‘I wrote in a fury against gender violence, right wing nationalism, toxic masculinity’: Preti Taneja

Why it took seven years to write ‘We That Are Young’ and what happens next. An interview.

We That Are Young is a subversive, powerful adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear. Preti Taneja has borrowed the frail, disintegrating morality of Lear’s cast to shine an unsparing light on Indian business family empires. The greed, violence, corruption and ultimately unquenchable thirst for power are painfully relatable in modern India. From the god complex of the patriarch on the verge of retirement who wields the inheritance of the empire like a sword to the ambiguous moral fate of three sisters raised amongst material excess and patriarchal restraints, Taneja’s characters are compelling for their intricate and believable complexity. The writer spoke to about her favourite sentences, why she doesn’t read reviews of her own book, the seven years of toiling We that Are Young demanded of her, Jane Smiley’s adaptation of King Lear, and more. Excerpts from the interview.

In an interview you were asked to name a few creative achievements you were proud of. You mentioned sentences in We that Are Young, some of which are only three words long. Could you pick one for our readers and talk about why it’s special to you?
“All will fall.” It took a long time and many drafts to get right. I wanted to be sure that the assonance works to create a sense of falling and capture the multiple meanings of each word separately and together. What does “all” mean for Gargi in this moment? How much, by thinking this, does she “will” it to happen and how much is it do with her actual material inheritance – her father’s “will” or fate? And is “fall”, with its echoes of the Catholic concept of original sin part of her philosophical landscape? If so, how come? Or, is she is thinking of the collapse of the Company, or foreshadowing her own death?

When you say it out loud, it sounds like “all willfall” – or, “willful,” something women are accused of being when they don’t behave as society expects. I think about language as discrete units of words, and words as signifiers with complex connotations. Reducing that to simplicity and into the character’s voice, while trying to capture that complexity, is one of the pleasures of writing for me.

This book has been seven years in the making. What enabled you to keep going?
The news. And…I’m a brown woman who grew up partly on the bourgeois side of a small town in the UK. Like many places, it is segregated by class and colour, so being one of the few Indian girls in that mostly white, middle-class world meant constant, unavoidable exposure and simultaneous erasure in public, while at home there was a ferocious amount of Indian parental pressure to fulfill. Resistance to being told “no” is a natural force of life to me.

I also have the support of a handful of people who encouraged me to keep working on my manuscript, even while I had a full-time job and was trying to, you know, do all the other stuff, like stay alive.

What was it about King Lear that drew you to it? How did you decide upon an Indian business family as your setting?
I studied the play at school and had a brilliant English teacher. Shakespeare’s language changed the way I thought about what was possible in terms of seeing all sides, and addressing issues of social justice. I could see a traditional Indian family in the play straightaway – the relationships and dynamics of nationalism linked to patriarchy, the partition of a kingdom that starts the plot, predicated on women as units of exchange by having to perform for family honour, and having servants (which I had experienced in India as “domestic help”) made sense in ways it just didn’t to my English peers at the time.

I set the book in a business family as a way of exploring the tension between feudal traditions and mercantile economics that exists in Indian business dynasties, and of thinking about the links between former empires and the new ones made by neo-colonialism and capitalism (and clearly, that’s encoded in the book’s idea of the “Company” as well.) The family had to be very wealthy to have that reach over so many lives – they had to have a modern-day empire, or Company with all the meanings those words carry.

Could you tell us about some South Asian writers whose work you admire and has been an influence on you?
I’m not sure how you define South Asian – or if these writers would self-define as that, but – loosely looking over my shoulder at my nearest bookshelf, ie, the one I consult most regularly: Mrinal Pande, Urvashi Butalia, Pinki Virani, Kabir, Ritu Menon, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Lal Ded, VS Naipaul, Ranjit Hoskote, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahasweta Devi, Saadat Hasan Manto, P Sainath, Gurcharan Das, Visnu Sarma, Amartya Sen, Chitra Banerjee Divyakaruni, Hanif Kureishi, Ismat Chugtai, Tariq Ali, Gayatri Spivak, Basharat Peer, Neel Mukherjee, Poonam Trivedi, Imtiaz Dharker, Bidisha, Mridula Koshy, Daljit Nagra, Aatish Taseer, Malika Pukraj, Quarratulain Haider, Bapsi Sidwa, Kushwant Singh, Bisham Sahni, Indra Sinha, Nisha Ramayya, Pankaj Udas – the actual list is too long. There are also artists whose work has influenced me since I was a child: Amrita Sher-Gil, FN Souza, MF Husain. Indian modernism, alongside English and American, is in the DNA of my writing. Above my desk is a brilliant, subversive line drawing by Mariam Suhail, which always makes me smile.

