Read In the Light of What We Know Online

Authors: Zia Haider Rahman

In the Light of What We Know (6 page)

If I were putting together an ordinary biography, I would proceed chronologically, taking the subject from the earliest record all the way through to the documented end. Moreover, if I were writing about someone famous or even merely known, someone with a standing in some quarter, a great German composer, say, then I could fairly claim that with the bare reminder of the subject’s significance in his field, I would discharge any obligation to explain my motive for undertaking a study.

Anyone who met me a decade ago—who met me a year ago—would not have taken me for a philosopher. But though I am no Socrates now, this mind of mine tends toward great questions of life and meaning when I try to consider what it is that moves me enough to undertake the task of writing this, this thing, something that already promises to occupy a considerable portion of my time and that will ask me in due course not to flinch when flinching is demonstrably in my character.

Heroes of one kind or another—that’s the stuff of biography. Yet I’m not breaking any news if I say that our interest in the lives of heroes is not just because of the impact they made on history but also, more personally, because there is a hope to learn something for ourselves. What is the good life? How to live? This ancient question of philosophy can remain academic to a man only until the day it comes at him in the form: How am
I
to live? To say that an unexamined life is not worth living is, in my mind, putting things a tad too strongly. What I know now, however, is that an untested life can lead some people into a kind of moribund discontent that cannot easily be shaken off. Zafar would say that no one is the author of his own life. He may be right. But though I have thought otherwise, I now believe that for some of us, it is essential to keep intact the illusion that authorship is possible. This means a heroic life. How it is writ, small or large, is another matter, but it must be a life tested and strained and overcome. I have never had such a life.

*   *   *

Still. Let’s be clear. Zafar is not the natural figure of biography and, in the end, the reason for my current enterprise has no footing in proper biographical inquiry. Rather, its basis is in the private and intimate connection between two people, so that the field upon which his life has had significance and impact, the field that now draws my interest is, egocentrically, the field of my own self. That conclusion seems unavoidable, all the more so when confronted by this question: How far into the consequences of an act does one hold oneself responsible?

There’s an old joke about guilt: The Catholics believe that God invented guilt for them, but the Jews maintain that they’re the ones who deserve it. Guilt is a feature of Catholic theology and is something of a touchstone of Jewish humor. But as far as I can tell, guilt does not have the same stature in Islam as it has in Judeo-Christianity, and it certainly did not feature in my family life growing up. No weekly repentance of sins.

I feel no guilt for what I did in finance. There’s little doubt that the financial crisis will translate into an economic one and that recession will likely follow. People will lose their homes, their jobs. But tell me how I can feel guilt for doing something that was not only legal but actively encouraged by governments everywhere. I never sold mortgages to house buyers; I bought large bundles of them from commercial banks and apportioned the packages into parcels that were sold on to investment firms, all of it done aboveboard and without so much as a quizzical look from regulators. If am to feel guilt, then surely it is for something that I should not have done, when I knew I shouldn’t do it, and when that something harmed others. But even then, how can I be responsible for all the consequences?

*   *   *

The analogy with biography lends itself, if not because of the subject, then because of the process. There is something like an archive from which I’m drawing. There are my own memories of conversations and events, and then there are the recordings I myself made of talking to him. But there’s something more personal. Coming down for breakfast one morning, I found a plastic bag on the kitchen table full of them, dozens and dozens, notebooks of all kinds, bound in leather or cloth or glued, most of them no thicker than a checkbook, each of them small enough to have been tucked into the pocket of a coat or cargo pants. They were numbered, though not by the same writing implement, some by pencil and others by blue or black ballpoint. I took them into the study, where slowly I began to read them. Slowly, I say, because they were not easy reading. They were dense, not merely accounts of events but also the record of ideas and thoughts and readings, excerpts from books and annotations to excerpts. Coming back to them, again and again, I found descriptions of incidents interlacing the ideas, connecting one idea to another. Strikingly, I saw only fully formed and complete sentences, no orphaned phrases or even scratch marks, no crossings out.

