In Tabish Khair: A Critical Companion; by Om Prakash Dwiwedi. New Delhi 2013  EXCEPTIONALLY SENSITIVE

 ...Human beeings are like pieces of cloth in the rain of time: porous. Cultures seep into us; we get heavy with our and everyone else’s history. (Farhana, The Bus Stopped)





The bus between Gaya and Phansa stops for the first time to let on the serving girl Zeenat and her tearful fatherless baby; it stops for the third time to that a new-born baby who died in the arms of its mother, a tribal woman, can be buried.  Travellers and staff on the bus fill it with their bodies and stories, which are punctuated by landscapes where the silence is occasionally broken by the cry of a bird. Is the reader travelling within a novel made up of a delicate yet powerful web of short stories, or within a collection of prose poems with the floating aerial intensity of lyrical poetry? The complexity of expression corresponds to the fundamental complexity of the experiences lived as borders between people and cultures are repeatedly and incessantly crossed.  Instead of easily seducing the reader, writing here implies rigorous and vigorous reflection – both poetic and ethical – on our identity and our otherness.  The Other is not abstract, but rather our neighbour, and they surprise us with an invitation we cannot refuse to move beyond our borders.






In this book, the encounter with women, of different ages and with their lightness and tragedy, is a way for the narrating I to reveal itself to itself, as well as being a song to Her, a concrete physical presence and ever-changing mystery.  This is the door through which the fascinating diversity of the Other enters into houses and journeys.


I could smell Zeenat round the corner of the corridor. But then I was sixteen and exceptionally sensitive to the smell of women.

Women have different smells. I had always known that. The starched sari smell of my grandmother, the eau-de-cologne fragrance of my aunts, the talcum-and-attar scent of poorer relatives, the soap-and-sweat smell of the older ayahs: these are smells I had grown up with (The Bus Stopped, 2004; London: Picador Palgrave Macmillan 2005; p. 26).


Familiar clothes smells and fragrances that veil the smell of the body before it is time for it be naked, with the smell of young women serving in the house:


Their smell would draw me out of myself, send my imagination racing towards something else, make me yearn for, what? change? adventure? the clasp of firm, callused, gentle arms? sex?

Sex was too small a word for it. And I was not hypocritical enough to call it Love (ibid., pp. 26-27).


 Sex is the word reducing this desire to be drawn out of oneself, classifying as a biological or mercenary event.  Love moves the desire onto a romantic level, masking it and taking away its power.  Where the first word is reductive, the second is hypocritical: what is drawing the narrating I out of himself, towards an experience of radical otherness, as women are for men and men for women?

Smell is a guide, a track to follow, a sense that doesn’t lie, even though – or perhaps because – it explains nothing of what happens.  The actant follows a path, as happens in fairy tales, and the story unwinds like a ball of yarn, as long as no-one claims that anyone knows where things are heading.


Zeenat gets on the Gaya-Phansa bus, which will have to make an unscheduled stop to let her on, as she comes running out of the house where she is a servant.

The social barriers separating the narrating I from servants are crossed by the smell of women like Zeenat thanks to an ‘invisible work permit’.  The exceptional sensitivity to the woman’s odour is now described by interlacing a description of an encounters with the Other: citizens with all their rights and immigrant workers.


Because while their smell penetrated the high invisible walls between people like me and people like them, they themselves entered my world, could enter my world only on invisible work permits. They were like Turkish immigrants in my eighties Germany: they had another skin (though sometimes the same colour), they spoke another language, they came from another place, they would never be given the citizenship to the lifestyle that came to me as a birthright. In some ways, what entered my world was their abstract labour power - and the smell that came along with it was deeply subversive for it indicated the existence of something else. They had smuggled in their bodies (ibid., p. 27).


Something smuggles into the other’s body, the other sex in the role of the unknown, the unexplored continent.  Freud considered the female as the ‘dark continent’ of psychoanalysis (1926, The Question of Lay Analysis, GW, 14; SE, 20, pp. 209-292; p. 212).  But does the female hide what it contains because of its nature, because of women’s tendency to evade male control, or should we rather think that the female is set up as a container, as anything not supporting humankind’s logocentric identity can be thrown into it? 


