In The Light of What We Know – Zia Haider Rahman

For a review of the book, I cannot do a better job than The New Yorker.

Watching People Watching People

In approaching books of immense scope like In the Light of What We Know inadequacy is the operative word. So I embrace it. Instead of trying to tackle the book, it might be interesting to tackle the reviews of the book. Even this removed approach is flawed for obvious reasons, but it helps bring out the inadequacies in writing about this book. My inadequacies.

A Rain Forest of a Book

Yesterday, a bunch of us were trying to describe why one should visit Costa Rica. “There is nothing much there unless you are interested in rainforests, beaches and volcanoes”. To be fair, there was copious beer. Most reviews of the book run along similar lines. Though there is math, class, race, politics, love, loneliness and a lot more in the book, the story does not move on. In other words there is an overdose of stimuli, but no one dominant gripping thread. There is the rainforest, with its diversions, drenched overhangs over questionable digressive deadends, but there is no hiking trail. Such reviews miss the point. The book exists like the rainforest. Not to provide and entertain. Not to amuse and confound. It just exists. If they cease to exist there will be no more. Walking through them is a transformative experience for many and even to the best of intentions to transcribe it can be confoundingly elusive.

 Pedantic and Stilted

The book is by no stretch an easy read. It is written with mathematical calculation,  with the Victorian sensibility of an immigrant from an erstwhile colony in the language of the whites. An acquired language that subsumed the Sylheti mother-tongue. Interestingly, in most of the reviews I read, the reviewer is oblivious to the class and race differences that drives the whole narrative. What these kind of reviewers construe as pointless digressions are the offshoots of doubts that plague the many Zafars of the world. Obsessively questioning motives and actions of everyone is the nature of the sensitive outsider. Even when it is not intended. Perceived affronts perennially undermine achievements, emotions, trust and belonging. Zafars abound in migratory families. They carry baggages of history, lineage, doubts and crisis. There is no way anyone can measure or address them. Acknowledge them maybe. In the end though, they are all in the light of what we know. Incomplete fragments of knowledge that we rely upon to live our lives. If there were no recourse to knowledge, and obscurantist references, there is no understanding of why Zafar resorts to math, literary and philosophy giants to justify emotions.

 Assertion and Doubt

This is one of my favorite lens to view the world from. A hoary vision blighted by ignorance. Acknowledgement of the incompleteness of knowledge that makes assertion irrelevant unless one fences facts. It makes conversations tedious and weightless. They are inaccuracies uttered without meaning.

The weather is good. To whom? Good for what? What is good? Why should the weather matter? Are you pronouncing a finding? Are you trusting a statement? To what degree do we agree or disagree or be indifferent to any of the previous questions? And so on.

And that was just the weather. So you can imagine how conversations are interpreted in my head. This post modern Weltschmerz is neither exclusive to me, nor is it as rare in real life as one would think. Importantly, it also is not always a road to Hikkimori. It is a state. The state exists and we exist in it.

These two sentences that occur early on in the book lay out the essence of In The Light of What We Know.

On incomplete knowledge – How far into the consequences of an act does one hold oneself responsible? 

On class I was informed that he was “a fencer”, not merely that he liked fencing.

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