New Delhi: The global financial crisis of 2007-08, the consequences of the “war on terror” and racial and religious politics in the West in the last decade form the crux of a novel by a Bangladesh-born writer, who worked as an investment banker on Wall Street.
Britain-based Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel “In the Light of What We Know” is set during the war and financial crisis that defined the beginning of our century.
Set against the breaking of nations and beneath the clouds of economic crisis, the novel chronicles the lives of people carrying unshakable legacies of class and culture as they struggle to tame their futures.
One September morning in 2008, an investment banker approaching 40, his career in collapse and his marriage unraveling, receives a surprise visitor at his West London townhouse.
In the disheveled figure of a South Asian male carrying a backpack, the banker recognizes a long-lost friend, a mathematics prodigy who disappeared years earlier under mysterious circumstances. The friend has resurfaced to make a confession of unsettling power.
The protagonist in the novel, published by Pan Macmillan India imprint Picador India, is Zafar.
“Like Zafar, I was a student of mathematics at Oxford, but that, to put it imprecisely, was the beginning and the end of what we had in common. Mine was a privileged background. My father was born into a well-known landed family in Pakistan, where he met and married my mother,” the narrator says in the opening chapter of the book.
“From there, the newlyweds went to Princeton, where they had me, making me an American citizen, and where my father obtained his doctorate before moving to Oxford so that he could take up a chair in physics. I am no genius and I know that without the best English schooling, I would not have been able to make as much as I have of the opportunities that came my way,” he says.
“Zafar, however, arrived at Oxford in 1987 with a peculiar education, largely cobbled together by his own efforts, having been bored, when not bullied, out of one school after another.
His family moved to Britain when he was no more than five years old, but then, at the age of twelve, or ten, by the new reckoning, he returned from Britain to rural Bangladesh for an interval of some years.
“The greatest difference between us, however, the
significance of which I did not begin to ascertain until two years after our first meeting, lay in our social classes,” the narrator, a Pakistani-American friend of Zafar, says.
“In the Light of What We Know” takes the reader on a journey of exhilarating scope -from Kabul to London, New York, Islamabad, Oxford, and Princeton – and explores the great questions of love, belonging, science, and war.
It is an age-old story: the friendship of two men and the betrayal of one by the other.
The visitor, a man desperate to climb clear of his wrong beginnings, seeks atonement; and the narrator sets out to tell his friend’s story but finds himself at the limits of what he can know about the world – and, ultimately, himself.
In a feat of imagination, Rahman, who studied at Oxford and Cambridge and worked as an international human rights lawyer, has telescoped the great upheavals of the young century into a novel of rare intimacy and power.