Book review

This novel locates ‘King Lear’ in an Indian business empire. Dynasties, corruption and greed explode

Preti Taneja’s ‘We That Are Young’ is an ambitious and dexterous retelling of Shakespeare’s classic play.

Of Shakespeare’s tragedies, King Lear is the one that reaches far beyond individual relationships, and specific grievances and ambitions. The expansive, crowded world of kings, noblemen and their daughters and wives lends itself perfectly to a modern retelling about an Indian business dynasty headed by an autocratic patriarch surrounded by family and supporters who don’t dare to defy him. Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young chooses for her King Lear an ageing misogynist and abuser at the helm of a wildly successful and unsurprisingly corrupt business family with hotels and spas all over India.

The retelling mines the original’s grandiose twists and Machiavellian characters to show how some families choose not to sidestep impending disaster and to reveal that even a four-hundred-year movement in time has not brought the necessary self-awareness and shift in human character. As the centuries go by, King Lear is still probable, is still a part of the human tapestry.

The “Lear” characters

As the story goes, Devraj is the widowed patriarch of The Company, an outrageously rich business empire, whose three daughters, two sons-in-law, and old hands bend to his will and to his eccentricities to stay close to the private jets, luxurious holidays and recreation his wealth provides. Once a month, their family lunch is followed by a favourite game of Devraj’s. He asks his daughters to sing of their love for him.

The game is rehearsed, playful and carefully balanced with humour and reverence. The older sisters arrive prepared with jokes to insult their husbands (who are in attendance and laugh along) and to throw themselves at their father’s feet. One day, the youngest daughter no longer wants to perform her admiration and affection for her father. She is warned, teasingly and later threateningly, to play along but she doesn’t. Her father disowns her swiftly which disturbs the carefully contained hierarchy of the house.

The Farm is the sprawling residence of this joint family in Delhi. There is an ice-skating rink, a home theatre, a sculpture garden, and a den with screens where the men in power can watch everything that happens around the Farm. The sisters are watched carefully for signs of dissent, of impropriety and even of weight gain.

The eldest, Gargi, does not bare her shoulders in public until her wedding day when she is eighteen years old. Every Tuesday, she hosts a party for her father’s chosen men – a hundred picked from the best institutes in the country. The second daughter, Radha, works out religiously with a deep awareness that she must remain beautiful, so her father’s army of ageing men and business clients have someone to rest their eyes and grazing hands upon. The youngest, Sita, is the most sheltered. She has reached twenty-two years of age without being told to marry someone of her father’s choosing.

The three daughters are sized up and down in the first half of the narrative while the status quo remains undisturbed. Devraj’s mother, who will remind many of us of bitter, casteist and terrifying matriarchs we’ve encountered in India, is the one who has trained the girls to surrender to every single of their husband’s wishes.

Devraj’s righthand man, Ranjit, has two sons – one legitimate and brought up in the lap of luxury, named Jeet, and the other illegitimate and hidden away for fifteen years, named Jivan. Jivan returns on the same day as Sita leaves the Farm. Their departure and arrival rupture the firm, portioned grip on power the chosen few have. It sets in motion a struggle for power, land, valuable parts of the business, and cold hard cash that escalates so rapidly, one must wade to the end to discover how surprisingly little is left.

Secrets and wounds

In 1991, Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer for her version of King Lear in A Thousand Acres which focussed on a difficult, abusive father and his three motherless daughters. The devastation of that novel came from how well Smiley knew her characters, and how little they knew themselves in the ways that mattered most. That daughters must be malleable, and fathers and husbands are allowed to endlessly take is the reality of that world. Taneja’s book takes an essentially universal tale which has always been seen through a Western lens, and shows how closely an Indian business family can mirror an American farmer’s and a Celtic king’s.

Taneja’s book rises above a simple story of a family across two generations by the way she slowly shows us and her characters what they’re capable of. Though one may know the twists and turns of the Lear story, the treachery and brutality in Taneja’s prose are still unnerving. On one page, one may truly believe a character incapable of what they commit in the next. As adults, newly liberated from the trusted ways of living as a family, they allow themselves to remember secrets and wounds. I found myself closing the book from time to time to catch my breath, to make sense of the quiet terror Taneja can make one feel.

The book is a compelling reminder that even sitting in one’s own room, riding in one’s own vehicle, the horrors of the world are inescapable. The daughters can’t be protected from Lear or from themselves, for all the brick walls and the privilege in the world.

We That Are Young is published in the UK by the same indie publisher, Galley Beggar Press, who brought Bailey Prize winning A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride to the world. The press specifically chooses works that are more inventive and ambitious. The book takes on homosexuality, female sexual liberation, pressures of a single-parent household, caste, treatment of domestic help, violence, god-men and madness. This expansive landscape from Kashmir to Goa, from the domestic staff quarters to the opulent dressing rooms of the daughters, is miraculously held together by Taneja.

There are a few moments where the novel gets away from itself. Without giving away any spoilers, it must be said that one particular character’s journey defies comprehension for close to a hundred pages before the narrative becomes believable again. But since most of the novel is gripping and finely plotted, that diversion is forgivable.

It’s been a good year for new voices in Indian fiction from Diksha Basu’s Windfall to Prayaag Akbar’s Leila. The formulaic novel of nostalgia may finally be behind us. We can’t wait for this book to be read widely by a contemporary India grappling with dynasties, corruption and greed.

We That Are Young, Preti Taneja, Hamish Hamilton.

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