The dark unexplored continent functions as a metaphor of the female, with the male as the explorer who discovers it and there raises his banner.  Man brings civilization and order to both women and land, both of which are virgin.  Today the metaphor is turned on its head: women are the custodians of relationships, peace and fecundity, saving them from a cruel male dominion.  The opposition remains clear-cut; everything changes in order for everything to remain the same.

In these years of rapid and pervasive change, we can do better than this, the poet knows how.  Tabish Khair relates how the narrating I follows a smell and experiences his erotic initiation, and does so noiselessly like an acrobat and a tightrope walker between the two sides; the movement has the same structure as the journey from Gaya to Phansa.

At the beginning, Homes, and Homes, Again at the end: there can be no journey without two still points, one of departure and one of arrival.

But home itself in this book is mobile:


I have found and lost, lost and found my houses too. I make my home on buses and aeroplanes, in hotels and rented apartments (ibid., p. 198).


In the story the home moves and the bus stops: travelling and stability interweave like male and female, who intrudes and who receives, just as in the Germany of the ’eighties there interweave the Turkish immigrant, the German citizen and the narrating I.

Following a smell is like interrupting one order to seek another – is it facile to think here of Proust’s madeleine? – and thus running the risk of precipitating in its loss:


I would take her smell with me to bed. Though when she looked at me, I would fail to sustain the look. Her eyes would wrestle mine to the ground, and then her lips would curl with the shadow of a smile. And she would greet me in a voice of servile humility: Salaam-alai-kum, Irfan babu. Walai-kum-assalaam, Zeenat, I would utter back.

Peace was the last thing Zeenat could bestow on me (ibid., p. 62).


Who controls the game, against whom, for whom?

The complexity of Tabish Khair’s reflections on otherness has a concrete dimension that becomes clear if we think about a common everyday experience.  If we, with our full citizen’s rights as our birthright, meet an immigrant and look at them and let them look at us, then we feel a closeness that soon becomes intimate, to the point that we have to stop looking.  We are able to discover that we are both explorer and explored, whilst the full humanity of the Other is revealed in a momentary stripping away of barriers, a humanity that intrudes and receives as much as ours does.

This experience is related throughout the book, as in the pages where the Sikh driver, Mangal Singh, thinks about the Indian aborigines, whom no culture seems able to integrate, just like many other aborigines worldwide:


They are now out in that overlooked part of the state, beyond the Dhoda stop, where tribals can be seen sometimes [...] Seen in their dark skins and their torn loincloths, their individual pride and their collective poverty. Why has the cure not worked with them? (ibid., p. 74)


The cure referred to here refers to the Ashoka tree, and its flowers that cure every ill.  No magic, psychological or economic cure can eliminate the tragic dimension of the human condition.  It is necessary to forget it to live, but it is necessary to remember it to humanize oneself.


It is necessary to have a sufficient gender identity to encounter the Other erotically, understanding that we are here dealing with something that it is reductive to call sex and hypocritical to call love.  This experience, however, does not seem to increase identity stability but rather to menace it.

All colonizing and racist cultures consider homosexuality as a sin, a perversion and a crime.  This deep-seated dogmatic hatred defends identity stability, which is above all certainty of one’s own gender, a condition for the opposing pairs in which the sense of identity seems to be articulated: male/female, inferior/superior, the one who civilizes/the one who becomes civilized etc.  I consider a poet like Tabish Khair an acrobat who spins in a circus of words, and, unable to be definitively at home anywhere, traces new figures in the air and suggests new paths to take.

All of the passengers on the Gaya-Phansa bus, even though are unaware of it, seem to participate in this movement.  Zeenat is one of them, and it is in relation to her that the narrating I declares himself exceptionally sensitive to the smell of women: the author’s painful and insistent sensitivity to otherness converges in Zeenat and it is from her that it spreads out again.


One day the adolescent Irfan babu is visiting the neighbours where Zeenat is a servant, and imagines that she has been watching him all evening.  What would happen if he met her in the corridor or on the stairs? Probably nothing, like all the other times:


Nothing had happened except her slow and steady wrestling of my gaze to the floor, an act that took a second or two but felt like a lifetime and left me gasping for breath.

