Book: In The Light Of What We Know
Author: Zia Haidar Rahman
Price: Rs 599
Early one September morning in 2008, a gaunt, somewhat disoriented man in a dishevelled state appears at the South Kensington doorstep of the narrator of this outstanding novel that reveals yet more of its brilliance upon each reading. The narrator, whose name we never find out, but whose privileged place in the world is adequately conveyed by his London address, cannot quite place the visitor till the name of a German mathematician emerges from his agitated chatter. Kurt Godel! The name recalls to the narrator a shared past if not more innocent, then at least one in which wars and financial jiggery-pokery had not closed the many possibilities of making their way in a world they had assumed would get progressively better. They — Zafar, the man on the doorstep, and the narrator — had been students of mathematics at Oxford in the late ’80s. Their friendship had carried on in their early career, Zafar’s success as a derivatives trader on Wall Street helping induct the narrator in investment banking. On that trip to New York, remembers the narrator, Zafar had dwelled once more on Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem: “Within any given system, there are claims which are true but which cannot be proven to be true.”
To Zafar, the theorem — its proposition as too the fact of its utterance — is throughout a thing of beauty, of comfort, of endless assistance in framing his pursuit of knowledge and his striving to determine his place in the world. The narrator will have a less firm hold on the theorem, but we know from the very beginning that it will be the framing device in this novel heavy with footnotes and epigraphs. Zafar, washed out and washed up at his doorstep, has a story to tell and the narrator will employ a craftiness, figuring out the extent of which will tease us, to get it as perfect as he can. But perfect to whose specifications? Zafar’s long storytelling, a tape recorder running, will be supplemented with his notebooks and also the narrator’s research and later recollections of the conversations.
Zafar’s story, his ambition to make sense of it by mining all the knowledge and information he can, is at the heart of the novel. But it is a story told to us at a remove, producing a tension that tightens all the epigraphs and asides into a cohesive narrative, so that nothing, not one line, appears extraneous in this epic novel.
Zafar and the narrator are products of different circumstances. The narrator has benefitted and been helped along by privilege. His grandfather was Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, his father a physicist at Oxford, his family connections get him coasting along. Zafar must make his way on his own steam, a scholarship to Oxford, close study of the British elite to gauge what one must affect to be and what not. He will keep moving, finding different perspectives, measuring the distance both from his past and from a future that should be but is just not, hazarding what it is around him that could give him a sense of wholeness but does not, changing careers, gaining knowledge, grazing against the gap between knowledge and understanding, returning to his origins in Sylhet (he is a child of Bangladesh’s traumatic struggle for liberation), to assisting the UN rapporteur in Kabul, bewildered by the conceit as bright young things from the West converge glibly to fashion a traumatised world in their own image.
The narrator is oddly complacent, as if episodically surprised at his incomprehension of in-knowledge that’s effortlessly his and of how far it takes him; Zafar is angry, the rage building up and in search of an outlet, mathematics his only refuge. “Mathematics doesn’t care about authority,” he tells his friend, “it doesn’t care about who you are, where you’re from, what your eye colour is, or who you’re having supper with.” This is not a novel about mathematics, but mathematics and a great mathematician are vital to conveying Zafar’s fury — and sorrow — over what the world simply is not, what it will not lend itself to be.