Late in The Twice-Born, Aatish Taseer sits down to dinner with a farmer in a Madhya Pradesh village. Uninvited, his talkative driver comes in to eat with the family. He makes himself at home, chatting genially with their hosts, but Taseer quickly realises that the household recoils from this man. As the meal ends, the moment approaches when someone must make it clear that the upper-caste hosts will not clear away the driver’s dish or wash his plate.

There’s an exquisite tension in watching this scene puff up like a poisoned wound, thanks in part to Taseer’s slow, dread-filled staging, in part to the anxiety unspooling as we wait for him to offer to wash the driver’s dishes himself. He doesn’t. The wound is lanced quietly, leaking its poison into the story. Its climax is delivered in a brief glimpse from a distance as the upper-caste son of the house talks to the driver, who is heard saying, “You are like gods to me...”.

An aggrieved underclass?

This is the best scene in The Twice-Born, an earnest but trivial investigation of the role of Gangetic brahminism in Indian life. Written for audiences for whom “Benares” embodies (and explains) the mysticism of the Orient, the book introduces us to a parade of cranks, bores and garden-variety bigots, each of whom Taseer presents as a victim of colonial modernisation. In between, through a variety of literary methods, the book conveys the insights that death is elemental to the Indian consciousness; that caste oppression suppresses violent revolts against inequality; that Varanasi is full of filth and improperly decomposed corpses, and more along these lines.

The Twice-Born is Taseer’s attempt to understand India’s aggrieved vernacular underclass. In “the Brahmins of Benares”, a phrase that doesn’t quite convey the disparity of class and culture even in this hidebound caste group, he hopes to uncover the intellectual basis of the rage and resentment fuelling a new kind of Hindu revivalism. These, he suggests, might be the counterparts of those who enabled the murder of his outspoken cosmopolitan father, the Pakistani politician Salman Taseer.

Nowhere does he let on that Varanasi-dwelling Brahmins may be many things, but not an underclass in any scenario except the etiolated Anglophone imagination of elite Delhi and Mumbai. The book’s tone is personal and questing, and its most poignant scenes are derived from Taseer’s own personal history. But the meal with the farmer is the only scene in which Taseer indicts himself, and doing so, successfully indicts his true target, which is nothing less than the whole liberal conception of modern India’s relationship with its past.

Suspicious disengagement

His previous works, both fiction and non-fiction, have reflected on this problem at some length. Their preoccupations include South Asia’s corrupt and anglicised elite, the region’s crude break from the past, and the impossibility of reconciling ourselves with our history. The Twice-Born is engaged with all these subjects and more, but is composed in a minor key. Rich with description and touchingly honest about its limitations, it is nonetheless a strenuous effort to avoid the intellectual vexations of its subject.

The Twice-Born totally denies the application of economics, political science, even sociology to its reportage. The language of social science can seem simultaneously impoverished and pious to the creative writer, of course. Still, this disengagement seems suspiciously like authorial convenience, especially since Taseer’s decision to assess the soul of India coincides with Hindi-speaking India’s enchantment with Narendra Modi, who was eventually elected to the Lok Sabha from Varanasi.

The Twice-Born is more open to literature and history than it is to data and theory, but Taseer’s choice of intellectual is as whimsical as his choice of interviewees. From the 1950s Chicago School sociologist Edward Shils to the 19th century Orientalist William Jones, Taseer recreates a colonial picture of an India resistant to modernisation that would have raised eyebrows even in 1918. Perhaps he does this in order to be freed to fashion his own language: in this book, Dalits remain “Untouchables” and Varanasi and its occupants described in terms (“freak show”, “instinctive, unquestioning”) that might create a flutter in the hearts of The New York Times’s more sensitive readers. The river, perhaps out of courtesy to the those same readers, is the Ganges.

Orientalist approach

Taseer’s tormented delight in Sanskrit offers only the smallest of windows into the Sanskritic universe. For all his immersive search for an unbroken Indian tradition, The Twice-Born is unable to do more than position – and not even explain – “Kashi” as central to a unifying Brahmin imagination of India. This view, so broad as to be vague, allows us to squint at some sort of continuity between the people of the Vedas and the Benarasi Brahmins of today. But this, surely, is about as illuminating as knowing that our Indus Valley ancestors ate eggplants and turmeric. It mistakes, as the critic Paul de Man would say, the traditional for the commonplace.

This is not disingenuity. Such importance does Taseer accord to the views of “Oriental” Jones – whom Indian linguists like GN Devy regard with amusement – that he repeats his famous assertion about Sanskrit in a key passage in The Twice-Born. “To what shall I compare my literary pursuits in India?” Jones wrote. “Suppose Greek literature to be known in modern Greece only, and there to be in the hands of priests and philosophers...Such am I in this country; substituting Sanscrit for Greek, the Brahmans for the priests of Jupiter...”. This was also the epigraph of The Way Things Were, Taseer’s passionate novel about a young Sanskritist mourning the emptiness of the present.

It was better suited to that book. The Way Things Were was suffused with enthusiasm, carefully turning over Sanskrit’s grammar and phraseology, taking nothing for granted. The Twice-Born takes everything at face value. The modern Indian writers who float through the pages receive short shrift too. Rabindranath Tagore makes a cameo appearance as an anguished liberal, and Jawaharlal Nehru as a rueful hybridity theorist. (Tangentially: “I hope you will not use the name ‘Ganges’,” Nehru once scoffed at a British friend filming along the river.)

Taseer likes Nehru because of their biographical similarities. There is another Indian founding father whose experience might have struck a chord with Taseer: an ambitious man constrained by a stifling, alienating society, who had to leave India in order to find a worthy teacher of Sanskrit. But neither Taseer nor any of his subjects, the descendants of what he unironically calls “the aristocracy of the mind”, has any intention of reckoning with BR Ambedkar. How can they, when The Twice-Born won’t even admit the existence of their fellow Banarasi Kabir?

An investigation without conclusion

At one level, The Twice-Born is a response to the readiness of Indian intelligentsia to dissect other social classes and castes, leaving its own unsullied by anthropological interrogation. But Taseer is not an anthropologist, and even his journalism is plagued by his own boredom with his subjects. We never quite receive an explanation of how the Sanskrit-revering Brahmins of the Ganga motivated the election of a chest-thumping Hindu nationalist. Could it be because the linkages aren’t simple? That was in another country, and besides, Murli Manohar Joshi is dead, politically speaking.

All of this may sound like a complaint against Taseer for not writing a different book. It is merely an observation that The Twice-Born is an investigation without conclusion, and deliberately so. The book’s whole function is to render secretive, mystical and fragile a way of life that is ubiquitous and multi-layered. That is why that scene of enforced inter-dining in MP, ends not with Taseer’s moral paralysis, but with the driver saying “Aap hamare liye bhagwan hain”, the common caste-bound formula that sounds occult and terrible to unfamiliar ears in the English rendering, “You are like gods to me”.

No appeals to childhood innocence – for Taseer wholeheartedly adopts the liberal piety of knowing only class, not caste, in his Delhi childhood – can erase the contempt for the reader inherent in these constructions. Early in the book, Taseer describes the thunderstruck face of a Norwegian tourist, apparently disoriented by his encounter with the Ganga. He turns out to have had an attack of loose motions, but Taseer describes him, unapologetically, as having lost that “individuated sense of self” that India “systematically undoes”. Indigestion, it turns out, is an affliction of the mind.

The Twice-Born: Life And Death On The Ganges, Aatish Taseer, HarperCollins India.