Her smell grew denser (pp. 107-108).


The intensity builds in a crescendo announcing the next movement, the meeting between male master and female servant in a zone characterized by the fact that people pass through it: the corridor by the stairs, stairs that are used to change floors.


I turned the corner and saw her sitting on the floor at the other end of the corridor, just before the stairs, reclining against the whitewashed, peeling wall. She looked up, caught my eye and wrestled my gaze to the ground. It was all too predictable. But then as I was passing her, my gaze rooted to the ground around my feet, I sensed her feet move slightly. The next moment I was falling, but she had already moved and caught me before I hit the ground. She was smaller than I was - at least a foot shorter - but strong enough to bear my weight and lift me to my feet again. Her arms were round me, her rounded right shoulder supporting me, and she held on for a few seconds more than necessary. Or was it something I fancied? She apologized elaborately for tripping me. My leg slipped, she said (ibid., p. 108).


Irfan babu goes to take the stairs, but she calls him back, catches up with him, holds him to her, paying no attention to his resistance, even when he would flee:


Standing in the slanted darkness of her doorway, she pressed closer to me. I grew bolder and cupped her breast. It was then that I felt her pulling away at the strings of my pyjamas. The act was unexpected. It was too much: it went beyond the bounds of what I had allowed myself to imagine. It brought up echoes of my parents’ voices. It brought up an image I had caught from the rooftop and never understood: the old rickshaw puller leaving her room one evening, looking around himself as if he had stolen  something.

I tried to pull her hand away with my left hand, the right one still cupped around a shapely breast. But she laughed, a short, dismissive laugh, considering it a game or a youth’s initial reticence, and easily pinning my obstructing arm with one hand, she pulled open my pyjamas and started fondling my penis. Her touch was rough and soft at the same time, it was incredibly lovely and frighteningly knowing. Her smell was as palpable as her touch. You are ready, she said with some surprise (pp. 109-.110).


The woman in this encounter guides the young man, and the borders of clothing, names and different apartments are crossed following the smell, for every border can be crossed, visiting every land and every culture.  In the book the perception of difference is unheimlich and heimlich (see Freud, 1919, The Uncanny, GW, 12; SE, 17, pp. 219-249).


Opening oneself to the diversity of the Other means experiencing one’s own intimate diversity.  Je est un autre (I is another), as Rimbaud has it.  If it were only a case of extending the ego adventurously and uncertainly towards the Other, then it would only be another experience of colonization – once there are no new worlds to conquer, then there remains the conquest of psychic reality.  Perhaps psychoanalysis has had its greatest successes because it has seemed an ultimate colonial adventure, planting the flag here and there in the unconscious.  But in the intimacy of self it is the Other that immediately appears, just as an unheimlich presence emerges from the most heimlich part of the house.  When I believe that I take possession of the Other, it is the Other that takes possession of me: un autre suis moi (another am me).  Being both ego and Other makes all colonization dissolve, unveiling its illusory character as a child’s game, wholly human, in which roles are assumed .


Whoever truly passes beyond the borders, as happens more than once in this book, becomes a citizen of everywhere.  Or of nowhere? They certainly find themselves more uncertain than they imagined themselves to be, unable to point the finger at the Other without taking back the action in an instant, ashamed.  The Other is Other for a thousand and one reasons: a different language, the colour of their skin, their gender identity, their age, a different degree of mental and emotional balance.  But if we remain open to the Other, experiencing and letting them experience us, ready to face a puzzling alien diversity, then we discover a puzzling similarity.  It isn’t diversity that is unheimlich, but the similarity that it hides, because it makes the walls and barbed wire that define our lives meaningless.

Our dreams alone would be enough to warn us of our intimate non-identity, but we prefer to ignore them and bolster our illusory identity by projecting undesired – and desired – diversity onto the Other, from whom we have to – and want to – be separated, whom we have to subjugate – and to whom we have to subjugate ourselves – and we affirm that one of our cultures is inferior or superior, healthier or sicker..


