Aatish Taseer’s ambitious new novel The Way Things Were offers a similar little tableau right in the beginning.
It is a hot June afternoon in 1975 and a state of emergency has just been declared by Indira Gandhi. Toby, His Highness Ghanashyama Mayurdhvaja Pashupati Rao though nobody ever calls him that, the half-Scottish former prince of Kalasuryaketu, is in Delhi from London. He has been invited to deliver his famous “The Creation of Poetry” lecture at the India International Chamber. In the audience is a bewitching dark woman, Uma, who he will seduce the same evening – and, soon, marry. After the lecture, while Toby is in half a mind to look for her, he is interrupted by a strange corporate type man, Mahesh Maniraja, someone, who in Toby’s “considerable experience of India was utterly unfamiliar”.
And he seemed to ready to assault Toby with his question: “The Ramayana, Professor Ketu, or should I say, Raja saab: what is it to you? Myth or history?”
Had Toby, in a hurry to find the woman in the green chiffon sari, answered this man’s serious question with a fudge, an intellectual swipe? Perhaps. He had said, with a smile, “Why not stick with the Indic definition? Of Itihāsa! Which is a compound, as you know, iti-ha-āsa, and when broken down, means, literally, The Way indeed that Things Were. That covers everything: talk, legend, tradition, history …”
“That’s very glib, Raja saab,” the man said. “But that doesn’t answer my question, does it? Do you regard it as history, in the sense of it having all really happened, of Ram having really existed, or would you say it was myth?”
Toby, Uma and Maniraja. The father, the mother, the interloper/step-father.
The stage is set for what promises to be an exciting saga where the travails of the individual family are enacted against the backdrop of momentous – often tragic – national events, the themes of which are foreshadowed above.
Does the novel live up to its own exceptionally crafted prologue?
Yes and no, I’ll have to say, with a certain sadness, for I had wanted it to be an unremitting affirmative.
Yes and no.
If there is one contemporary Indian English writer I have followed over the years with great admiration – and a fair amount of jealousy I must add – it is Aatish Taseer. I admire his prose. I admire his material. And perhaps more than anything else I admire his discipline as a writer. (To arrive at the discipline, one merely has to consider his body of work – a book chronicling his travels through Islamic lands, a book of translations of Manto’s short stories, two fine novels and now this massive tome – and look at the number of years in which he has produced it. The math, at least, is simple!)
These, however, were not the only reasons I was looking forward, with particular joy, to his new book The Way Things Were. The other reason is that, fortuitously for me, one of the principal characters in the book is Sanskrit itself – a subject that has, ever since I embarked upon a PhD on Bharata’s Natyashastra several years ago in a moment of foolish optimism, been a source of great pleasure and pain. I was curious about the possibilities this use of Sanskrit offered in fiction. Especially because the world which produces Indian writing in English (my world too, in a way) is usually rather quick to commit Sanskrit into one of these three baskets: Internet Hindu meme, dead language, politically incorrect savarṇa obsession.
In this matter, of course, the novel does not disappoint, at least not on the surface of it. There is indeed a great deal of Sanskrit texturing in it, a serious academic presence, do note, diacritics and all. Of the primary cast of characters, two are Sanskritists: father and son, and both of them are given to lengthy expositions on meaning and form.
Opening with death in the present, the novel provides a strategic balance to the weight of Sanskrit in its structure – memory, almost a perfect counterpoise. Toby dies in Geneva after a self-imposed exile of two decades from India. Skanda, Uma and his only son, accompanies his remains home to Kalasuryaketu where the last rites are to be conducted. Skanda is a student of Sanskrit in New York, an obsessive ‘collector of cognates’, a quirk that has been passed on directly from father to son.
A game of cognates – a game his father had taught him – begins on the plane with the flight map. Distance to destination. Destination: gantavya. The place to be gone to. Gerundive of gam, an old Indo-European thread which takes little leaps of meaning as it travels west: turning go to come. In Gothic, qvam; in English, come; in Latin venio for gvemio.
Those familiar with Taseer’s work would find this an interesting change from the familiar riffs that run through his writing. Instead of the absent father or the father from whom there is severe ideological estrangement, Toby is the father as the first guru, teaching Sanskrit to the young son, even though Sanskrit is considered, at best, a clever party trick in their Lutyens circles, especially if there is a shallow Hindutva type around, a businessman perhaps who needs to be brought down a notch or two.
But Viski –
Viski Aujla, ‘heir to an immense Delhi fortune’ is also a Lutyens insider, married to Skanda’s massi, and the owner of the Raj hotel, modelled in Taseer’s roman à clef upon the Imperial Hotel on Janpath.
But Viski was not satisfied and soon they were at the point where Viski, ever more aggressive was saying, “What say you, Hirachand? Eh? What does your name mean?”
Hirachand, who could see now that sympathy was coming over to his corner, played the victim. He said, in response to Viski’s question, “Shashi means moon. And Kānta,” he added carefully, “means beloved, desired …”
“Oh, moon does it?” Viski said, cutting him off, “We’ll see about that, my little desirable cunt.”