I have absorbed more of them than I was aware of doing so at the time, their content and form so fused that their influence on my reading self, long after I had laid them down, was to direct me toward their subject matter and, moreover, to condition my mind to look for the kind of questions that Zafar’s own had asked. They are lessons, though nothing in them shows any intention to be regarded as such, unless they were intended as lessons to himself. In particular, his notebooks contain certain long, freestanding passages, and in trying to find a way to characterize those passages, I am sent to the dictionary, where I am reminded that the word
essay
connotes such words as
effort
and
attempt
and it is therefore all the more apposite to consider here one such essay, on the subject of the influence of one writer on another, which begins with an observation Zafar evidently had while reading an interview with a writer. My friend observes that when a writer is asked which authors have most influenced her, it’s often another question that she answers: Who are her favorite authors? (Zafar referred to the writer as
she
.) The implicit overarching question is: What or whose books is your book like? The writer’s answer is of course limited to the influences she perceives, but there are problems in the way influence itself is measured or understood. Imitation or similarities in style or even content may be how influence is perceived by a reader, but such things may not capture the greatest influence one writer has on another. When Dick Fosbury introduced his flop, he was imitating no one. Until then, a high jumper would not have survived a Fosbury flop because raised soft landing areas were yet to be introduced and a Fosbury flop would have ended in a broken neck. The influence of former jumpers on Fosbury could not be found in Fosbury’s imitation of anyone. Zafar argues that the greatest influence on a writer may be on her psychic dispositions as a writer. Reading Philip Roth, writes Zafar, might clear the way of inhibitions that held you back from writing about reckless desire, the temptations of power, and the immanence of rage, or reading Naipaul might convince you to seize the ego that so wants to be loved, drag it outside, put it up against a wall, and shoot it. One writer can change another writer’s writing self. Such influences are perhaps harder to measure, but surely they have much greater impact and, in Zafar’s opinion, are much more interesting.

My license to order his account according to my own design comes indirectly from Zafar himself. In his notebooks, in a passage reflecting on the narratives we impose on our lives, he writes that when the ancients saw clusters of stars in the sky, they joined them up in an order that evoked a shape they already recognized, something that held a meaning for them, and into this configuration they read properties of the celestial night. Our memories do not visit us in chronology, and the story we form by joining up the memories involves choices with the purpose of making a whole and finding a pattern.

Perhaps I write then with some vague aspiration that the process can illuminate me to me, a kind of eavesdropping on oneself, eavesdropping in the way Zafar might have meant, as if writing is the manifesting of a hope to catch oneself in the middle of things. But even in making this observation I am already giving in to a tendency to get ahead of myself, for it was only afterward, only after reviewing everything, including my conversations with Zafar and certain conversations with my father—much of which will surely find its way onto these pages—that I have felt moved to begin the present undertaking.

The foregoing, this little reflection of mine, has swelled to excess and yet I feel it is only the beginning of something, something shorter, I hope. What I am saying is that my friend has had a great influence on me, in the mind and therefore on the page, the measure of which may yet grow, I think.

Where, then, did Zafar begin, if not in Kabul? His account started out on something much earlier, another journey, one in his boyhood, a horrifying journey by train returning to Sylhet, the area of Bangladesh where he was born. My friend’s account began at the very root—that I do understand—of what was to come much later.

*   *   *

In my childhood, said Zafar, there were small signs along the way, which I only dimly perceived without ever understanding, that the people whom I called my mother and my father were not my biological parents. I have always sensed that in the emotional gulf between me and my parents there lay some or other meaning, but a more refined concept than that remained beyond reach for some time. I acquired the belief that the feeling had something to do with the huge cultural and social leap I had made in one generation, away from my father’s life—that of a peasant as a young man, then bus conductor in London, then waiter. I had moved away from a life with few choices into my own life, one that was breaking loose with unimagined possibility, even in my boyhood.