The author is the narrative voice, the Gaya-Phansa bus, its Sikh driver, the conductor, the passengers.  And also the landscape.  Moments of silence when animals and plants can occupy the stage, pausing the telling of the stories of men and women of different ages, cultures and castes.  Things are often presented lyrically to the reader, whereas the passengers seem not to look out of the windows:


A broad ditch covered with water-chestnut plants, their green leaves blanketing the yellowish water. A paddy bird standing still like a statue at the water’s edge, its streaked earthy-brown mantle concealing the white feathers underneath and making it merge with the earth, waiting, waiting: for a frog to make the slightest mistake (ibid., p. 101).


At the end of the book there is neither an answer nor consolation.

The woman smell for the adolescent is one of many that lingers with us, like the smell and colour of death in the episode of the tribal woman travelling with the sad body of her child.  Just as it had made an unscheduled stop to let Zeenat get on, the bus stops to bury the little body in haste.  At the end the narrative voice asks what the passengers’ destiny will be once they have left the bus, after the blank page that will close the novel destiny.


And what about the child who was buried by the roadside? Did he find his home there, under earth and rubble? or will he be dug up one night by the foxes and dogs that have survived the monopoly of man? Will he be swept away during the next flood, washed into a tributary of the Ganges and from there into the Ganges and from there into the Bay of Bengal? Will the yet-unwalled waters of the ocean be his home?

There are things I cannot see in books (pp. 197-198).


If there is an answer, then it lies in the question itself.  The drive towards a more open identity, towards a home that is simultaneously mobile and stable, is a powerful desire to understand, and it is blocked, no matter how rigorous, poetic and honest the journey may be.  Is it not perhaps the case that as the questioning becomes more radical, the block becomes clearer?


As a psychoanalyst, at the end I question myself about my pleasure in travelling intimately with the writer, whose craft has points in common with mine, and I go back to Freud’s famous call to turn to poets to know more about the dark continent of the female, which may stand for the perfect example of Otherness.


If you want to know more about femininity, enquire of your own experiences of life, or turn to poets, or wait until science can give you deeper and more coherent information (1932, New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. Lecture XXXIII: Femininity; GW, 15; SE, 22, pp. 112-135; ibid., p. 135; italics added).


It no longer makes sense for a psychoanalyst to make diagnoses on  a writer on the basis of their written work, even if surprisingly accurate diagnoses can be the outcome.  Nor does it help the analyst to continue in their reflections and cultivate psychoanalysis as a theory of the mind to consider their own work as a patient building-up of stories (the patient’s problem is a story that they don’t know how to tell), a singular form of literature simultaneously very ancient and very modern.

And yet, and yet...


Though sometimes things do take a turn, as the tabla master would have told you, laughing and coughing, coughing and laughing. Sometimes they do. (ibid., p. 199)


Coughing and laughing like the tabla master, we might think that Freud set us analysts to question the poets because they, like us, are seekers after truth who have nothing but words, just as the tightrope walker has only the high wire.  By bare words they compose a song in which Zeenat’s kicking leg is an erotic jewel or a requiem saving the hastily buried newborn baby from oblivion.  A brief and fragile requiem, but one that is stronger than the waters of the Ganges in flood.

See also, in this website, by AG other papers about Tabish Khair:

Bhoolbhoolaiya. Un labirinto mobile: Il bus si č fermato di Tabish Khair (2014)
Bhoolbhoolaiya. A Moving Labyrinth: The Bus Stopped by Tabish Khair (2014)

See the following Italian translations of some novels of Tabish Khair:

Il bus si č fermato (2010) (The Bus Stopped, 2004)

Jihadi Jane. Da Londra alla Siria. Storia di una foreign fighter (2018) (Jihadi Jane/Just Another Jihadi Jane, 2016)

La notte della felicitŕ, Tunuč, 2020; traduzione di Night of Happiness. Pan Macmillan India, 2018.
 See also an excerpt of this novel: Tabish Khair’s unsettling new novel asks what secrets Ahmed is keeping from his boss Anil Mehrotra.

Penultima revisione 7 novembre 2018
Ultima revisione 8 ottobre 2022