“Viski!” Isha said, seeing how upset Uma was becoming.
“No, now no ‘Viski!’ “ Viski said. “I am going to show this little punk who the foreigner is. Go on, tell me why does shashi mean moon?”
“Why does it mean moon? It means moon because it means moon. Why does moon mean moon?”
“Oh, getting clever, cunty-wunty? Brother-in-law, why don’t you tell us, why does shashi mean moon?”
“If I tell him, Viski,” Toby said at last, “will you stop all this?”
“I will,” Viski said with drunken solemnity, placing a palm on his heart. “God swear.”
“Śaśa,” Toby said, with a sigh, “like the German Hase, means hare. Śaśin, of which śaśī is the nominative singular, means hare-posessed or having a hare. It is called that because the spot on the moon was thought to resemble a hare. For the same reason the moon is known as śaśāṅka – a bahuvrīhi – ‘whose mark is the hare.’ ”
“I say!” Viski thundered. “How lovely! Now was that so painful?” And suddenly he was playful again. He turned to Isha and said with a broad grin, as if Hirachand was their son, “See, I just wanted the boy to learn.”
In the manner of Tolstoy who is quite clearly the model for Taseer, there are plenty of dinner parties in the novel, and indeed, Taseer has quite the talent for staging these, capturing with effortless ease conversations and currents. Skanda remains behind in Delhi and continues to work on a translation of Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava. He attends classes in New York on Skype, one or two parties, and in what is a deliberate framing device by the author, over a period of a year, Skanda ‘tells’ the story of his parents and their generation to Gauri, a young single mother he meets after his return, also in a Lutyens’ drawing room.
While intrusions of the present sit wafer-thin, palate cleansers between courses, it is the past which assumes epic proportions, bookended by the Declaration of the Emergency in 1975 and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, both made memorable through piquant dinner parties they are accompanied with. The latter provides the final instance when the entire family is together one last time – and they eat, even as they mourn the loss of Toby’s great idealism, remarkably, foie gras omelettes!
At the heart of the narrative, though, is Skanda’s mother Uma, a woman of incredible life force. On her mother’s side, Uma is descended from one of the five Sikh contractors who had built Lutyen’s Delhi for the British (Khushwant Singh’s father Sir Sobha Singh was another) and by the mid-seventies, when she meets the handsome erudite Toby – a Clym figure from The Return of the Native – and is almost immediately drawn into an exhilarating affair, she has even defied Lutyens laws by being an Air Hostess.
Uma is a textbook example of the sort of character we would, in our MA days, fresh from studying Benedict Anderson and Walter Benjamin in postcolonial theory, immediately read as a metaphor of the modern nation. And in a classic exposition of this theoretical shift, a few years into her marriage, Uma will begin to find effete and unmanly her man of civilization, Toby, who cannot even stand up to petty government servants who have come to raid the family seat of its antiques. Eventually, she will divorce him and marry Mahesh Maniraja, a man Lutyens cannot comprehend, a business tycoon of questionable manners and breeding but fantastic business acumen and an earthy generosity that extends to Hindu causes and Lutyens disasters alike.
The “step-father” had been superbly delineated by Taseer in Noon – but here, in spite of the authorial attempt at even-handedness, Maniraja, for all the promise in the playlet, remains a caricature. And perhaps because Skanda’s moral force is so much with his father as opposed to the Claudius, it becomes impossible, in the final analysis, for the dialectic that was suggested in the beginning to actually develop beyond the conflict to a new order.
Interestingly, the perfect companion book to Taseer’s novel is his mother, columnist Tavleen Singh’s book Durbar. A fine account of the political landscape of India, from the announcement of Emergency through the troubles in Punjab and Kashmir, with a first-hand account of the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, right up to the rise of Hindutva as a political force, Durbar also records the foibles of the privileged set of Lutyens, many of who went to play important roles in shaping the nation’s political destiny.
It is a delight to observe how this matter is transformed in fiction – how the novelist Taseer has selected nuggets, enlarging on some (Singh mentions a cousin who was abused by the police for being a Sikh and who left the country forever – in fiction, this episode becomes the final straw in Uma and Toby’s crumbling marriage) while weaving a lot of the other stuff into conversation. (The trouble with this – as also the excessive Indology – is that it can often make for heavy reading. Conversations which are jampacked with matter.) The only other instance I can think of where memory and fiction work together in the exact same way is in the case of Justice Leila Seth’s On Balance and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, but I am getting distracted here.
