In the Light of What We Know

Zia Haider Rehman's impressive debut novel shows life not for what we wish it to be, but for what it is - with all its unkempt truths, writes Sadia Khatri

In the Light of What We Know
It took me a while into the novel to realize that I still didn’t know the narrator’s name. By then events had become increasingly convoluted. The now-unreliable narrator was wrapping up his friend Zafar’s story – Zafar, his classmate from Oxford, who unexpectedly showed up on his doorstep after disappearing for eight years, accompanied with a small backpack, a canvas bag, and tales from continents away. The two friends sat down to talk over whisky, long walks in South Kensington, and in cafes, hurtling the reader along with them in no linear fashion. Their discussions touch upon everything under the sun; science, philosophy, mathematics, finance, friendship, with no one topic separate from the other. As our narrator listens and records, as Zafar carries him along his own elusive mind maps, pulling out of one story to relate another, we find ourselves absorbed. Not knowing the narrator’s name, or some other hanging detail, becomes inconsequential, and by the end of the book simply ceases to matter.


What does matter, then? Zia Haider Rahman’s In The Light of What We Know is, on the surface, an intricate tale of a friendship and its betrayal. At its heart, it is a work exploring the human condition, posing terrifying and deeply intimate questions to its characters and readers. It is the kind of book you don’t read, but devour, for Haider marvelously weaves math, science, philosophy and storytelling into our basest emotions – love, anger, guilt.

The storyline loosely follows post 9/11 events in Afghanistan, where Zafar finds himself in the thick of the NGO culture and redevelopment efforts, after having worked as an international lawyer and in finance. He has experienced war, loss and heartbreak, with little difference between the three. The narrator himself is at the brink of being fired from his job and ending his marriage. In the space they briefly rediscover to sit down and ruminate over all that has happened in Zafar’s life. The events Zafar relates may be unique in defining his experience, but they could very well have been something else. Zafar is not concerned with the what, but rather the why and the how.

Isn’t that what we torture ourselves with the most, how things come to pass? There are the obvious culprits: Zafar is obsessed with class, for one, not being from the kind of elite background our narrator is privileged with (an elite Pakistani family). Zafar comes back to this again and again, in his romantic relationships, in his financial career, in his interactions with the English elite. Class always trumps race. But Rahman’s genius lies not in identifying these tropes or even relating them to each other, but taking us one step further: even when we can process our experiences, he asks, how do we know? What led us to where we are, except our misguided sense of how things panned out? In a world rife with political missteps, financial collapse and profound inequality, with its share of heartbreak, loss and violence, knowledge can be a way out, but it is also a trap—it cannot change anything.

For Zafar, his escape lies in mathematics. But even there, he turns repeatedly to the famous mathematician Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, “Within any given system, there are claims which are true but which cannot be proven to be true,” i.e. knowing changes little for Zafar. The self-conscious act of carrying reasons as a defense or an explanation becomes a crutch. We are limited by the questions we think we can ask, of our histories and lovers alike.

During a childhood trip to Bangladesh, where Zafar was born, he’s met with an accident: he steps out of the train at a stop, when the entire thing stumbles into a river below. Everything on it, including Zafar’s possessions and a boy he befriended, is gone. Zafar is left with nothing. Here is the pretense of carrying things (or knowledge), a ruse perhaps, to distract us from the truth of all that we do not, and cannot know.

The novel is heartbreaking in this ode to loneliness. It exposes human dependency and our need to understand each other; on the next page it reminds us that we can’t trust even ourselves. “Two people can see the same thing differently,” Zafar says while speaking of those days in Bangladesh, “But the notion that the same person can see the same thing utterly differently, something about it unsettles me, leaving a vacancy between me and those days, like an empty chair between two people.”

This is not the loneliness of Camus, where the character is misunderstood or cannot integrate. It is the loneliness of our inability to confirm even what we think we know. Logic and cause can explain, but only briefly, falling flat in instances when all breaks apart. For what is it that governs our decisions and justifications? Not always reason. At one point in the novel, Zafar confesses: “We think we have the measure of so many people… but when we begin to think of how many people we believe in turn have the measure of us, things fall apart.” He could be talking about Emily Hampton-Wyvern, the elusive lover we hardly get a sense of (this is one thing in Haider’s novel, the women characters are secondary); the countless shady characters he met in war-torn Afghanistan; or even the narrator himself.

So how much do we trust the narrator? The novel offers no dialogue, written as it is in memoir form. The narrator’s thoughts frequently interrupt, along with footnotes from Zafar’s notebooks. But all, we know, are carefully placed. “Stories are dangerous,” the narrator’s father once warned him, “And I don’t mean stories whose messages are capable of endangering. I mean that the form itself is dangerous, not the content is.”

The memoir is a clear excuse for the narrator to tell his own story. But Haider is doing something else: the form may suggest self-reflexivity on the narrator’s part, but is also an exploration of the literary act of establishing narratives. Haider is consciously calling writing out for the tricks it can play: the ways it can seduce, or alternatively, deceive.

Critics have noted how the alluring Zafar is Haider reincarnate: born in Bangladesh to a working class family, educated at Oxford and Yale, years of experience on Wall Street and as an international human-rights lawyer. But what purpose does drawing this connection serve? Milan Kundera put it best: “As I have pointed out before, characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor… But isn’t it true that an author can write only about himself?” Doesn’t all writing, in some sense, draw upon experience (or lack thereof)?

Yet the more we think about this question, the more we realize how subtly Haider has turned the tables on us. In an interview with his publishers, Haider said, “I think I can say that one question the novel works towards is not how much can we know of ourselves?, but how much is there, present, effective but hidden, never to be known? What is in that darkness?”

Haider is hinting at something else – by now we have assumed the protagonist to be Zafar, though we pause, for whatever we know of him is filtered by the narrator. What is left out; how much do we truly know? Doesn’t this version of Zafar’s story tell us more about the narrator than Zafar? And then it hits us: it isn’t about Zafar’s lack of knowing or the narrator’s, but rather our own.

Haider provides the strangest kind of closure: his characters are not just participants, but also observers of their own lives. Zafar forces us to accept that life’s madness can be understood only “in the light of what we know”, as difficult and violent as that acceptance may be for him. Memory is a way to butcher and craft our responses to events, but here he is, questioning memory, metaphor, everything. In the end, there are no answers, and the gaping sense that there never might be.

This is not a book that romanticizes brokenness, or creates magic out of trauma, or attempts redemption. Rather, it is a book that looks life in the face, not for what we wish it to be, but for what it is, with all its unkempt truths, its unjustifiable decisions, and things left unsaid, unexplained, uncorrected. If reading is an act of escaping, then Haider has taken us away from our world only to deceive us. Zafar’s world might map out a specific series of events, but in the end it is our own decisions, judgements and questions we stare back at, even in our reading of the novel. Haider has made his point: after all, this is all we have ever known.

In The Light of What We Know is currently available from Liberty Books only on pre-order for Rs. 1,035. (