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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Tale of the Missing Man

Manzoor Ahtesham

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To purchase The Tale of the Missing Man

Title: The Tale of the Missing Man
Author: Manzoor Ahtesham
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 263 pages
Original in: Hindia
Availability: The Tale of the Missing Man - US
The Tale of the Missing Man - UK
The Tale of the Missing Man - Canada
The Tale of the Missing Man - India
  • Hindi title: दास्तान ए लापता
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark

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Our Assessment:

B : effective character portrait and interesting background

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Dawn . 6/1/2019 Asif Farrukhi
World Lit. Today . 9-10/2018 Rashi Rohatgi

  From the Reviews:
  • "The major characters and the lovingly delineated locale of Bhopal come alive in the book, but I would not want to read it as merely a ‘how are Muslims doing in India’ kind of novel, as it is layered and multi-faceted in its own way, relying on irony more than political allegory. (...) The translators must have faced a tremendous challenge, but they have done a superb job. (...) They do not sacrifice the interest of one kind of reader for the other and create a happy middle ground that serves well the suppleness and grace of this delightful and evocative novel, which is one of its kind." - Asif Farrukhi, Dawn

  • "(C)harming and thoughtful (.....) Set in Bhopal before and after the Union Carbide tragedy, the meaninglessness of his particular sadness feels even more acute, the scorn of the doctors, friends, and family he turns to for help more understandable. And yet the book is not sorrowful at all. This is primarily because of the "authorial" intrusions, where a narrator interjects, framing the novel as not only about the minor tragedy of a misspent life but also the major tragedy of a misspent half-century of Indian independence." - Rashi Rohatgi, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Tale of the Missing Man is the tale of a lost soul. Zamir Ahmed Khan feels more than just off -- something so central to the novel that its opening chapter has him at a doctor's, looking for a diagnosis and help. But he doesn't even know how to describe what ails him:

How to describe this experience, so terrifying and painful ? Was his body off balance, or his mind ? Or was it an imbalance between body and mind ? He imagined something shifting between body and soul, a slipping.
       At this point the adult Zamir Ahmed Khan, just short of forty years old and married and with two children, had spent almost a decade employed as a shopkeeper, at a store called the Treasure Trove. A onetime enthusiastic frontman for the conventional part of the business -- with the real money being made behind the scenes --, Zamir Ahmed Khan had neither a stake in the business, nor did he get a good salary, so he'd occasionally help himself to more money from the till as needed. More recently, there wasn't much left for him to do there, and when he started staying at home, no one came to change his mind, and so Zamir Ahmed Khan became something of a layabout. This then is the final straw for wife Rahat, who simply wishes he would do something, and she takes the two daughters and moves back in with her family.
       The Tale of the Missing Man begins with Zamir Ahmed Khan in full mid-life crisis mode, but the three-part novel also looks back to the past, and for most of the book roughly chronologically chronicles how he got where he is (or, rather isn't). There's some flow and continuity to the chapters, but they also have an episodic feel, focused on one or another event or person in his life across the years, occasionally across a sequence of a few chapters ('The Beginning of an End' followed by 'An End', for example). Ahtesham doesn't quite let the reader get too used to a straightforward unspooling of this life, including also by popping up in his author-role at several points -- including with a cleverly placed 'Preface: An Intervention' that comes a third of the way into the book, at the end of the novel's first part. (The second part concludes with a similar chapter, this time as: 'A Reintroduction', a reminder of the authorial presence behind the words.)
       Zamir Ahmed Khan has long been uncertain what he wants to do in life, and who he wants to be. Among other things:
Aspiring to be a writer and a scholar was one of Zamir Ahmed Khan's long-standing weaknesses.
       He actually published some short stories -- but, typically, did so pseudonymously, changing the name each time. He really is uncertain of the identity he wants to have and project.
       Growing up in a devout Muslim family, Zamir Ahmed Khan is nevertheless exposed to a larger world -- beginning with school:
School and home were as different as heaven and earth. School was coed, with nearly all the teachers women, while at home, according to family custom, even young girls were kept in purdah.
       Zamir Ahmed Khan also takes to forbidden alcohol, for example, becoming quite a drinker. And some of his relationships with women are also of concern to his family -- as is also his often (but not consistently) close relationship with his friend Vivek. Religion, however, is certainly never a path he's tempted to go far down -- all the more so because of the Muslim-Hindu tensions that repeatedly surface over the course of the years, including the Pakistan-India War of 1965, and in Aligarh, to which he briefly goes to study, his only time away from hometown Bhopal.
       Much of The Tale of the Missing Man is a tale of relationships, from those with his parents to some of the shadier types Zamir Ahmed Khan deals with to the lasting but not always close one with Vivek to the women in his life. For a time, Zamir Ahmed Khan holds court with others in 'the Cave', a gathering place: "where the successful and less successful from all walks of life could take their mind off life's sorrows" and anything could be discussed -- but mostly he tends towards being a bit of a loner. Indeed, there's quite a bit of walking out -- by him and by others -- throughout the novel, abrupt temporary and more complete separations.
       The twelve-year-old Zamir Ahmed Khan did form a lasting bond with his twenty-year-old niece, Akka, though she then moved to Pakistan, keeping her mostly at a distance. He is briefly, intensely involved with the strong-willed Anisa, whose terrible experiences at the hands of the uncle in the household she grew up in mark them both. And, eventually, Zamir Ahmed Khan marries Rahat -- to the relief of his family, who were worried about how he might end up -- but, as readers know from early on, he doesn't have the energy or willpower to keep hold of her.
       Among the events driving a wedge between Rahat and Zamir Ahmed Khan was the signal one of 2 December 1984, the event which is still what everyone thinks of when they hear the name 'Bhopal', the terrible Union Carbide gas disaster. Zamir Ahmed Khan's current difficulties date to a few years after the disaster, but its aftereffects of course still linger in the air -- and his behavior that day is just one of the burdens he continues to bear. He finds then that:
     Something over the past few years had drawn a veil of alienation between Zamir Ahmed Khan and his city. The only connection that remained was during the lonely and wee hours of the night, pregnant with the possibility of meeting someone. Meet who ? Any face that could walk with him a few steps to indulge his old feeling for Bhopal.
       As Ahtesham acknowledges, there's more than a bit of the author in his character -- and: "In my own life, many things have happened that are indeed similar to events in Zamir Ahmed Khan's life". So, indeed, this creation is a means for Ahtesham to explore his own past, city, and self -- made all the more clear in the chapters where the author steps forward and mentions his own experiences and thoughts. It's quite effective, but slightly awkward too, semi-confessional without a full commitment to the 'I'.
       Capturing life in Madhya Pradesh -- particularly in the mid-1960s, and then in the wake of the Bhopal disaster -- well, The Tale of the Missing Man effectively presents this man with too little of a hold. Zamir Ahmed Khan is, almost constantly, adrift; typically:
A detailed map of all these places was locked in his head, but everything had changed so many times he couldn't keep track of the sequence.
       The book, and its construction, reflect this.
       Its protagonist and his actions are too frequently all too abrupt but Zamir Ahmed Khan is otherwise a successfully-drawn character -- and his drift(ing) makes for a fine and engaging novel of modern India.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 October 2018

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The Tale of the Missing Man: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Indian author Manzoor Ahtesham (मंजूर एहतेशाम) lived 1948 to 2021.

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© 2018-2022 the complete review

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