There are many wonderful things about this novel – its prose is remarkable (“The night his father dies, a late spring storm plays mutely in the windows of the Geneva clinic. Electric spiders appear in the darkened glass, which, like a doubly exposed photograph or a matting effect in film, already bears the motionless reflection of foam ceilings and tubelight.”); it recreates the drawing rooms of the rich in the seventies as accurately as it reproduces the conversations of the moneyed now (“There are blue mosaic fountains which actually play and slim Latinate terraces from which pretty pregnant girls look down…’Serdy, never thought you’d get married, yaar; let alone be a dad!’ ”). Taseer’s eye for detail is unerring, his imagination is expansive and his ambition as a novelist is backed up by both erudition and sophistication in structuring.
And yet, I have a bone to pick with Skanda.
I was quite surprised by his (the author’s too) unlovely division of the world where Sanskrit is respected into two nodes: one, where the civilized intellectual men parse lines (Toby, Skanda and Skanda’s professor at Columbia Theo Mackinson who always calls him “Skanda Mahodaya” fall into this category) and the second, the saffron-stained masses who can only tear down mosques, claim grandeur they cannot fathom, who are funded by small-minded banias who have now gone global but have no understanding whatsoever of the true wealth of Sanskrit.
Taseer’s Skanda is almost entirely disbelieving of the possibility that India can produce non-Hindutva non-exclusionist men or women of letters working in Sanskrit, contributing to a new burst in learning, leading to re-interpretations and new translations. This is rendered far more dangerous in terms of politics when Tripathi, the only other somewhat civilized, homegrown (I use the “somewhat” deliberately) practitioner of Sanskrit, is made to say, towards the very end,
“It is much better it all go. I mean: go completely. Then there is some small chance that they will feel its loss. And when they’re ready – when they want their culture back – it’ll be there, waiting for them in the West, like so much else.”
This is the strain of weakness in the intellectual architecture of the novel, and for someone like me, a substantial weakness. The belief in this benign West that provides a convenient museum of innocence to cultures that cannot do justice their own histories, of Theo Mackinson and other well-meaning scholars. This fills me with a deep extreme weariness, almost exactly akin to what Toby feels with the unlettered Hindutva nuts who do not understand the depths of learning in their own culture. This is what happens, I want to say, with the sort of prejudice it is okay for some characters in the novel to harbour but not for others, this is exactly what happens when Lutyens walas who can slip away to the West when the messiness of reality becomes too hard to deal with, take up Sanskrit!
Saving Hinduism from Hindus, saving India from Indians – there is a powerful whiff of this Orientalism in the Indology projects that are often run in and from the West. After all, that is hardly surprising, since Orientalism – even in its most Indophilic William Jonesian avatar – was an offshoot of the colonial project. To legitimize a version of this in a global novel that shows great erudition in Sanskrit thus, ultimately, renders a great disservice to a complex Indian reality that will certainly self-correct. In the long tradition of Sanskrit scholarship, it has never been strange to witness long periods of silence and even obscurity, from which texts have re-emerged, been re-read and renewed by new commentators. An example I never tire of giving is the circumstances that had led to Yāska (ninth century AD) to compiling the Nighaṅtu. It is doubly troubling when this comes from a writer of Taseer’s caliber.
Elsewhere in the novel, Toby flips out because Maniraja who funds his precious translation project had also funded kar seva in Ayodhya. It seems to me surprising, then, that in Skanda’s idealistic world, the funding of Indology programmes within America are not an issue at all. After all, a very large chunk of funding for these programmes comes from individuals and organizations that have built global corporations that are sucking out the surplus value of a now globalized labour market, while simultaneously playing intelligence games of the worst sort. These same noble universities also produce the technology (‘draining’ brains from the rest of the world with their clean streets and grand institutions) that will eventually be used by the military industrial complex to create new wars in Africa and West Asia.
Ultimately, it is easy to miss the wood for the trees when one gets too involved in the game of cognates. Endless joys might be derived from tracing roots within the Indo-European family of languages. But that does not mean anything in a world shaped by geopolitics and global financial networks. Post the “discovery” of Sanskrit by “benevolent” Orientalists had followed the age of Mill and Macaulay.
The horrors of colonialism continue to inform an unequal global financial system which allows Western countries to maintain overvalued currencies which they use to buy food, intermediate materials, and mass manufactured goods whose production debilitate the environments of other “developing” countries, while they retain the cream in the form of intellectual property payments. Our truths are, ultimately, far closer to other parts of the world – Nigeria, for example – with whom we may share no cognates but only a sense of a loss. Of agency, perhaps? Knowledge systems.
And as for possibilities of a regeneration of robust traditions of Sanskrit within India that is free of the caste marks of the past? The Lutyensites might look to the West for answers but I am fairly confident we can manage it ourselves.
Should you read the book? Yes, you should.
Should you read it critically? I very much hope you do.
The Way Things Were, Aatish Taseer, Picador 2014
Devapriya Roy is the author of The Vague Woman’s Handbook (2011) and The Weight Loss Club (2013). Her next book, The Heat and Dust Project, co-written with husband Saurav Jha is an account of a hysterical journey through India on local buses, on a very very tight budget. It is due to be published in May 2015. You can follow her on twitter @DevapriyaRoy.