totemic place in my imagination, an emblem of an idea I have wanted to believe to be true, whether or not he himself did so.

Right. While thematic ideas of knowledge and ignorance, perception and illusion run through each of these examples, the problem is that they are little more than thematic ideas; as a wise man once said, the symbolism needs to be in service to the plot, not the other way around.

The news isn’t all bad, of course, and much of the story is compelling. Rahman’s tendency to pontificate means that, on occasion, we encounter a passage concerning some important ideas concerning, say, race or class or international relations. But despite these engaging little asides, and the propulsion of the main plot (which does at last grow over the last 100 or so pages), this novel remains problematic. This is both because of its tendency to meander, and its utter abdication of the climactic scene. There is a strong suggestion of Zafar’s ultimate, horrifying action in Afghanistan, but it is left unmentioned, undescribed, only hinted at – a cheat if ever there was one, and an act of breathtaking irresponsibility and disrespect (to the character involved, and possibly her real-world counterparts, as well).

It is this breakdown in the final few pages of the novel that renders it so troubling, even as the narrator reaches some easy metaphor about Kurt Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the nature of truth and friendship. This is a big book, and one that touches on important topics, but ultimately looks away from the hard truths it seeks to illuminate.

RATING 5 / 10