Have you read Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres? Your book devastated me in the same way Smiley’s did.
There are a few tributes to Smiley scattered through We That Are Young. One of the interesting things she said about A Thousand Acres (and I’m paraphrasing) was that in the end, she couldn’t find parallels for every King Lear character (eg, Oswald) in her Iowa setting of the 1980s, though she might have with a few more drafts. Of course, Ginny and Rose (ATA’s Goneril and Regan) double as domestic servants. But in the Indian setting, there are no such issues. The basic parallels were almost too easy: I even wrote my storm scene while a sandstorm chased by a monsoon shower raged outside and devastated the slum near where I was staying. The version of King Lear that has the biggest influence on me in terms of form is Edward Bond’s play, Lear, which was written as a response to the cold war and the rise of the Berlin Wall. (He also has some interesting things to say about Slumdog Millionaire.) His commitment to language and form, to absurdity as a politics of change, still inspires me.

Of the three sisters, Sita (or Lear’s Cordelia) seems to occupy the least narrative space. Why do you think that is?
Cordelia has 116 lines in the 767-line play. She disappears from Act 1 to Act 5. Her story is constructed from the fantasies of the other characters, and while she occupies the least narrative space, she takes up quite a lot of the play’s imaginary space, and is never far from the audiences’ mind. Her role as perfect angel, loved by (male) Shakespeare critics from AC Bradley onwards, exists mainly as a prop for Lear as tragic hero. That’s something that I wanted to explore in We That Are Young – it speaks to the “good Indian girl” narrative that an epic character such as Sita in the Ramayana has been understood by.

But how do we even know that what Devraj tells us about Sita’s past is “true”? Meanwhile, Sita’s actual voice, which is perhaps the most English in inflection because of her Cambridge education, is modelled on the kind of writing we are taught to think is “good”. And interestingly, it’s her voice that some people have liked best of all five characters. So that says something about how we decide what writing we value, and, I hope, might make readers from all backgrounds think about why that is. Devraj for example uses language in a totally different way – which has everything to do with his identity, self and social, that includes gender, power, history, education, and so on.

Gargi and Radha were such wholesome, complex characters. Did you know who they were going to be when you started writing or did their personality unfold as the plot or the writing did?
Do you mean fully-rounded? That’s interesting – I understand “wholesome” as “good”, which I don’t think many, especially their father, see them as. What was most important to me was to capture the generational difference between the three sisters, which I think can happen over just a few years. Gargi came of age in a very different socio-economic and political climate from Radha’s, and the opportunities Sita has had, the indulgence not to be married off young, to go to college abroad alone, have to do with her being a post-liberalisation teenager. One thing that developed over time was how clever and subversive Radha turned out – of all three women, she surprised me the most.

The novel has received positive reviews around the world. What has that meant for you as a writer?
A very wise writer/translator recently advised me that reviews reveal more about the reviewer than the book – and that writers shouldn’t read them! I’m very glad to have the privilege of talking about my work in the public domain from BBC Radio to Scroll, and to take part in events where I have met fantastic readers and writers from all backgrounds. One highlight of 2017 was being invited to chair Paul Beatty at the Hay Festival in June – The Sellout is pure gold, and Paul one of the most generous, radical, funny people I’ve ever met.

Publishing We That Are Young with the brilliant Galley Beggar Press and the team at Penguin Random House India has been a pleasure. And conversations with Sonny Mehta at AA Knopf (who is editing We That Are Young and publishing it in North America in 2018) are giving me yet another, deeper sense of what the book achieves. Those conversations have also ignited my brain to think about what I want to work on next, which is the most important thing for me, as a writer, to feel.

You wrote a book about a country you don’t live in. Did you expect to have different reactions in India and in the UK?
“As a woman (of colour) I have no country…” Yes, it’s a statement of extraordinary privilege as well as a declaration of independence that damns the status quo, but what I mean is: I “live” as much, if not more, in the country of my work as any place my body happens to be in.

I wrote We That Are Young in a fury against gender violence, the rise of right wing nationalism, and a toxic masculinity not limited to India, and against fixed ideas of identity. I hoped readers would get the chance to discover it, that they would find something resonant in it, no matter what mental, emotional or geographical country they happen to be in when they read it. So far, their responses have been various and wonderful, and that’s very humbling. The different reactions are part of an ongoing conversation about how we read, what openness and bias we respond with, and what it means to be a citizen of the world in the 21st Century. It’s fascinating to be a part of it.

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