Wresting myself from the given order of things, I was engaged in something unnatural and subversive, not merely against my parents but also against the expectations of the world, which were apparent to me as clues left by adults to be pieced together. I saw one mother who made a point of talking to my teacher, Miss Turner, when collecting her blue-eyed boy at the end of the day. The two women might laugh about something or other, or Miss Turner might ask how the boy’s piano lessons were coming along. And then the following day, when Miss Turner spoke to the boy in the classroom, I heard in her voice the subtle note of deference that told me everything I needed to know about the world and its expectations.

There was comfort in mathematics, which teased my mind, drew it in and emptied it of everything. I caught glimpses of a kind of truth. I remember first encountering long division, which was set out in a book as a mere process—something to be done, if not understood. But I could not stop asking myself why it worked. We take much for granted, much that is granted by others, and we’re told to do as we’re told, and we agree. And we must agree. I haven’t the time or, for that matter, the inclination to work out that the earth is basically spherical, but when I see the curve of the horizon from a plane, I believe I have seen something that is consistent with what I have been told is the truth, that the planet is curved like a ball. But how can we know that we’re accepting something that we ought not to accept, without knowledge of the why? In mathematics, the why is everything. How, or rather, why, did this mechanical process of long division work, calculating how many times one number goes into another, working out the remainder, and then the carrying over. Why did someone think it would always work? What was going on?

On my way to school one dreary morning, a realization blossomed in my mind: the idea of a number base. The idea was never contained in such words, and only later did I learn about other bases such as binary and hexadecimal. I see the connection, but what still eludes me is how the mind can make the journey, how it covers the ground between two ideas; what I do not understand is how contemplation of long division led this organ in the skull to an understanding of number bases. I grasped that when we add, subtract, multiply, and divide numbers, we are relying on a base of ten to represent them, but this base is entirely arbitrary, of our own choosing. The numbers themselves do not care.

This was the kind of thinking I had settled into even as a boy and, at the time, I saw in such tendencies of my mind the root of all strife between me and my parents. For a long time I felt, which is to say I consciously thought, that our difficulties were of my doing, my fault, that I had brought upon my parents some grief to warrant their treatment of me—to warrant the violence. I know now, of course, that self-blame is rather common among children in such circumstances as mine.

There comes a day for most people, I think, when they see their parents through the same lens as they see others, as human beings who stand alone and apart with aspirations for their own lives, and with all the flaws that are laid bare by defeated hopes. Such an epiphany can come in a moment, in a fraction of a second, in which everything is compressed and laid out at once. When it comes, it could, I suppose, be unsettling, as if heaven lifted its veil. I remember learning what Islam teaches: that on the day of judgment no family ties are recognized and that each of us stands apart before the maker, only for himself.

One such moment that I can remember, though not the first, was on the day I learned I had a place at university.

In the week before that day, Mrs. Fraenkel tapped me on the shoulder in a busy corridor at school. Mrs. Fraenkel was a history teacher, whose physical appearance always warranted a pause. She seemed forever weighed down by the same gray-and-brown wool pullover, her mauve hair an abandoned nest and so dry it could burst into flames at any moment. Her wrecked teeth, like a mouthful of broken cigarettes, denied her the self-confidence to smile for longer than an instant.

She never actually taught me, but since candidates for Oxford entrance were a rarity in my school, word of my application must have reached her in the staff room. As pupils filed past on their way to other classrooms, Mrs. Fraenkel, whose fingers and face bore chalk marks, asked me how I intended to get to Oxford for interview. I could hitch a ride with a family friend of hers, she suggested, and explained that her friend’s son, a pupil at a school whose name meant nothing to me then, was also trying for Oxford entrance. I later learned that Mrs. Fraenkel had moonlighted as a private tutor, and I speculated that this might be how she knew this family.

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